From DemocratAndChronicle.com,Diana Louise Carter, 4 Jun 2011.
[Rochester, NY] — In Mexico, it’s cheaper for a tortilla manufacturer to buy corn from the United States, where government subsidies keep corn prices low, than to buy from unsubsidized Mexican farmers.
The Mexican farmers, as a result, go out of business or send their young men and women thousands of miles north to work in U.S. fields, where they can earn 10 times more than they could in Mexico — if they could even find a job there.
At the same time, the onions for sale in the Monte Alban Mexican store in Medina, Orleans County, are imported from Mexico. They’re no different than the kind available from growers nearby, owner Francisco Rosario said through an interpreter, except for the fact that they’re cheaper.
This is the topsy-turvy world of global food economics, playing out on a farm near you in the form of displaced workers from Mexico milking cows, trimming apple trees and planting onions.
Estimates of the numbers of Mexican workers in the Rochester area are unreliable, at least in part because many are here in violation of U.S. immigration laws. But knowledgeable observers say there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, and say that since the 1980s they’ve been the dominant ethnic group among farm workers.
Whether undocumented, legal residents or naturalized citizens, the workers all say the same thing about why they come here from Mexico: They want a better life. They can earn enough picking and planting vegetables to survive here and send money back home to help their relatives survive, too.
“Everyone comes up here with a purpose. Hopefully you can achieve and better yourself,” said Reynaldo Gutiérrez, a 52-year-old farm laborer in Wayne County who is a legal resident and has been working in the U.S. since he was 18. “The most you could earn down there a day is about $10 — no more than that.”
But pay scale isn’t the only driver, say experts in immigration issues. A global market requires consolidation of the means of production, depending on low-paying, often difficult jobs that only impoverished immigrants are willing to take.
“There’s really this global race to the bottom in terms of wages to make the products as cheap as possible,” said Ronald L. Mize, a Cornell University professor who teaches courses on Latino studies and immigration issues. Farming in upstate New York is going the way of agriculture in California and any number of industries elsewhere in the United States, he said. Economy of scale is the way to survive.
“It’s really hard for local dairy farmers with small herds to be able to compete with these really large firms,” Mize said. “Everything has to move fast. They’re looking for dependable, hard-working people and they find them among the Mexican labor force.”
Meet the new boss
Jesus Vallejo, a 38-year-old Albion resident and naturalized citizen, is trying to move up in agriculture. “When I got here 20 years ago, I started picking apples, trimming trees. All these years I was doing the same thing,” he said on a day when the temperature reached 90 in the orchard where he was trimming. This year he started his own business as a crew boss, or someone whom farmers can call to find short-term labor, though because he’s just starting out he sometimes has to provide the labor himself.
Vallejo said he’s learning the ropes as he balances the interests of the farm client with responsibility for a crew of workers. He thought being a crew boss would be easy, as he has a quick mind and has always learned easily whatever farming skills he was taught. Being in charge of other people, though, is different. “I’m finding it’s harder. It’s a lot of responsibility for me.”
A couple of weeks ago, Vallejo had two local workers trimming apple trees with him. He asked if they’d like to work planting onions next and they agreed. Tree-trimming, though, is upright work while onion planting requires bending over hour after hour.
“After one hour, voom, they don’t come back,” Vallejo said. “It’s hard work and USA people don’t want to do it.”
Now a merchant
Francisco Rosario, 50, has already moved up the ladder of success. A farm worker for many years, he opened a shop in Medina five years ago that offers the Mexican foods, clothing and health and beauty products sought by those living far from home. The store carries an impressive variety of dried chilies and some seriously pointy-toed styles of cowboy boots among its wares.
Rosario travels up to two hours with a delivery truck, stopping at farms with Mexican workers who don’t have the time or means to come to him.
The Rosarios’ eldest child, Nancy, is a student at Roberts Wesleyan College. Francisco Jr. is about to graduate from high school and plans to attend college. Federico is finishing sixth grade.
Silvia Rosario said if the family was living in Mexico, their daughter would be married instead of getting an education. As for the boys, “Who knows?” she said in Spanish.
Vallejo and the Rosarios are following the time-honored path immigrants have taken: work hard in low-paying jobs with an eye toward improving their circumstances and creating better opportunities for the next generation.
“It’s not a lifestyle most people want to live,” said Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University.
Mize agreed, saying, “The last thing they want is to see their children do the same work they do.”
But with decades of anti-Mexican discrimination, Mize said, and the 10-year-old anti-terrorism focus in the U.S. that prosecutes undocumented farm workers as if they were foreign terrorists, upward mobility is out of reach for many farm workers.
Barely getting by
Reynaldo Gutiérrez in Sodus, Wayne County, has worked with apples, cabbage, cucumbers, hot peppers, squash and tomatoes since he arrived here at age 18. After more than 30 years of farm labor, Gutiérrez tumbled out of an apple tree last fall, injuring his knee and shoulder and requiring surgery. He’s still using crutches, and arthritis has settled into his injured joints. His return to farm work is questionable.
Now 52, Gutiérrez has no nest egg. For years he sent all his spare money home to relatives in Mexico. He was earning just minimum wage picking apples.
Workers’ compensation is paying for his medical care, but he’s barely getting by, relying on help from a church and loans from friends.
“It’s not easy at all,” he said through an interpreter.
And yet, with drug gang violence in Mexico and the lack of work there, he’s more comfortable here. As a legal resident of the U.S., Gutiérrez may be entitled to disability payments, but he couldn’t navigate the application process.
“It just took forever to get any kind of assistance, and they just kept asking for more documentation and more documentation and I didn’t get anything,” he said.
Cornell’s Dudley, who has spoken with many farm laborers in the course of her research, described Gutiérrez’s straits as “pretty typical.”
Mexican laborers are often isolated by their long hours of work, a lack of transportation and their inability to speak English, she said. And recent increased enforcement of immigration laws has kept many workers from venturing out because they fear they will be arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol and deported.
Even some legal residents and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent have experienced what they describe as racial profiling. Peter Mares, a migrant advocate who works for Catholic Charities of Wayne County, was handcuffed by a Border Patrol agent in the spring of 2010 after he tried to assist and interpret for a migrant worker stopped by a local law enforcement officer. The first time one of Mares’ sons tried out his new driver’s permit, in 2009, a police officer pulled their car over on Route 590 in Monroe County, offering no explanation for the stop before letting the teenager and Mares proceed.
Vallejo said farm workers have avoided Albion for years, expecting to be stopped, but now every town seems to have adopted the same approach.
“People have relatively few social interactions off the farm,” Dudley said, so they have few opportunities to learn English.
Cornell students volunteer to teach them English, and programs such as PathStone, a human services and development agency based in Rochester, offer job training programs to teach skills necessary for moving beyond farm work.
But isolation remains a key obstacle, Dudley said. It causes “a tendency to depression, using alcohol for release.”
Despite the problems, many Mexican workers want to improve their lives. Dudley said Cornell is starting a research project looking at workers’ hopes for the future. Early responses included greater understanding of how farm businesses work — such as dairy and produce pricing — and greater communication with their farm bosses about their plans.
“The current workforce is interested in understanding the day-to-day of their jobs,” Dudley said, but many also want to know how to advance, what they need to do to become a farm manager, and whether greater opportunities will open up if they stay in one position long enough.
Hoping for a better future, “They are willing to work hard and live in what might be challenging situations,” she said.