Open Door’s Doucet reconnects with migrant workers in Mexico

MIDDLEBURY — The words came from the old man’s heart, and they touched Julia Doucet’s soul.
There, surrounded by his family in his rustic home in southern Mexico, he told Doucet about how yet another of his sons had begged him on three separate occasions to join his two brothers already working on Addison County farms.
Father reluctantly surrendered to his son’s repeated pleas, and the boy slipped away on his perilous cross-border journey.
“There had been several other men from that area who had died crossing, so he was talking about the fear and anxiety of never knowing if you’re going to see your child again,” said Doucet, a Registered Nurse with the Middlebury-based Open Door Clinic (ODC) that provides health care to many migrant workers.
The oldest of those three brothers, Miguel, has worked on Addison County farms for eight years; the middle brother, Diego, has been here for four.
“It sounded like the family was hoping they’d be back by Christmas, but it doesn’t sound like they’re going to,” Doucet said during a recent interview.
Such is the life for the hundreds of migrant workers — many of them from Mexico — who drift into Vermont to take farm jobs that simply aren’t attracting locals.
The young man mentioned above was willing to risk the move because of the paucity of job opportunities in rural Mexico.
“If he had stayed, he wouldn’t be able to afford uniforms and school fees for his kids, and then they couldn’t get ahead,” Doucet explained.
She heard many such stories — both sad and uplifting — during a recent 10-day trip to southern Mexico to reconnect with past ODC patients, and bring news and gifts to the relatives of migrant workers who continue to toil anonymously in the milking barns and fields of Addison County.
Doucet has served as an outreach nurse/case manager at the ODC for the past eight years. She’s kept in contact with some of her former patients who have returned to Mexico after having made enough money to build modest homes — and in some cases, small businesses — in their native land.
She always wondered what it would be like to visit her former patients on their home turf. She decided to do just that in late January — on her own dime.
“It felt really important to me to provide a cultural context,” Doucet said. “A lot of it is what I’ve learned from talking to patients about their culture, their language and what their thoughts are about the health care they receive. But I think to really be able to understand fully the whole context from which they come, it was important for me to see them not only here… but for me to go to them.”
She said she wanted to get a clear sense of what was causing their migration and see, first-hand, the life they were leaving behind. She wanted to better understand the sacrifices they’ve made.
“I had a lot of questions,” Doucet said. “I felt like what I was seeing here was a very important piece of the puzzle, but it wasn’t the whole perspective.”
So she gave former migrant workers a heads-up she’d be in their area — a region of southern Mexico near the Guatemalan border that includes Chiapas, Comitan and Las Margueritas. These are some of the major sending areas for migrant workers, according to Doucet.
“I thought I was going to get to these places and there would be no men there because they were all in (Addison County),” she joked.
It was indeed an enlightening experience, and one she was well equipped to handle.
Doucet has always had an interest in Spanish, a language she studied throughout her school years and put into practice during occasional trips to Mexico. While she’s not fluent, she’s proficient enough to field phone calls at the ODC from migrant workers with health care questions, and she can converse with ease.
Due to HIPAA and requests for confidentiality, pseudonyms are being used for the former migrant workers that Doucet references in this story.
The first person with whom Doucet renewed acquaintance was Ricardo Jimenez Garcia, who had worked on an Addison County farm for five years. He returned to Mexico last fall.
“When (Garcia) left, he brought us some beautiful orchids to say goodbye and thank you,” Doucet recalled. “We had helped him with some health situations and he was very grateful.”
Garcia had spent five years working on a county dairy farm, regularly sending money back to his family to help support them while setting aside enough to realize a dream of his own: To build a modest home, a restaurant and a garden to grow corn, chilies, beans, tomatoes and other vegetables.
It’s now a dream come true. Garcia and his wife proudly took Doucet on a tour of their new assets. They are now self-sufficient, having a place to stay, work and raise food.
Doucet spoke with him about his trials, tribulations and ultimate success.
“It was a painful but rewarding time,” the man told Doucet.
“He gained a lot and he sacrificed a lot,” Doucet added. “He had an experience he would have never had otherwise.”
Garcia is a religious man who believes his faith carried him through.
“He’s very grateful for all the opportunities,” Doucet said, “both to come here to provide for his family, and to go home.”
In Comitan, she got to meet “Rosa,” the girlfriend of one of the three brothers referenced above who are still working on an Addison County farm. She spent a whole day with Rosa and her family, a day that included swimming and a picnic.
“They opened up their homes and lives to us,” Doucet said. “They wanted us to know where they came from.”
While at the local market one day with Rosa, Doucet heard a man shout her name.
“I look around and see Pepe, who had been here around four years ago,” Doucet said.
The serendipitous encounter allowed Doucet to catch up with Pepe and his wife, who now have a child. And a home and truck, thanks to Pepe’s earnings.
“That’s what the goals are — to set up the family or parents, or build yourself a house so when you get back you can get a wife,” Doucet said. “Really, it’s the basic needs — a nice house with running water with a nice roof and a real floor, and a vehicle.”
She also crossed paths with Manuel, a migrant worker who recently returned to Mexico three years ago after having worked six years on an Addison County dairy farm.
Manuel and his wife now have a young daughter and a 14-year-old son. Manuel is working part-time as a hospital guard. He experienced a few health issues while here that hindered his ability to work, Doucet explained.
But he was nonetheless able to salt away money for essentials.
“He built a house, and he has a refrigerator,” she said.
When Doucet asked Manuel what he missed about Vermont, he jokingly replied, “The muscle aches.” But he added “There are many things I miss, like the friendships that I left behind. And the work. I don’t have regular work here like I did there.”
Doucet equated the migrant farm worker experience to that of first-generation immigrants who discover new opportunities in the U.S., but still feel the cultural and familial tug of their respective homelands.
That pull lessens the longer they’ve been here, though most remain committed to putting in a three- to five-year stint before heading south again.
“When you’ve been here for eight years, you’ve become accustomed to life here,” Doucet explained. “This is what you know, yet you have this whole other life in Mexico.
“The longer you live here (Vermont), this is the life you know.”
Doucet returned to Addison County laden with treats from relatives wanting to give their loved ones a taste of home. Those treats included ground, milled coffee and “Nanches” — fruits pickled in alcohol.
Diego (one of the three brothers cited above), was grateful for the gifts from home.
“When I received the coffee from my family, my first thought was to think about them and miss them,” he said. “It has been such a while since I’ve seen them. It made me feel good to know that they, too, were worried about me and their sons who are here.”
He explained why he and others take the risk to come to Addison County farms.
“It is worth it to come here because there are no jobs, no opportunities there (in Chiapas),” Diego said.
It was a transformative trip for Doucet, and she brought back experiences that should benefit other Addison County health care providers.
“I think it will help… providers in Addison County understand the patients they’re seeing in a more humanistic way,” Doucet said. “They’re not just seeing them as “migrants,’ or ‘Mexicans,’ or ‘people who don’t speak English,’ but understand them more fully like their Vermont patients…“
Doucet won’t soon forget her experiences.
“I think the trip touched me more deeply than I thought it would,” Doucet said. “I thought it would be educational, that it would help me understand the patients better. I was excited to see what they’ve accomplished. But it really helped me understand the sacrifices, what these guys here have lost.”
Those losses range from the complex — contact with family, friends and Mexican culture — to the more rudimentary: food.
“It’s such a healthy, holistic life in terms of food,” she explained. “Here, they’re eating frozen toquitos and drinking gallons of soda because they don’t have the time to cook. They’ve sacrificed their health, most guys who are here. The longer they’re here, the greater their risk of diabetes and obesity and hypertension. So being able to experience what their life had been like made me realize how much they have lost coming here.
“That’s not to say they don’t live somewhat fulfilling lives here, but it puts an understanding on what it’s like to lose your family and your culture and your lifestyle — and the weather,” she added. “The weather is so different.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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