U.S. farmers see how their employees live back in Mexico
As a backlash against immigrants grows, one group aims to build understanding by sending Midwestern farmers south of the border for 'cultural immersion.'
San Juan Texhuacan, Mexico
On a recent day Stan Linder drives around town in a white Ford pickup truck, pointing out where corn is grown and where his friends live. Locals pile into the back to avoid the steep walk up dirt roads.Skip to next paragraph
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But he's nowhere near his own home, 2,000 miles north on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. He's in the remote mountains of Mexico as part of a cultural exchange to see how life is for the families of the migrant workers he employs.
As hostility to immigrants seems to be rising in the US – a recent survey by the Inter-American Development Bank shows that 68 percent of Latino immigrant respondents now say discrimination is a major problem, up from 37 percent in 2001 – former Wisconsin high school Spanish teacher Shaun Duvall is trying to boost cross-cultural understanding with 10-day "cultural immersion" trips for US farmers.
"That's the magic moment, when you get to connect two different worlds," Ms. Duvall says. "Many [locals] never dreamed someone in the US would care enough to come here."
While Mexican migrants have been heading to the US for decades, they didn't show up on farms in upstate New York or Wisconsin or Minnesota until relatively recently, generating the kind of culture shock that played out long ago in California or Texas. According to US census data, the overall population of Latinos in Wisconsin counties, for example, grew by 40 percent from 2000 to 2007.
It is not a trend expected to let up any time soon, as dairy farms have had to expand to become competitive at the same time that the population is declining, says Carl Duley, who teaches management classes to farmers and helped Duvall start the cultural exchange called Puentes/Bridges in the late 1990s.
At the time, Duvall was teaching Spanish in the K-12 school, the only one in her tiny town of Alma. She was asked to be a translator on about 30 different farms, and provided basic Spanish classes for farmers, many of whom had never stepped foot outside the US. But it wasn't enough. "A lot of them don't know how to manage people. Throw in a whole other culture, socioeconomic class, language, they didn't know what to do," Duvall says. "For some, you have to pull about 14 teeth to get them out of there."
Nevertheless, the first group headed to Mexico in 2001. And since then, some 70 farmers have made week-long trips here to learn Spanish and then visit their employees' towns, mostly up the side of the mountains of Zongolica, where it is often faster to walk between towns than drive the pot-holed roads cut at the far edges.
It's not the kind of region accustomed to visitors. It is more used to emptying out, as men head north for jobs. "It is hard to be separated, but when the [Americans] come it makes us feel like we are with them," says Maria de los Angeles, who, in this most recent Puentes/Bridges trip, hosted the daughter of the farmer who employs her husband. "We look forward to their visits every year."