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Children Of Migrant Workers Face Unique Pressures In Vermont

Melody Bodette
After first looking for work in Florida, Maria (seen here through door) came to Vermont to work on a dairy farm. Maria's daughter, born in the U.S., helps her family navigate the English-speaking world and someday hopes to help them live here legally.

It’s been over 10 years since migrant workers began arriving on Vermont’s dairy farms. Most of the workers have been young men who work for a few years and then return home to Mexico. But there are a number of families of farmworkers here in Vermont, and some, especially those with U.S. born children would like to stay. 

Maria lives in a farmhouse in Addison County with her youngest daughter who is 16-years-old, and her husband, who works on the dairy farm. Because she doesn’t have the paperwork to be here legally, we won't use her last name. She also speaks little English, so her youngest daughter is at the kitchen table with her, interpreting.  When she and her husband left Mexico for Florida to find jobs they left her older son and daughter in Mexico, though they eventually joined her. Her youngest daughter was born in Florida and is a U.S. citizen.

“In Florida there wasn’t much work in 2009, there were no jobs down there. We were working in a tomato factory,” Maria said.

Maria’s husband heard about a job on a dairy farm in Vermont from friends and so they decided to come here. Maria’s oldest daughter returned to Mexico for college. Her son and youngest daughter moved to Vermont with their parents.

The family only lasted two months on the first farm, before moving to another with a better housing. Maria's daughter says she was happy to change schools.

“There were only like two girls that would talk to me," Maria's daughter explains. "It was also the big change from Florida to Vermont, being the only girl speaking Spanish at home, English at school. I’d get home and I’d just sleep, it was a really big change for both of us. It didn’t feel like it did in Florida.” She had just turned nine.

At the new school, the kids were more open and there were a few other families who spoke Spanish at home. Maria fed calves on the farm for a short time but stopped when the farmer said he could no longer pay her. So she made her own job, cooking meals for migrant workers on other farms and doing some cleaning for them.

"It was also the big change from Florida to Vermont, being the only girl speaking Spanish at home, English at school. I'd get home and I'd just sleep, it was a really big change for both of us." — Maria's youngest daughter

Her daughter said it was easy to make those connections because her mom is so outgoing — in Spanish.

“In Florida the clinics, restaurants, banks, schools — they all spoke Spanish,” Maria said.

But it's harder to get by in Vermont without speaking English. There were some slow improvements. When Vermont created driver's privilege cards, Maria was able to drive legally.

“But before she was driving without, for four years,” says her daughter. “And had her license plate from Florida, so you could tell something was off.”

“The police [officer] was great because he never stopped me. And daily I was driving around, picking her up, going to her school,” Maria said.  

Maria's daughter said despite what her mom says, she knows they were scared when they first arrived.

Erin Shea, program director of the University of Vermont Extension's Migrant Education program, says there has been a small shift in the number of families who are staying in Vermont.

“Ten years ago when we saw families coming here with young children or young adults would come here and have families, by the time they started entering our school system, we saw them moving away,” Shea says. “Today we are certainly seeing more families move here and stay and definitely in talking with our students and families, the intention very much is to stay here and settle in Vermont and have their children stay with them.”

Maria’s daughter says she's getting a better education in Vermont than she would have in Florida, but life here is not without its challenges. She said despite what her mom says, she knows they were scared when they first arrived.

“Then they didn’t go out at all. She was a little scared," Maria's daughter explains. "She says she wasn’t, she doesn’t want me to feel scared that I’ll lose them.”

Her father works long hours, and so she hasn't been able to spend much time with him. But recently the farm hired another worker, so now everyone gets a day off each week. And as she has moved through school, to a bigger middle school and now high school, Vermont feels more like home.

“You make new friends and you get a little more freedom so you start hanging out in town. There [are] football games and stuff you can do after school,” she says, smiling.

But sometimes she feels the pressure of being the interpreter for the family.

“I mean sometimes when people are like, ‘oh it’s great to speak another language,’ it’s amazing, and it’s going to help me out, people say, ‘oh cool, yeah,’ but it is really hard. It’s hard translating everything. I …” her voice brakes and she pauses. “Sometimes I feel like the mom. It’s really not a great feeling. I feel like sometimes I just need her to be my mom. And it’s really hard. It is.”

And no teenager wants to feel different.

“I love my mom, I love her to death. She’s done so much, crossing over — that was difficult," she explains. "My dad had some awful feet problems after that and just thinking that they could have died any minute,” says Maria's daughter. “But it’s hard to be the odd one out. Some days it’s great to be Mexican-American, other days, I just want to be like everyone else … have a great house, have everyone come over, it’s kind of living in two different worlds.”

She remembers worrying about losing her parents when she was younger.

“Then yes; now not really, because I’m older and I know that my brother’s here and he’s here legally now. I wouldn’t be alone.”

"When I turn 21, she can start filling in the paperwork ... If my brother gets his papers — he has a green card — if he becomes a U.S. citizen he'll be able to [help their parents] but I'll probably be the one who fixes their papers." — Maria's youngest daughter

Even with the oldest daughter in Mexico, the family doesn't intend to return. Maria says her hometown has become a very violent place. 

Their daughter hopes to someday help her parents stay here. 

“When I turn 21, she can start filling in the paperwork, or my brother who is married to a U.S. citizen. It’s on whoever. If my brother gets his papers — he has a green card — if he becomes a U.S. citizen he’ll be able to [help their parents] but I’ll probably be the one who fixes their papers,” she said.  

She'll also be working on her own goal of becoming a nurse practitioner, or a doctor.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
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