(Host) A migrant farmworker who died in Vermont just before Christmas was laid to rest this week in his hometown in Chiapas, Mexico.
A delegation of Vermonters helped bring the body home. The group hopes that the tragic death will call attention to the plight of undocumented workers who live a sometimes hidden existence on Vermont dairy farms.
VPR’s John Dillon caught up with the group as they began their journey:
(Ticket Agent) "And I’m not able to print the third boarding pass, it’s a different airline. So you’re US Airways to Cancun. I’m not even sure what airline that is… Is that a Mexican airline?"
(Dillon) The travelers came early in the morning to the Burlington airport. They were starting a long journey, and it would be another day and a half before they’d reach their destination in southern Mexico.
(O’Neill) "We’re flying into Philadelphia, and then I think Cancun. It was a last minute ticket, so I think then we’re going to Merida, and then Villahermosa. So, we got the cheapest deal we could and it’s zigzagging us through Mexico".
(Dillon) Brendan O’Neill teaches English to Mexican workers in northern Vermont.
He had just finished a class last month when the phone rang with horrible news.
(O’Neill) "There was immediately some obvious concern in the room. Folks started talking to each other. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Wasn’t sure if it was a rumor. But we heard someone was either killed or hurt."
(Dillon) A few phone calls later, O’Neill had learned more details. Twenty-year-old Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz had died after getting trapped in a gutter cleaner at a Franklin County dairy farm.
A day after the accident, O’Neill organized a candlelight vigil in Burlington.
(Boarding call announcement)
Now, he’s traveling to Santiz Cruz’s hometown to bring the body home, and to bring attention to the often isolated existence of Vermont’s two-thousand Mexican farmworkers.
(O’Neill) "It was really important that we make visible his invisible life. And that’s really the motivation that’s pulling us all the way across the border down to Chiapas."
(Dillon) Shipping a body to southern Mexico posed a logistical and a financial challenge. A funeral home sent the remains to New York City.
From there, he was flown to Mexico City and then on to Villahermosa in the southern part of the country. O’Neill and his companions planned to meet the body there, and then take it to the remote village of San Isidro. He expected the entire village of 300 people to attend the funeral this week.
Vermont farmers raised $4,000 to cover some of the costs to take Santiz Cruz back to his family. The Mexican consulate in Boston came up with another $2,000.
But the farmers who contributed asked to remain anonymous because most of the workers they hire are in the country illegally. O’Neill says Vermont farmers and their Mexican workers have more in common than they may realize. Farmers here are suffering because of low milk prices. In Mexico, a poor economy has also driven people off their land.
(O’Neill) "I’ve never really met a worker that wants to be here. All the workers that I’ve met, they have to come here. They’re sending money to maintain their family. The family comes first. They’re very family oriented. They’d rather be at home. They’re doing their best while they’re here. In some ways they’re sort of sucking it up, because they’re not exactly having a good time on these farms with the doors closed in and from the barn to the trailer all day every day."
(Dillon) O’Neill describes a life that’s shrouded in secrecy for the farmworkers. In Vermont, their brown skin and foreign accents make them stand out, so they rarely leave the farm for fear of deportation. About 80 members of Santiz Cruz’ extended family and home community work in northern Vermont. But when he died, O’Neill says, his friends and family couldn’t get together to mourn.
(O’Neill) "That wasn’t possible in light of this accident. Workers for one, they don’t have transportation. They can’t just jump in a car and do that. They’re also working so often they also can’t do that. They’re also afraid of just going anywhere."
(Dillon) One of those making the trip with Brendan O’Neill is Gustavo Teran. He was born in Texas, but grew up on the Mexican border where his family was employed as migrant farmworkers.
Teran now lives in Montpelier, and he’s teamed up with O’Neill to record oral histories of Mexican workers in Vermont. He has a different mission this week.
(Teran) "To help the family, make sure that the body went home, because often it doesn’t happen. It’s happened many times that people die here and they just never get taken home."
(Dillon) Teran says Santiz Cruz came from a Mayan indigenous community, where many people don’t speak Spanish as their first language.
(Teran) "I think for indigenous people in particular, they’re very connected to their land and to the place they come from, so it is very important that they go home, yes it is."
(Dillon) The other reason for the trip is to find out more about why the workers risk their lives and their freedom to come to Vermont. Teran and O’Neill have formed a new group called the Vermont Migrant Farmworkers Solidarity Project to advocate for the workers and to call for immigration reform
(Teran) "Often they’re kids, very young people. They’re out there, they’re stranded. Sometimes they call us because they don’t have enough food. They haven’t been taken to the grocery store, or there are back pay issues."
(Dillon) The Mexican consulate says Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz came to Vermont relatively recently. But beyond the bare facts of his age, and his place of birth, little is known about the young man. Brendan O’Neill hopes to learn more this week.
(O’Neill) "Who was he? What was he like? What were his goals? Why did he come here? What did he want to achieve? What did he hope for? I think when we meet each other as people, we can start breaking down these borders and develop more of a true community around farms."
(Dillon) As Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz was buried this week, the state of Vermont continued to investigate the accident that killed him.
An official with the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the state wants to find out if the farm employed more than 11 people, which would make it subject to worker safety laws. The official said the state will interview workers and go through payroll records as part of the investigation.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.