November 11, 2009

A delicate existence: Undocumented Wisconsin dairy farm workers

José is one of an estimated 5,000 immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin.

ROBERT GUTSCHE JR./WCIJ

José is one of an estimated 5,000 immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin.

Immigrants cope with isolation, grueling hours.

But there’s room for family life, too.

Yawning, the man pulls on his grimy work pants, then boots, then sweatshirt, releasing smells of animal waste and hay into the air. The October morning is cold enough he’d see his breath if the farm wasn’t consumed by darkness, the moon hidden behind heavy clouds.

The woman calls out in broken English as she walks up and down the aisles of the barn: “Come on, let’s go. Come on, come on.” The cows glare at her before, one by one, they begin their familiar stroll toward the milking parlor.

The daily routine is not unlike the one experienced by generations of Wisconsin farm families. But unlike those farmers, this young Mexican couple, José and Victoria, said goodbye to their families and traveled 1,720 miles to work long hours on a dairy farm in Western Wisconsin among people who do not speak their language and in a place where their presence is illegal.

José says most Americans don’t like immigrants. “They think that we are here invading their territory. But we aren’t left with any other option because the situation in Mexico is very, very difficult.”

Despite the ever-present threat of deportation, José and his wife have a sort of job security they never found in Mexico: Their employment is all but ensured by the need for cheap labor at larger dairy farms that are increasingly common across Wisconsin’s rolling pasture lands.

The couple’s story is representative of roughly 5,000 immigrants who have become the labor backbone of Wisconsin’s signature industry. Immigrants now account for about 40 percent of the state’s dairy labor force, up from just 5 percent 10 years earlier, according to a 2009 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies. While that study didn’t explore immigration status, earlier federal surveys have estimated half of all immigrant crop workers nationwide are working illegally.

José and Victoria requested their real names be withheld out of fear they might be identified by law enforcement and pursued as illegal immigrants. Though interviewed in Spanish, José and Victoria have learned enough English to understand directions on the farm and to function daily in Western Wisconsin while raising two bilingual children.

The work

To say José and Victoria work from sunrise to sunset would be inaccurate – their day starts in darkness before the sun rises, and ends in darkness, well after the final rays have been blocked by the hills to the west.

José drives his pickup truck to and from work, even though he’s ineligible to obtain a driver’s license. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

José drives his pickup truck to and from work, even though he’s ineligible to obtain a driver’s license. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

With empty stomachs, save for a large mug of fresh milk from the cows, mixed with instant coffee and honey, Victoria and José climb into their pickup truck and drive the five-minute stretch of highway to the dairy farm.

While Victoria begins herding the cows into the milking parlor, José prepares the milking equipment.

The work is not altogether unskilled. In addition to directing animals using shouts, whistles and movements, immigrants also learn tasks such as operating farm machinery and monitoring the milk pumping system.

“Sometimes I come tired and there’s something I forget to do,” says José, recalling one morning a few months ago when milk began spewing on the floor from an overhead pipe because he forgot to correctly prepare the pump. “There’s a lot to remember.”

Once the cows walk into the parlor, José sanitizes their teats before attaching suction cups. The mooing crescendos as remaining cows grow impatient. Ten at a time, the cows are milked and led back to the barn.

By the time the cows return, Victoria has cleaned the barn and filled the stalls with feed. When finished, Victoria comes to the parlor to help her husband finish milking.

The couple talks sparingly as they focus on work, an old radio crackling out Mexican Maríachi and ranchera songs to the background noise of industrial-sized fans. By the time the sun rises, the work has become mechanical, routine.

Ask Victoria if it’s boring, and she laughs: “I don’t have time to be bored.”

Four hours after the morning milking began, the last cows head back to the barn, and José and Victoria clean the parlor.

At 11, the couple returns home to cook lunch – already six hours into the workday. Victoria, who works about 40 hours a week, usually spends the rest of the day doing chores or running errands. José averages 70 hours a week.

A couple of days a week, José will not return to work until it is time for the second milking from 5 to 9 p.m. José calls those his “easy days.” But on full days he works the entire afternoon, harvesting and transporting crops from the fields or feeding milk to calves out of oversized baby bottles.

“On a farm there is little rest,” José says. “It’s nothing but work and more work.”

Each autumn, José harvests the green peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, corn, onions, potatoes and cilantro he grows in his garden outside their house. “Just think how much we save by not buying vegetables for three months,” he says. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

Each autumn, José harvests the green peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, corn, onions, potatoes and cilantro he grows in his garden outside their house. “Just think how much we save by not buying vegetables for three months,” he says. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

For their labor, José earns $11 per hour and Victoria earns $8 per hour, and their combined take-home pay is about $1,900 every two weeks. Little remains after their employer deducts taxes (including Social Security, which they are ineligible to receive) and they cover their rent, truck payments, gas, utilities and groceries — plus the $200 per month they send to help support families back home in Mexico.

The family life

The work at the farm finally over, José and Victoria return to their modest but comfortable home, an old  two-bedroom farmhouse they rent from their boss for $330 a month. Awaiting them are their 13-year-old daughter María and 8-year-old son Antonio. The children have already finished their homework for the following day (there’s no TV until it’s all done).

It’s dinner time. Antonio and María run around the large kitchen, excited as mom prepares their favorite dish: Italian spaghetti, pasta cooked in a rich tomato-cream sauce with a Mexican twist (corn and jalapeños). The meal is indicative of the family’s lifestyle, a mix of Mexican traditions and rural Wisconsin comfort.

The children speak fluent Spanish and English, and their conversations switch almost randomly between the two. They always speak Spanish to their parents, who understand English well but are still uncomfortable speaking it.

After dinner, the children watch impatiently as dad navigates the Dish Latino channels. They want to watch “The Hulk,” but he prefers a Spanish-language soap opera. At a suspenseful moment in the show, José and the children watch with worried looks on their faces. Meanwhile, Victoria is curled up in a blanket, lying on the sofa – exhausted from the day’s work.

It’s a home life not unlike that of other families in rural Wisconsin. But the difference is, their home life is almost all they’ve got.

The family doesn’t usually go out to dinner, movies or bowling like other local families.

Twice a month, when they get their paycheck, they drive into town for a Domino’s pizza – Hawaiian with jalapeños. But as soon as it’s ready, they jump back in their pickup truck and drive out of town to eat their meal back at home.

Anticipating a twice-monthly treat, immigrant dairy worker José and his children await their takeout order at a Domino's Pizza. The family's discomfort among locals keeps them from venturing far from the farm where they work and live. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

Anticipating a twice-monthly treat, immigrant dairy worker José and his children await their takeout order at a Domino's Pizza. The family's discomfort among locals keeps them from venturing far from the farm where they work and live. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

Sometimes they all drive into town to go shopping, but out of hesitation to communicate with store employees, their trip differs from that of most families. “Sometimes we eat out together, or go to the mall – only to look, nothing else,” José says.

It is less a fear of leaving the house than a sense of discomfort among a population that does not speak their language and, according to José, sees them as outsiders.

Coming to America

José, Victoria, María and Antonio each hold distinct memories of their life in Mozomboa, Mexico, their hometown of 3,000 located near the Gulf of Mexico, 175 miles east of Mexico City. While José took whatever daily jobs he could find on a local farm, the children sold snacks and water to locals as street vendors.

They all agree the hardest part was when José and eventually Victoria went to work in the United States, leaving their children behind.

“We couldn’t see them growing,” says Victoria, who tears up as she recalls leaving to create a new life for her children in America. After two years of separation, she returned to Mexico in 2007 to bring her children across the border.

José and Victoria don’t like talking about their journey into America – that episode in their life is over. But the kids can’t keep from recounting the story, and the memory of the blisters on their feet walking north through the desert with their mother.

Ask José why he came here, and he will say he wanted a job with a wage that could support his family. He entered the U.S. legally with a work visa, but decided not to return after it expired.

Ask him why he stayed, and the undocumented Mexican sounds more like a patriot than an alien.

“I love this country because there are many opportunities, many jobs — not like in Mexico,” José says. “And it’s more beautiful. Wherever one goes, one sees beautiful pastures.”

A traditional Mexican Sunday brunch is one reminder of the family's life before they moved to Wisconsin. A UW-Madison study estimates that 90 percent of the immigrant dairy workers are from Mexico. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

A traditional Mexican Sunday brunch is one reminder of the family's life before they moved to Wisconsin. A UW-Madison study estimates that 90 percent of the immigrant dairy workers are from Mexico. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

But opportunity is not the same as security. That’s because a couple of state-issued photo IDs and Social Security numbers they purchased illegally for $400 each is all the documentation they have. Neither can get a driver’s license. Neither can get subsidized public health insurance in Wisconsin.

The cost of medical treatment is a problem José and Victoria know all too well: Three months ago, Victoria was rushed to a hospital for appendicitis. A $20,000 hospital bill on their kitchen table is a reminder of the challenge of being without insurance.

As María listens to her mom retell the story of the late-night hospital trip, a worried look creeps across her face. She knows her parents don’t have the money to pay the bill, and she’s scared about her future.

But, in her usual manner of making a lesson out of their challenges, Victoria turns to María, wipes away her own tears, and smiles: “If I were dead, how could I pay the bill then? Life is more important.”

A future through their children

José and Victoria seldom miss an opportunity to encourage their children to become educated and create a better future for themselves.

“Nothing is difficult, and nothing is impossible,” José says to María, telling her that not money, but dedication is the only real obstacle to overcome toward receiving a university education. He hopes the meager savings he hides away after each paycheck prove him right.

María is sometimes discouraged. At middle school, she sits alone at lunch because other children tease her and call her ugly. They hurl their insults just out of the earshot of the teacher, whom María says is oblivious to it all.

“Americans don’t like me,” she says. “It’s really hard to make a best friend.”

José and Victoria treat their kids like adults — they talk in goofy, ‘kid’ voices to the dog and cats around the farmhouse, but never to their children. They tell jokes and stories, challenging Antonio and María with trivia and word tricks.

“What weighs more, a kilo of cotton or a kilo of stone?” Victoria asks.

“Stone,” Antonio responds. “Cotton,” María says.

José strums a guitar as the family sings along to their favorite Mexican artists. They spend their evenings together in the living room, also watching television and playing games. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

José strums a guitar as the family sings along to their favorite Mexican artists. They spend their evenings together in the living room, also watching television and playing games. WCIJ/JACOB KUSHNER

With such a close family life, it is easy to forget José and Victoria spend almost as many hours working as they do otherwise. They spend long hours milking cows not because they enjoy it, but because it’s their way of creating a better future for their children.

Ask José what his aspirations are, and the undocumented foreigner from Mexico describes a vision with a distinctly familiar tune. He hopes, against the odds, he and his family can become legal citizens. Some might recognize it as the American Dream.

“That my children continue with school and learn English well. That they become somebody in life, that they be important people here in the United States. Imagine, [Barack] Obama is an African American and he is president of the United States. It would be best for my children if next a [Latino/a] could be president, or secretary of state. One cannot lose hope.”

Editor’s note: This is the second part of Dairyland Diversity, a special report on Wisconsin’s growing reliance upon immigrant dairy workers. The stories are a joint project of several media organizations, including The Country Today, a weekly newspaper focusing upon agricultural and rural issues, and the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.

Read more Dairyland Diversity coverage.