Tragedy spurs a movement: Grassroots group forges connection between Mexico, Vermont

Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz in Vermont

Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz in Vermont

The death of a young migrant worker on a Vermont farm is the catalyst for a documentary film about a village in Chiapas and its direct link to the Green Mountains.

Find out where "Silenced Voices" is showing in Vermont through September.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series that examines the relationship between Mexican migrant workers, Vermont dairy farming and the larger societal issues associated with the employment of undocumented workers. The United States has no guest worker program for year-round dairy employees, and so Mexican workers, who have abandoned their own subsistence farms in rural Mexico, come here illegally. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture recognizes that undocumented migrant workers are essential for the survival of many farms in the state that cannot find reliable local labor.

Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz came to Vermont for a better life, but getting here wasn’t easy. He was on the Mexican border for 20 days before he entered the United States illegally and made his way north.

When he reached Vermont, where many of his relatives and friends from Chiapas were working, Santiz Cruz had difficulty finding a job immediately, and when finally he landed work on a dairy farm in Franklin County, his troubles weren’t over – for months he worked to pay back thousands of dollars he owed to the handlers who helped him cross the border.

After he paid off his debts, Santiz Cruz was unable to financially support his mother, father and two siblings for long. On Dec. 22, he was found dead in a Fairfield cow barn. He was strangled when his clothing got caught in a gutter cleaner. The police ruled the death an accident and did not investigate further. Santiz Cruz was 20 years old.

At the time, authorities couldn’t answer basic questions about his life. Why was he here? Where did he come from? No one seemed to know.

The death shocked the dairy and Mexican migrant communities in Vermont, in part because there was so little information about Santiz Cruz.

A new film, “Silenced Voices,” produced by the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, attempts to answer questions about who Santiz Cruz was and where he came from. The documentary, which debuts in Vermont this week, tells the story of his stay in Vermont, his life back home and why he and 80 to 100 other young people from the remote, impoverished village of San Isidro, located at the end of a dirt road in the Chiapas mountains, have traveled more than 3,000 miles to work in Vermont.

VT Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project delegates Sam Mayfield, Brendan O'Neill and Gustavo Terán (all in backrow) pictured with José Obeth's family.

Burlington-based activists Brendan O’Neill, Gustavo Teran and Sam Mayfield traveled to the village near the Guatemalan border to escort Santiz Cruz’s body home and to learn more about his community. They produced “Silenced Voices” to show how the migration of young people from this remote Mexican village to Vermont has affected the families that have been left behind.

The Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, formed by shortly after Santiz Cruz’s death, has also launched a series of programs – audio language translation projects in schools, educational workshops with policymakers -- designed to help Vermonters better understand why and how migrant workers come here to work. Volunteers with the Project have also provided on-farm health care assistance for workers. In December, Teran hopes to give lawmakers and farmers a tour of the Las Margaritas region of Chiapas where San Isidro is located.

According to the film, shot and edited by Mayfield, the typical migrant worker from San Isidro is 16 to 25 years old. O’Neill estimates that young people from Chiapas represent a third of the 1,500 Mexican workers in Vermont, and most are indigenous Tojolabal, an ethnic group in Mexico with a distinct language and culture.

O’Neill, who founded the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project with Teran, said the story is about more than Santiz Cruz’s death. “In going there, we discovered that this is an entire community that is deeply connected to Vermont,” O’Neill said.

The movie opens with clips of Santiz Cruz’s coffin and villagers keening as they walk down a dirt road toward the burial area. In the distance, fields of corn are planted in rows on hills above San Isidro. The film cuts to women making tortillas on open fires in wooden shacks or butchering chickens in preparation for the funeral feast.

The villagers interviewed for the film – Santiz Cruz’s family, local farmers, former migrant workers, a politician and a teacher – were anxious to tell their stories. The villagers understood that the Americans wanted to communicate their situation to Vermonters, and they were very willing to speak on camera.

“We came up with the title ‘Silenced Voices, because these people are actively being silenced (in the U.S.), and they don’t have an opportunity to speak out,” Mayfield said. “We wanted to let them tell their stories as much as possible.”

Santiz Cruz family stands outside their home

Zoyla Santiz Cruz, Jose’s mother, tells the camera that Jose was the fourth son she had buried – two others had contracted fatal ailments in and one died as an infant in Mexico. Her daughter, now a teenager, wants to go to Vermont. “I say no, she can’t go, because the same thing could happen to you. We will be poor, but we have enough food.”

Teran, who narrates the film, says nearly everyone in the village either has worked in Vermont or knows a relative or friend who is here now. The 25-minute documentary includes clips from a dozen interviews with residents who describe young migrant dairy workers’ harrowing Arizona border crossings and the hardships they endure once they find work in Vermont, including racism, 70-80 hour work weeks and complete isolation from family and friends working in the state. Migrant workers typically earn $8 to $9 an hour, in addition to free board, on Vermont farms.

Villagers talk about how while they were in Vermont they couldn’t leave farms to shop or socialize or to visit a doctor for fear of detention and deportation.

The problem is exacerbated by Vermont’s racial homogeneity. The state is the whitest in the nation; only 3.5 percent of residents in the state are not of European descent, according to U.S. Census numbers.

Consequently, Mexican migrant workers in Vermont are particularly vulnerable to racial profiling, and they live in constant fear of harassment, detention and deportation.

In the film, one young woman describes breast feeding her two-month-old baby as she and her husband eluded Border Patrol officials in the Arizona desert before they made their way to the Northeast. She was later apprehended by immigration enforcement officials at a Wal-Mart in Vermont and deported.

“We are Mexican,” Maribel Lopex Ruiz says on camera. “We are always chased by immigration.”

Many Vermont farmers try to protect their migrant workers, who typically live on the farm and work in the milk parlors, from public view. One worker in the film talks about how she wasn’t allowed to go out on the front lawn of the farmer’s house because he feared neighbors would report her to immigration officials.

Another San Isidro expatriate named Mardo, who can’t for obvious reasons give his full name, is filmed cleaning a cow barn. He tells Mayfield he came to Vermont to “get ahead,” but that he can’t help but ask himself why he has come here when he can be detained and deported at any time. “Why are they humiliating us?” he asks. “We are all human beings.”

Edmundo and Amanda Lopez have three sons working on dairy farms in Vermont. They send money to their parents – enough for them to build a new house. But at the time the film was shot, in January, they hadn’t heard from their son, Rosenberg, for several weeks. Eventually, they found out he was detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement for four months.

Teran, the narrator of the film, sums up the situation this way: “The Vermont economy, people and landscape are dependent on an invisible community without basic rights.”

Documentary part of larger movement

All of the logistical issues a death brings to bear – what to do with the body, where to hold the funeral, how to help loved ones grieve – were doubly difficult in the aftermath of Santiz Cruz’s fatal accident because of cultural and language barriers.

The burial

His parents, for example, were worried his body would never make it home, and extended family and friends in Vermont couldn’t hold a memorial service for Santiz Cruz without the threat of being exposed to public scrutiny and a potential deportation roundup by Immigration Customs Enforcement.

Outraged by this turn of events, Brendan O’Neill, who teaches English to migrant workers, organized a vigil for Santiz Cruz in Burlington. He and Teran and Tomas Kalmar, a professor, also made the burial arrangements and worked with dairy farmers and the Mexican consulate to raise the money needed to send the remains to Chiapas.

At the vigil, a donor offered to give O’Neill enough money to pay for a delegation to travel to Mexico. A few weeks later, O’Neill and Teran, with videographer Sam Mayfield, were en route to San Isidro. It took them three days to arrive at the village of roughly 1,500 people located at the end of a dirt road in the mountainous, semi-tropical climate of the southernmost Chiapas.

The three Americans found themselves among subsistence farmers who live in government-subsidized, concrete block houses. There is no running water, no electricity and no source of fuel for cooking other than wood that is collected from nearby forests.

San Isidro, photo by Sam Mayfield

The villagers had grown coffee as a cash crop, but they were no longer able to sell coffee to support their families because the international coffee prices crashed and the Mexican government stopped offering subsidies under the free-trade agreement with the U.S. about 15 years ago, according to Teran.

The primary source of income now for villagers is remittances from workers in Vermont. A teacher in the village explains in video footage that by age 14 or 15, children are already focused on leaving San Isidro to support their families. Many of the children are brought up by grandparents or aunts and uncles because their parents are working in Vermont.

The three activists began their journey as a humanitarian mission – they had come to escort Santiz Cruz’s body home, but they also saw an opportunity to tell the stories of the villagers. They spent two weeks interviewing people and collecting video footage.

Since their return, O’Neill and Teran have embarked on what has become an on-the ground, human rights campaign. Together, they formed the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project in January, and enlisted a core group of volunteers to engage school children, farmers, activists and migrant workers in joint projects that are already breaking down cultural, political and racial barriers. They are forging a new foundation of understanding between people of two far-flung rural communities -- a poor village on the Guatemalan border, and a scattering of farms in the Green Mountains.

They hope to raise awareness about the issues affecting migrant farm workers in Vermont through the debut of “Silenced Voices” at venues across the state over the next few weeks. They see the documentary as a vehicle for generating interest in the practical steps the Project is taking to help migrant workers, particularly those who live near the Canadian border, better adjust to life here.

Volunteers with Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project have begun work in the state in three areas: education, health care and community organizing.

Jessica Noyes, a professional educator and translator in Plainfield, worked with O’Neill to create a loose network of teachers in northern Vermont who would be willing to work with their students to transcribe and translate audio interviews with Mexican migrants. Noyes put a call out on a foreign language teachers’ list serve and instantly interested local teachers in the project. Ten schools, including Champlain College, Middlebury College, Milton and Enosburg high schools, translated more than 25 interviews, a selection of which are posted in English and Spanish on the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project Web site.

Noyes said the process of transcribing and translating the interviews word for word gave Vermont students a new understanding of immigration issues.

“The teachers and students were very moved,” she said.

Though Noyes has been following migrant worker issues for some time, she said she was astounded by the stories. “I was overwhelmed when I read how much they have suffered and how hard they’ve worked to meet their goals,” Noyes said.

The other part of the education effort is focused on farm operators, agricultural workers, the state Agency of Agriculture and the University of Vermont extension agencies, according to Gustavo Teran. He said it’s critically important for these groups to understand who the Tojolabal workers are, where they come from and why they have to leave.

“Culturally, there are things that would be helpful to farmers to know about communities that might make the work more effective,” Teran said. “They have traditions of communal work that are less individualistic.”

Teran, an independent researcher and writer who is himself a former migrant worker, said he hopes to arrange a tour for Vermonters of the Las Margaritas region of Chiapas where many of the Vermont workers come from.

“Hopefully, we can target farmers and legislators so they can connect with policies that are pushing people out of their communities, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, so people can understand it at a gut level,” Teran said.

Alison Cannon, a registered nurse who lives in Burlington, has been making home visits to migrant workers and ferrying them to health care facilities for treatment. Cannon has helped workers who needed access to emergency treatment for illnesses and routine care like birth control.

She is also working with translators who talk to workers over the phone about health problems and take patients to doctors’ visits.

Cannon hopes to develop a large network of volunteers in Franklin County where services for migrant workers are limited (most health care facilities don’t have translators available yet).

Transportation is also a big issue, as the workers typically don’t have vehicles.

Ultimately, the migrant workers themselves would be involved in sharing information about preventive health care, Cannon said. “We’d like to work with people within the community who would become the first point of contact.”

That approach – empowering workers to take care of their own needs – is a critical part of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project modus operandi. Teran said they hope to connect the isolated pockets of workers around the state and help to empower leaders within the community to take care of problems that come up.

“We don’t want to be seen as outsiders providing services and people passively receiving services,” Teran said. “We want … to build networks so they can support each other.”

For more information, go to: http://vtmfsp.org/

Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor-at-large of VTDigger. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2.8 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 32. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

Email: anne.galloway.vermont@gmail.com

Follow Anne on Twitter @GallowayVTD

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