Jose’s journey across the desert from Mexico was a dangerous one. During the night, a rattlesnake bit one of his party of migrants, and the group’s guide — their de ella coyote — forced them to leave her in the desert to die.
Another migrant died in Jose’s arms after he was bitten by a spider. When Border Patrol agents descended upon the group inside the United States, Jose and the others scattered into the desert.
Jose finally found his way to Vermont.
Juana also walked across the desert, where she was forced to drink water from puddles, filtering it through her shirt to avoid ingesting insects. Her first job in the United States was at a Sonic Burger in South Carolina. Later she worked in the tobacco fields of Kentucky. By then she was pregnant, and her aunt had told her there were better jobs in Vermont.
Now she and her husband live on a Vermont dairy farm, where he works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Juana is pleased that in Vermont they are able to get medical care for their children, and she has found companionship with other women as part of a gardening project. Their oldest son has joined them, but their daughter is still in Mexico.
Juana says, “My heart will be forever split between two places.”
Carlos has worked on a number of farms in Vermont, losing jobs sometimes because of his drinking problem. He is able to send money back home, but he is sad that he missed his daughter’s 15th birthday celebration, and he misses the music he and his family used to play together.
Alcoholism is a disease, he says. It feeds on loneliness. There is plenty of work in Vermont, he says, but he hopes his children do not have to come here like he did.
For most Vermonters, the state’s migrant farmworkers are an invisible population. There are between 1,000 and 1,200 of them, and the state’s dairy industry depends on them. But they live mostly in seclusion, reluctant to let themselves come to the notice of immigration authorities or police.
Because of their isolation, they are often invisible to each other, as well.
That’s why Julia Doucet, an outreach nurse for the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury, decided to help them share their stories with fellow migrants. Mental health problems caused by isolation and cultural dislocation had become a cause for concern, so she collected their stories, told in Spanish, in pamphlets for distribution among the workers.
Now Vermont’s invisible population is becoming more visible. The Vermont Folklife Center, in collaboration with a number of other organizations, has published 19 of those stories, translated into English, in a book called “The Most Costly Journey.” The stories are told in the words of the workers themselves, incorporated into comics by some of the region’s most accomplished cartoon artists.
The Vermont Reads selection for 2022
“The Most Costly Journey” promises to become a major cultural event in Vermont. In part, that’s because the Vermont Humanities Council has chosen the book as its Vermont Reads selection for 2022. That means libraries, schools, book clubs, government agencies and others throughout the state will take up the book as a focus for reading and discussion.
Vermont Humanities has 3,500 copies for distribution to readers.
In a foreword to “The Most Costly Journey,” author Julia Alvarez writes: “Deep within the migrant community exists its own powerful resource: storytelling. A story can cross any boundary, including the often mostly heavily guarded boundary, between self and other, us and them. It is portable, easy to carry across deserts and oceans, languages and cultures.”
Alvarez, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic, is full of appreciation for the migrant community. “Who else would milk our cows, grow our food, process it, cook and serve it? Who would feed and bathe our oldies in nursing homes and hospitals, look after ninitos in day care centers and preschools?” She says, “We need narratives to help us navigate our way home to the circle of our shared humanity.”
Two of the editors of “The Most Costly Journey” emphasize in an afterword that the workers were consulted at every step as their stories were put into book form. The editors mean to assure readers no cultural appropriation was involved in the creation of the book.
The words of the migrants are stark and truthful, and the artists’ illustrations underscore their power. The storytellers are protected by the use of pseudonyms, but the authenticity of their stories is evident.
Each migrant traveled a different route to Vermont. Alejandro was born in Georgia, so he is a US citizen, but he is living with his father, Felix, working in Vermont and dreaming of the day both can go back home to Chiapas state.
Jesus fled the robberies, kidnapping and extortion caused by the gangs of Veracruz. The demands for money didn’t end even after he came to Vermont, and he thanks God for the strength to carry on.
Each has his or her own struggle
A common theme among the storytellers is how much they miss home — parents, brothers, sisters. Many have spent years in Vermont, but they are living apart from their families because they want to help them, sending money back home that will allow parents to buy a house or otherwise improve their lot.
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