Leche sin dignidad: A portrait of Vermont’s migrant Latino farmworkers

This article was also published in The Water Tower.

The landscape of Vermont—like most topography outside Antarctica and the Sahara Desert—is manmade. What we might see as the untouched New England backwoods is really just a construct of nearly four centuries of agriculture and human land use, down to the very tree species and the bugs living inside them. This shouldn’t make it any less beautiful: farms are gorgeous! And those barns, man! And cows, dude, cows! In fact, we should be grateful to the men and women who carved the Vermont we know today—and to those who still do.

Spread throughout the state, in its most rural corners, are about 1,500 dairy farm workers, or lecheros in Spanish. Most hail from southern Mexican states like Chiapas, Tabasco, and Oaxaca as well as several Central American countries, Guatemala in particular. These largely undocumented immigrants represent the lowest quantity of Latino immigrants in any US state, but they are the primary force that sustains Vermont’s suffering milk and dairy industry.

Dairy stitched Vermont a patchwork of small family farms, rarely with more than a hundred cows who could graze their damp, open pastureland before returning to their red wooden barns for twice-daily milking. In the past few decades, as some farms have swollen to tremendous size with thousands of cows, and still others have organized into co-ops selling to the same corporate milk buyer, small and/or independent family dairy farms have shut down by the thousand. In 1947, Vermont had 11,206 dairy farms; in 2012, it had 995. Without some profitable side-business like butter, cheese, syrup, pumpkins, or corn, these farms must expand their livestock and find a stable corporate buyer like Agrimark-Cabot or United Dairy Farmers and, in most cases, hire migrant labor.

Underpayment, wage theft, and restriction of benefits are not the only financial impetuses farm owners have for employing Latino migrant workers; they are also some of the few remaining people willing to do this work. Twelve-hour shifts that often start before dawn include milking the cows, feeding the cows, cleaning their shit, washing the equipment, repeat. For some, these shifts include no food, no water, no bathroom, no air conditioning in the summer or heating in the winter, no boots or gloves, old and dangerous equipment, verbal abuse, even physical abuse, and the chronic, illegal underpayment. Some lecheros have bosses who understand that better treatment leads to better work; but others return to their cold, crumbling, infested trailers to shower in contaminated water, drink beer, and sleep on a couch for five hours before the next shift starts. Labeled as illegal, many lecheros no longer think their ideas of human rights still apply.

While undocumented immigrants help farm almost every crop in the US, this kind of unjust, abusive, and at times nearly enslaving treatment is especially pervasive in the dairy industry. Most crops are seasonal, and therefore those who harvest them are granted temporary work visas year after year. For example, Vermont’s delicious apples are primarily picked by Jamaican workers who come here for a few months every year before returning home. Milk, however, is a year-round product, meaning there are no visas for lecheros. This strange rule would have been changed by the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which the Senate passed in June 2013 but has stalled in the House since then.

Migrant Justice, a small non-profit organization based in Burlington, is one of the few groups fighting for migrant workers’ rights. In 2009, a volunteer was teaching English to some lecheros on a farm, when one got a call that his cousin nearby had just been killed by a milking equipment malfunction. The tragedy sparked thoughts that there were much bigger problems than the language barrier facing Vermont migrant workers, so they began organizing for reform. Since then, Migrant Justice has helped organize, mobilize, and unite a large chunk of Vermont’s lecheros, winning two important legislative battles in Montpelier: a state law prohibiting police from acting as immigration officers—que la policia no sea la migra, ¡no más polimigra!—and another allowing undocumented Vermont immigrants to get drivers licenses. They are currently putting together a broad workers rights campaign that will be in full swing by Spring.

If you like Vermont, if you like cheese, if you speak Spanish, if you care about human rights, if you know anyone who has stories to share…there are so many reasons to get involved with this community. At the most basic, fundamental, and essential level, you can start giving back the thing of which Vermont lecheros have been most deprived: social inclusion. Check out migrantjustice.net if you’re interested!

Y más que todo, como dijo Cesar Chavez, ¡sí se puede! We can do it!

Kerry Martin Migrant Justice UVM

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