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.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Howdy! Wisconsin dairy farmer Stan Linder visits an employee's family members in Mexico.
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    New skills: During a recent trip to Mexico, Minnesota herdsman Walter Laumb gets a lesson on how to make corn tortillas from relatives of one of the migrant workers he employs back in the US.
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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.

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.

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"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."

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.

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."

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