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.'
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Linder has come here four times, often bringing medicine and other goods like sewing machines to migrant workers' relatives. This time he forwent a flight, and drove a truck down for the neighbor of an employee. It took three days to get down here from Wisconsin.Skip to next paragraph
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The dairy producer makes jokes in the Spanish he picked up from his employees as he walks around snapping photographs of family members to bring back. He is called "George" – he's not sure why – and "Abuelito," which means "grandfather" in Spanish. "It's interesting to see where people come from so you can relate better," says Linder.
But this is not a charity mission, he says. As dairy producers have been forced to expand – and farms are no longer the family concerns they once were – showing employees that they care is a way for farmers to generate loyalty and maintain a family feel. "It's a way to develop trust," says Linder. "When we come back, it makes them want to work for us."
The program has become an inspiration for other groups.
Tom Maloney, a senior associate in the department of applied economics and management at Cornell University, modeled a program after Puentes/Bridges and in the past two years has brought two groups of dairy producers from New York state to Mexico. That program requires participants to take lessons learned in the towns of Mexico back to their communities in the US – one way to avoid some of the friction that occurred years earlier between the US citizens and migrant fruit and vegetable workers. "My motivation was, we don't have to make all the same mistakes of the past," he says. "[Having them on dairy farms] is new, I thought, so let's start from the beginning."
He says he knows a handful of other farmers from Kentucky and Pennsylvania who have made similar trips. And Duvall's program has since expanded. Last year, she started bringing teachers and university students to Mexico's Veracruz state, to teach the community English. Now, she and John Rosenow, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who helped start Puentes/Bridges with Duvall and Mr. Duley, are hoping to offer business classes to Mexicans in the US, so that when they return home they have more than just money – and can contribute to the long-term development of their communities.
"One of my employees, unbeknownst to me, was building a bakery back home," says Mr. Rosenow, by phone from Wisconsin. "I had no idea. When I walked into his village that first evening, I was beside myself. I could have been helping him to be a business person."
While Rosenow and Linder have become familiar faces in these towns over the years, other farmers are just getting to know a new way of life in Mexico.
For two years, Walter Laumb, a herdsman from Minnesota, has patiently taught his new Mexican personnel all the facets of mechanized milking on his dairy farm in Minnesota.
But on a recent day, it is Mr. Laumb who is learning an unfamiliar task in a foreign land – as his workers' wives and sisters show him how to make corn tortillas from scratch.
"When you first come, you realize immediately why they left," says Mr. Laumb. "And then 10 minutes later you realize why they all want to come home."