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Wisconsin nonprofit seeks to better connect U.S. farmers with their Mexican employees

Mexicans who come to the U.S. seeking employment often leave their loved ones and culture behind. In Wisconsin, a nonprofit helps connect American farmers with their migrant employees through language and cultural education. Some of the farmers travel to Mexico to visit the families of their workers -- who can't risk the trip home themselves. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A unique program started in Wisconsin helps build bridges between farm employers and migrant employees.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro begins our report in the Mexican state of Veracruz.

    It's part of Fred's series Agents for Change.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    They are hard to distinguish from thousands of Americans who meet up in Mexico, headed to its beach resorts and a respite from winter.

    But this group of Wisconsin dairy farmers had a very different destination, as they headed inland and up steep gravel mountain roads. The views are breathtaking, but these are places where tourists rarely go, and where locals say it's hard to stay and earn a living.

    It's become an annual ritual for the Midwesterners, getting together with families their Mexican employees left behind as they traveled north to find work. Their earnings sustain the families here in Mexico, even if the breadwinners themselves, most of them undocumented in the U.S., could not afford the cost or risk of a quick visit home.

    John Rosenow was on his ninth trip in recent years, visiting the families of his 10 Mexican workers. First stop, the parents of Marco Rosales.

  • John Rosenow:

    Is there any message you would like us to take to Marco?

  • Man:

    Tell him that we are well and tell him to behave.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Now, does he mostly behave?

  • John Rosenow:

    Marco behaves. Marco at times works 12 hours a day, and right now he's working. And it's 10 below.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    On a frigid early January morning, I got to see Marco's routine, which begins at the crack of dawn in the milking parlor.

  • John Rosenow:

    We run this 24 hours a day in here.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    How many gallons of milk come out of this place?

  • John Rosenow:

    Like, today, we will ship probably 5,000 gallons.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Families like Rosenow's — he's fifth generation on this farm — helped give Wisconsin the bragging rights as America's dairy land.

    But the unrelenting routine of milking, birthing, feeding and cleaning is one Rosenow says Americans long ago stopped wanting to do. For years, Rosenow says he's tried to recruit for jobs that pay between $32,000 and $42,000 a year, plus on-farm housing, if needed.

  • John Rosenow:

    I have gone to farm supply stores locally, asking people that work there. And I have never got a response, ever.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    And you would pay more these big department stores?

  • John Rosenow:

    Yes. And so I don't understand why Americans don't do it, but they don't.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    About 20 years ago, left with no choice, he says, he hired a Mexican immigrant he found through a farm magazine ad.

  • John Rosenow:

    He came and milked 54 days straight. Here was somebody that worked as hard as I do. Wow, this is the answer to my biggest, biggest problem that I had, was labor.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Migrant workers may have solved the labor problem for some farmers here, but also revealed a new one: communication.

    So, a county extension agent asked Shaun Duvall, the local high school Spanish teacher, to start language classes.

  • Shaun Duvall:

    And I thought, well, they're not going to learn enough Spanish. And they're not going to learn about the culture, why people do what they do, in a 20-hour Spanish class.

    So, I thought, well, let's do something more.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    She and Rosenow founded a nonprofit called Puentes/Bridges, intended to offer language immersion trips to Mexico, Spanish lessons for dairy owners, English for their workers, as well as a dairy technician training program, trying to help two very different cultures better understand each other.

  • Shaun Duvall:

    It's politically a conservative area, but all of a sudden there's this presence of people who don't share your culture, and they needed somebody who knew something. And I didn't know much, but I knew more than they did.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Today, Wisconsin's dairy industry says a majority of workers are immigrants, an arrangement that endures despite the rancorous debate about immigration.

    For their part, the immigrants keep a low profile. Roberto Tecpile, who is 39, agreed to share his story. In the 20 years he's been in the U.S., he's returned home just four times, he says. Returning to the U.S. is treacherous and expensive.

  • Roberto Tecpile:

    I walked two days and two nights.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Did you have to pay people to get here?

  • Roberto Tecpile:

    Yes.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The trafficker's fee was $10,000.

    Thirty-two-year-old Armando Tecpile, who is not related to Roberto, endured the same expensive ordeal, driven, he says, by dreams of earning enough to build a comfortable home in his village.

  • Armando Tecpile:

    My house, I thank God it's already three floors and complete concrete. It's not finished yet, still in construction, but all the outside is done.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Back in Mexico, Armando's home was the next stop for his boss.

  • Lourdes Ramos:

    I'm really grateful Armando found you as a place to work, because it's hard to find a good job.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Here and everywhere they visited, the Wisconsin visitors found expressions of appreciation and warm hospitality.

    But just beneath the smiles in many cases lurked the pain of long separation for the host families. After her guests left, Armando's wife, Lourdes Ramos, told me she'd pleaded with her husband not to go to the U.S., to stay home with their sons, now 10 and 5.

  • Lourdes Ramos:

    I said, I'm not asking you for anything. I'm not asking you for money. We don't need such a big house if it's just two of us and the two boys. And, really, it's nicer to have a smaller place.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    She fears they will wind up like Roberto's family, who have endured his absence over much of the past two decades.

    Rosenow talked with Roberto's father about the new prosperity, visible across villages here in new construction and in small enterprises many families have started. But his wife and mother reflected on the price they have paid, particularly the children.

    AAarron is their middle child.

  • Aarron Tecpile:

    I miss my papa. I love him a lot.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    When was the last time you saw your papa?

  • Aarron Tecpile:

    I was 5 years old. He used to carry me, and we used to go and see my grandma far away.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    His younger sister, Megan, was barely a month old when her father left.

  • Concepcion Acahua:

    We miss him. We really do miss him.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    But it is Roberto and Veronica's 15-year-old son, who was away when we visited, who most worries his mother.

  • Veronica Tecpile:

    He just wants to go and work with his dad and is waiting to be able to do that. I'm not going to let my son go, because the border is very dangerous.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Whether she will prevail against the strong tug of economic opportunity up north is a big question.

    A generation ago, her mother-in-law remembers pleading similarly with Roberto and his brothers. All four of them remain in the United States.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Zongolica, Mexico.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a wonderful report.

    Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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