Maria is one of an estimated 45,000 to 125,000 migrants who work in Michigan each year.* They not only pick crops, but landscape lawns, prune Christmas trees, work in fruit processing plants, clean houses, and increasingly work for the areas resorts.
Maria Rodriguez (not her real name) lives year-round in the area, residing in a two-bedroom apartment with her parents and her brothers family. Today she picked strawberries for eight hours, dressed in a light gray sweatshirt to keep the sun from beating down on her back.
She earned $4.20 an hour, her back aching from bending over all day.
Maria gives most of her earnings to her parents, who are slowing down in their late 50s. She keeps a little aside to buy her school clothes in the fall.
While Maria talks shyly about school, her mom presses out rounds of tortillas and heats them on the stovetop of their small apartment. You see how it is for Maria. The world of tortillas and young mothers passing babies around on their laps and little kids making toys out of shoelaces and cracked plastic trucks and everyone speaking Spanish. At night, she sleeps on the couch because she doesnt have her own room.
Despite the obvious hardships, it seems the tougher place is school. Maria talks enthusiastically about a teacher who helped her and her niece learn English and who now sits beside them every day at lunch.
And she said most kids are polite to her except for the boy who said he wouldnt buy strawberries from a certain farmer because he didnt want to put anything in his mouth thats been touched by Mexicans.
But she doesnt feel as if she belongs. At school, she often feels invisible. She said later that she may not attend school next year because her father, who is older, can no longer prune trees and will have to take a lower paying job at a fruit processing plant. Her parents, she said, need her to work to help with the rent and food.
But when pressed on this, it turns out that her father does want her to stay in school. Its Maria whod rather work. Her dads new job will mean shed have to transfer to another school district where she fears that some girls -- apparently second-generation migrants -- will torment her because she still has to work in the field.
They make fun of me and I really dont want to get into trouble, she said.
Dirty looks, name-calling, getting ignored.
Americans attitudes have become increasingly hostile with the advent of 9/11, the increased militarization of the Mexican/American border, and now vigilante groups taking border patrol into their own hands, said Father Wayne Dziekan, a Roman Catholic priest with parishes in Suttons Bay and Northport.
Our country gives mixed messages to migrants: Stay out of our country because you are poor and offer no skills and we may deport you, but come into our country because farmers need you and theyll pay you decent wages and give you a place to live. Interestingly, the money that migrant workers send home to Mexico is that countrys second greatest source of income, oil being first, he said.
Some of the talk this afternoon in Marias home revolved around the Border Patrol, which now operates under the auspices of Homeland Security.
Last year, many undocumented workers were stopped in the parking lots of Wal-Mart, Meijer, even inside the Grand Traverse Mall. Several were questioned going in and out of the Mexican restaurant, Taqueria Margarita, and the neighboring grocery store on South Airport Road. Border Patrol agents with binoculars watched the migrants go in and out of the restaurant, sometimes approaching to ask for their papers. The migrants often ran away.
Father Wayne said that the undocumented Mexicans became so fearful of deportation they stopped going to stores and even to his parish, St. Michaels Catholic Church.
This year, the Border Patrol seems to have backed off, although officials recently drove up in two unmarked white cars at one camp and took away seven men, all living in the same unit. Maria was sorry to see them go.
She had organized an English class, and all the men were students of hers. After they were taken away, she closed down the class since only two students remained.
It appears that the Border Patrol isnt doing broad sweeps this summer, but woe to the undocumented migrants who get caught drunk driving, fighting or breaking the law in any way. It usually means immediate deportation and potentially up to 10 years in prison for possession of a fake resident alien card and Social Security card, according to the U.S. Immigration Office.
Just recently, three migrants were stopped in Suttons Bay for drunk driving. They were taken to the jail in Sault Ste. Marie and will be deported.
LITTLE BY LITTLE
Except for the quiet, nagging fear of surprise visits by the Border Patrol, a small group of families seem content living in flat-roofed housing units nestled inside a cherry orchard. In this tiny haven of Mexi-merica, the kids played, grandma made dinner, and the men rolled up in a truck, their workday done. The cool evening would soon erase the pain of their aching backs and prickles of the scorching sun.
As her children ran through the orchard trees in the backyard, one migrant mom is asked about her goals.
Goals? What are you talking about? she asked through a translator.
Perhaps buying a house someday? A laugh. Shrug. Head shaking no. Poco a poco. Little by little. Thats all she can do right now.
*The U.S. Census Bureau reports there were 521 Mexicans in Leelanau County in 2000 compared to 188 in 1990. In Grand Traverse County, the number of Mexicans increased from 503 to 1,155. These do not include undocumented workers, however.
Mexico has grown corn for 10,000 years, its farmers enduring centuries of weather and wars. But nothing can beat a farmer down like agricultural dumping.
The story begins when Mexico signed onto the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and opened its markets to corn and other products. Corn flooded Mexicos markets, and to compete, Mexicos own corn prices went into a freefall. Then the 15 million Mexicans who depended on the crop began their own freefall into extreme poverty, according to a 2005 report by Oxfam International.
Technology makes our corn prices more competitive, but so do taxpayer subsidies. Our countrys largest farms and agri-corporations like Archer Daniels Midland (not the small family farmers) are the main benefactors. A total of $10 billion in subsidies each year is paid out just for corn.
That means Mexican families -- people you are likely to meet here in Northern Michigan -- couldnt afford to sell corn even in their own villages. And this all seems very weird, given how very low labor costs are in Mexico.
But consider this. We are talking BIG subsidies. In 2004, the United States actually boosted agricultural subsidies by 18% percent to $46.5 billion, according to a June 24, 2005 article by Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.
When Mexican farmers could no longer sell corn and coffee, they abandoned their land and ultimately migrated to the United States in desperation.
There are other problems influencing illegal migration: Mexicos government is corrupt and government officials steal money that ought to be used for public services. Mexico also decided to support commercial enterprises with public money rather than the agricultural sector, according to the Oxfam report.
The influx of migrants has created huge problems, especially for the border states, which are now dealing with drug trafficking, border violence, higher crime rates, hospital closures along the border because of uninsured migrants, pressure on the schools, and huge blocks of people who cant speak English. People who cant find a job in Michigan -- hard-hit because factory jobs are flowing out of the country -- think some of the blame lies with migrants.
But these problems wont improve until this country acknowledges that its policies are destroying the livelihoods of Mexican farmers, said Father Wayne Dziekan, a Suttons Bay priest and advocate for migrants.
Militarizing the borders hasnt slowed the illegal migration, but it has resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 men, women, and children attempting to cross the border since 1998, according to the nonprofit organization, No More Deaths.
My work with migrants is simply gospel, he said. When people are dying as a result of our policies, its immoral. Period. Its just basic common sense, a basic faith approach to the situation, he said, adding that 150 people have died crossing the border just since Oct. 1 of last year. Father Wayne said the Roman Catholic Church is taking this issue seriously.
In fact, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently urged the U.S. government to examine how its trade policies exacerbate the massive influx of migrants.
Father Wayne believes that our country needs to refocus its attention on where the problem of immigration starts, rather than where it ends.
But until then, there are scores of people like himself in the area who advocate for migrants or provide services in a wide range of ways.
Sylvia Lopez Cortes, for example, helps migrants in the Gaylord Catholic Diocese in any way she is needed, from translating for a tax preparer to helping a midwife communicate with a mother delivering a baby at Munson Medical Center.
Jody Treter of Leelanau County said she was unaware of all the people in Northern Michigan with migrant connections until she and her husband Chris went to Chiapas, Mexico, in the summer of 2001 to work as observers of the Zapatistas.
Thats when she discovered that Father Wayne -- who had performed her marriage ceremony a few months before -- also had a connection to Mexico. Father Wayne and his pastoral associate Gladys Munoz take a study group each year to the Mexican border to learn about migrant issues with the BorderLinks nonprofit organization.
Father Wayne contacted the Treters before their trip because a migrant in Suttons Bay had committed suicide. They had arranged to send the body back to Mexico and wanted Jody and Chris to contact the family once they reached Chiapas.
Don Gregory, a farmer, also called Jody because he was concerned that migrants had been exposed to a toxic pesticide.
He was seeing a physiological disorder among the migrants, and asked us, Will you keep your ear out while youre in Chiapas? We were amazed to see all the local connections.
While in Chiapas, the Treters talked to farmers who were distraught over the coffee prices plummeting to 20 cents a pound. The farmers were considering migrating north.
The farmers told us, We dont covet what you have in America. We just dont know what else to do.
To help these farmers, the couple returned to Leelanau County and formed a small roasting company called Higher Grounds Trading Company.
The company is part of Cooperative Coffees, a collection of roasters across the country, which pays farmers directly so they can earn enough to live on (the co-op pays $1.63 per pound compared to the market price that has now risen from 80 cents to $1.20 per pound). Now in its third year, Higher Grounds has enjoyed steady growth, doubling its sales each year.
Munoz, who is originally from Puerto Rico, said her frequent trips to the Arizona/Mexico border opened her eyes.
You come back and ask yourself, What am I going to do with this? Farmers are struggling, some have to close shop. The experience is pretty powerful and you begin to see things in different ways. This has been a whole pilgrimage.
So now Munoz, along with Sylvia Cortes (whose office is in the same building), work tirelessly for the migrants, helping them out of legal jams, finding textbooks for those trying to get degrees, and directing those down on their luck to the food pantry.
To help integrate the Anglo and Hispanic members of the community, Father Wayne added a bilingual mass at 3 p.m. at St. Michaels Church in Suttons Bay. His church has evolved in its mission to advocate for migrants, losing members along the way who didnt agree with his new direction, but gaining others.
The border is a microcosm of globalization, Munoz said. You begin realizing relationships and the interdependence of countries and people. We cannot live like were on an island. Were part of the problem. Now we have to be part of the solution.
Editors Note: St. Michaels Catholic Church is hosting a Hispanic/American Festival on August 20. The dinner will be served from 5 to 7 p.m., and music from 7 to 9 p.m. Food from both cultures will be served. The church is located on the corner of Broadway and Elm Streets. Cost is $7.50 for adults and $5 for children, 12 and under. Call 271-3744 for more information.