“Migrant workers.” Many of us have heard that term, and many of us have a picture of who these workers are and what their lives are like. Right?
I would guess we have many questions about them, too. I know I do. I also know that often the impression we have is formed by wrong information, whether it be from political candidates, different forms of media or local gossip. As Catholics who are called to welcome the stranger and love our neighbor, I know we can do better than that.
The definition of a migrant worker is one who moves from place to place to do seasonal work. According to Eduardo González Jr., state diversity specialist at Cornell University: “Between 1 and 3 million migrant farm workers leave their homes every year to plant, cultivate, harvest, and pack fruits, vegetables and nuts in the United States. Although invisible to most people, the presence of migrant farm workers in many rural communities throughout the nation is undeniable, since hand labor is still necessary for the production of the blemish-free fruits and vegetables that consumers demand.”
As you probably know, there are a number of migrant workers in the Diocese of St. Cloud, especially at this time of year.
When I spoke with these migrant workers’ neighbors — people who live near where the seasonal workers live and work — I came to realize something about the human condition. When people are “unknown” and “different” in a community, there is an automatic suspicion, stereotyping and fear. When these emotions are fed by more suspicion, stereotyping and fear, hatred develops. The language is always an “us” and “them” scenario, with little desire to find out what the “we” might look like.
Strong work ethic
Just recently, in my travels around the diocese, I had an opportunity to meet some of our seasonal neighbors and I was moved by their hospitality, willingness to tell their stories and their gratitude for the work they are able to do.
Their work ethic is inspirational as they told me about the hard work they do in the fields and factories. They want to work and are willing to travel from place to place to do that.
I met men who were between jobs in the fields. I met a young Latina woman working to pay for her college in the fall, and some high school Latino boys with their father, waiting for another job in the fields so they could pay their rent and use the remainder of their earnings for their families.
Speaking with a few people in their homes brought with it a lot of emotions for me. To be allowed into their seasonal homes and ask questions made me feel really blessed.
I had a Spanish-speaking coworker, Mayuli Bales, with me, so I know that helped, but it felt like an honor to be allowed into their culture and lifestyle. Maybe it is my sense of privacy or being in the position of an onlooker that caused me to value so deeply this glimpse into the lives of people who have such a different way of life and survival.
I met people who had been coming up from Texas every year for about 25 years. They said multiple times that they wanted to work and they appreciated being able to work. I met women with children and grandparents looking after grandchildren. Each person I met treated me with such dignity and answered my many questions.
For a few hours I was able to experience the “we” that happens when we get to know one another across cultures. We laughed, talked about children and grandchildren, and talked about the struggles that poverty brings. We talked about farming and how farming practices have changed over the years. We talked about our concerns, dreams and hope — just like neighbors do!
Kathy Langer is director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.