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Shock amidst the onions

Coming face-to-face with Brockport’s migrant workers


A van carrying 13 Anglos and a Mexican translator bounced down some country roads outside of Brockport on a recent summer evening. We passed dozens of farms and untold acres of potatoes, young corn, and, as we approached the migrant camp that was our final destination, the onions and black dirt for which this area is famous. The scent from thousands of rows of onions hung in the air.

            The trip was organized by Rural and Migrant Ministries (RMM) to bring the Anglos face-to-face with migrant workers --- virtually all of whom are Mexican --- and the conditions under which they live and labor.

            "This is an opportunity to walk in their shoes a little bit," said Bill Abom, the Western New York coordinator for RMM. "Although it's difficult to know what it's like to cross the desert or to experience some of the other things they have, this is an opportunity to delve into the issues more than we're used to."

            People chatted easily on the ride out, and the mood, although expectant, was light. Most participants had some inkling of what they'd find. "It's a topic we've talked about," said Patty Vermillion of St. Joseph's Church in Penfield. "We should learn more about them." Michele Castelli, the church's social ministry coordinator, said she was there to help "move the parish out of their comfort zone."

            Our first stop was brief, just a quick tour of a partially vacant old house that had been divided into four units housing several families. It was here the delegation got its first taste of the migrant worker lifestyle. Members of the delegation moved quietly through small, dirty rooms and then boarded the van again. "The camps look like foreign countries," said Louise Wu Richards, an intern with RMM from Colgate-Rochester-Crozer Divinity School. "They're hidden in plain view." Eileen Della Costa settled into her seat. "As a country, what are we saying, letting people live under these conditions?"

            The van pulled out of the yard and headed to our next stop: dinner with workers.

            The house had "No Trespassing" signs nailed to a tree and the porch. It badly needed repairs and several windows were boarded up. It looked abandoned, but nearly 10 men, all of them Mexican, lived there. They greeted us shyly at the front door and invited us in.

            There's a small enclosed porch which opens into a living room, furnished with a couple of beat-up sofas. Behind that is the kitchen, which is filthy and has one small table and a few well-worn chairs.

            We brought pizza and everyone congregated in the kitchen, waiting patiently to eat. The men seemed nervous and shy, and spoke very little. Introductions were made. Several of the men were from Chiapas, a couple from Guerrero and Guatemala; most of them were young, and at least two were teenagers.

            When the pizza was served the men insisted their guests eat first. There was a small amount of mingling, but after a few minutes, it was all Mexican in the kitchen, all Anglo in the living room. Finally, the men were invited into the living room, but there wasn't much mixing. Instead, people formed one large circle, with one man at a time telling a bit of his story.

            The youngest men and the newest workers say the work is fine. "It is not so difficult," said one who looked to be about 14. "I like it." The older ones, and the ones who have been here longer, know the toll farm work takes. "I am not like the others," said Felipe, who looks to be 40. "I have different ideas. I am saving money so I can open a store back in Mexico. I try to tell them that is what they must do." He wants to go back to Mexico and never return to the US.

            Pedro talked about the loneliness he feels being here without his family. "It is very difficult, especially at the holidays," he said. "Me, I do not want to be here. I am here because I need the work and the money for my family."

            After a couple of hours, the delegation had to leave. The mood in the van was very different from what it was at the start of the trip. "I was bracing for the worst," said Castelli, "but it was even worse than I had expected. It makes me ashamed as an American." Later she added, "I went to school in Brockport and I never saw that world."

            "What might help them?" asked Anne Bell. "We can throw money at them, have events, but what can we do that would really make a difference?" Abom has heard these questions before, and they're always difficult for him to answer. "Persistence," he said. "The changes won't occur quickly. It's going to be a long haul."

            But even a small connection sometimes changes things. One of the workers thanked the delegation for coming. "A program like this is good," he said. "Maybe if we see you again, we can say hello."