Santiz Cruz will be buried Monday in Chiapas

Death will not be probed; family may be eligible for workers’ compensation

The body of Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz is finally going home. This weekend, advocates are escorting the body of the 20-year-old migrant worker, who recently died while working on a Vermont dairy farm, to his village in the province of Chiapas, located in southernmost Mexico.

Santiz Cruz died on Dec. 22 while using a cable-drawn gutter cleaner in a barn on David and Peg Howrigan’s farm in Fairfield. The certificate of death from the Vermont medical examiner’s office states that the young man died from positional asphyxia after getting caught in the equipment.

After two weeks of initial investigations, including an autopsy, bureaucratic wrangling and fund raising, Santiz Cruz’s body will be returned to his village of San Isidro near Las Margaritas where he will be buried.

One Vermont dairy farmer raised $4,000 in donations from the farming community toward the expenses.

Today, the body of Santiz Cruz is being flown to Villahermosa, Tabasco.The funeral, for which advocates say the entire village will turn out, is scheduled for Monday.

The main obstacle for shipping the body home was a lack of funds. Santiz Cruz’s family could not afford to pay for the transportation and funeral costs. One Vermont dairy farmer raised $4,000 in donations from the farming community toward the expenses, as did a number of migrant workers, according to a press release from Brendan O’Neill, an advocate who organized a rally for Santiz Cruz the day after the young man died. The Mexican Consulate also contributed $2,000.

The logistics of moving the body from Vermont to Chiapas have been difficult for advocates and the consulate, but the importance of making it happen was underscored by an earlier tragedy.

Ten months ago, a member of the extended Santiz Cruz family, Ismael Meza Calvo, who also grew up in San Isidro, was murdered on his way home from his night-shift job at a warehouse in New Jersey, according to O’Neill.

His family could not afford to transport his body back to Mexico, nor were they prepared to make the arrangements themselves, so he was buried in New Jersey, O’Neill wrote in a press release. In an interview, O’Neill said this made the transportation of Cruz’s body to San Isidor for burial a matter of some urgency for his relatives.

Gustavo Teran, who will be travelling to Mexico today as part of the newly formed Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, said in a press release, “I was pleased by the collaboration of migrant farmworker(s) and farmers in support of efforts to ensure Jose Obeth had a dignified burial in his own village. Often, families never see the remains of their loved ones because they don’t ave the money to bring them home.”

Teran, O’Neill and Sam Mayfield will be travelling with the body to Mexico as representatives of the newly formed advocacy group, the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project. They say they want to express their condolences to the Santiz Cruz family and to find out why Jose came to Vermont.

Santiz Cruz is part of an indigenous Mexican community, the Mayan Tojolabal, many of whom speak Spanish as a second language. The advocates say they have been told that as many as 300 native Mexicans from the Las Margaritas area of Chiapas work in Vermont. Teran said their contributions to Vermont dairy farms are unappreciated by the general public. He said the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project wants to promote “a dialogue between these two affected communities.”

“The Tojolabal are in Vermont because they cannot make it on their own farms,” Teran said in a press release. “They abandon their lands and their family behind because of failed national and international trade and agricultural policies and paradoxically find themselves here in Vermont contributing to the survival of farmers in Vermont, also affected by these same corporate-driven trade and agricultural policies that favor corporate agribusiness.”

What will happen with the Santiz Cruz case in Vermont after the funeral isn’t clear.

Robert McCleod, manager of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or VOSHA, says his agency will not investigate Santiz Cruz’s death because he determined that the Howrigan farm employed fewer than 10 workers. VOSHA only has jurisdiction to probe cases on dairy farms with 11 or more workers. VOSHA is the only government agency with the authority to investigate the case.

It would appear that Santiz Cruz’s family may be eligible for certain Workers’ Compensation benefits under Vermont law.

Stephen Monahan, director of the Workers’ Compensation and Safety Division of the Vermont Department of Labor, would not comment on any specific investigation, but he said anyone who dies on the job is entitled to funeral and death benefits under Vermont law. If a person or persons could demonstrate dependence, they would also benefit, he said.

If a person has no dependents, they can receive $5,500 burial and funeral expenses and an additional $1,000 for out-of-state transportation, according to Monahan.

Santiz Cruz was not married, nor did he have children.

Death claims are rare in Vermont. Monahan said his division receives “at most a couple a year.” In Vermont, there are about 18,000 first reports of injury on the job each year, and 5,000 to 7,000 that involve weekly payment benefits, according to Monahan.

Small farms with a payroll of under $10,000 are not required to provide workers’ compensation insurance for employees. Larger farms must carry the insurance through one of the 200 licensed providers in Vermont. Monahan said many Vermont farmers are insured by Chartis AIG or Agri-Services Agency.

Anne Galloway

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  • Mike Feiner

    Thank you for covering this desperately important story. I hope that VT Digger will continue to follow the work of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project in the future, as well as provide a voice for the thousands toiling in Vermont whose voices are stifled by unjust laws and prejudice.

  • Thank you, Anne, for reporting on this story. One of the most tragic aspects of the situation was that Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz’s relatives were afraid to congregate to mourn his death, and also afraid to go to Burlington to identify his body. As a member of the Central Vermont Farm Worker Coalition and the director of the New Neighbors Victim Outreach Project, I was contacted shortly after his death to assist in assessing the risk to those family members who might come forward. While I was reassured by both the Burlington Police Department and the Vermont State Police that it is their policy to not inquire about a person’s immigration status unless they are accused of committing a criminal act, I was also reminded that there is no assurance that any civilian — a hospital orderly, for example, or someone working at the parking garage — would not file a report with ICE. And ICE is required to respond. Because migrant farm workers are so visible in Vermont, the fear of deportation is a constant companion for them. They are thus denied the basic human rights and freedoms that our country purports to uphold. This is just one of the many reasons that our immigration system needs to change. Anyone who is interested in assisting farm workers can contact me at 802-241-1250, ext. 112.

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