Advocacy & Activism

Rare Advocate Watches Over Sheepherders

From DenverPost.com, Nancy Lofholm, 25 Dec 2011.

FRUITA — Like some bare bones Santa, Jose Ignacio Alvarado Ruiz loaded a rental car with trash bags several days before Christmas and drove a long, snow-packed zigzag through northwest Colorado to deliver them.

The bags were filled with welcome necessities such as warm socks, soap, flannel shirts, gloves and bandages. Some sweets and tangerines were tucked in to make them a little more festive.

Alvarado Ruiz delivered the bags to sheepherders who will spend this Christmas — as they spend all their days — alone in tiny camper wagons called campitos in remote stretches of high desert lands. That is where the sheep that they tend graze for the winters.

Alvarado Ruiz, 54, makes this holiday trek because he knows well what it is like to spend holidays isolated in a frigid camp without electricity or running water — and with nothing to mark special days.

He worked as a herder in northwest Colorado after being recruited for the job in his homeland of the Patagonia region of Chile in 1990. He did that job and worked his way up to truck driver and de facto ranch manager for six years. The rancher he worked for eventually helped him get his immigration papers so he could remain in the United States.

For the past seven years, Alvarado Ruiz has been employed on a contract basis as the sheepherder outreach specialist with Colorado Legal Services Migrant Farm Worker Division.

Alvarado Ruiz, who speaks little English, said it is a job he earned because he is a hard worker and because, “I like to talk the truth.”

His job is to educate them about their rights and help them with problems.

“His work is so important because these workers are so isolated,” said Jennifer Lee, an attorney with Colorado Legal Services. “He is a unique individual because he worked as a herder. He is able to connect with them.”

His advocacy work is considered important and unique enough that the Colorado chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association recognized him with its Immigrant Liberty Award this summer.

“He’s doing a great job of providing certain services for them,” said Juan Chumacero of Rangely, who has been helping herders on his own in Colorado since 1976.

Alvarado Ruiz said he has seen some change since he began informing herders from Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico that they are entitled to basic human rights. In spite of alleged abuses and the misinformation given to herders by owners of some ranches, he teaches them they have the right to get medical care if they are ill. They have a right to control their own bank accounts. They have a right to have visitors. They have a right to hold on to their own passports rather than turning them over to bosses.

By law, they now make $750 a month rather than the $650 he was paid. Some have cellphones and can periodically talk to their families. They are given contracts in their native languages. Their campitos have been improved.

Still, he said some ranchers yell at herders. They try to keep them isolated. And they refuse to get them medical help for serious injuries such as broken bones.

“People are sent back home to Chile and they are crippled from injuries. They become beggars. You see them in the streets there,” Alvarado Ruiz said.

Tom Acker, a Spanish-language professor at Colorado Mesa University, has been cataloguing abuses of sheepherders and helped Alvarado Ruiz and Chumacero deliver the holiday bags to sheep camps before Christmas.

Acker said the herders were pleased with the goods they delivered. But they were more excited about the human contact.

“They were the happiest just to get to talk to someone,” he said.

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 ornlofholm@denverpost.com

Source: DenverPost.com, “Rare advocate watches over sheepherders” by Nancy Lofholm, 25 Dec 2011.

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