Catholic mass a reminder of home for Mexican workers

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(Host) Today, a special report on Vermont’s Mexican farm workers.

For over a year, farmers in Addison County have helped organize a monthly Catholic mass for the workers.

One of the biggest services came last week, as workers, their friends and employers honored Our Lady of Guadelupe, a symbol of faith in Mexico. The celebration was a reminder of home – and a union of cultures.

VPR’s John Dillon was there.

(Dillon) The Mexican immigrants come north for a new life. They find work, but many lack the basics of community: a social life, a place to worship.

(Church music plays)

(Dillon) That’s beginning to change.

Father Gerard LeClerc leads the mass in celebration of Our Lady of Guadelupe. That’s Emilie Rasmussen singing and playing guitar. Father LeClerc learned Spanish from the 20 years he spent in Bolivia. Emilie Rasmussen is learning so she can make music.

(Rasmussen) “A little more than a year ago, somebody told me about this Mass and they said they have no guitar, no music. I said, but I don’t know any Spanish.’ So I grabbed a friend from Brandon who took some high school Spanish and we muddled through about four songs. I had just about decided to quit, this is crazy, we’re not doing a good job. Either that or I’m going to learn how to do it.”

(Homily music continues)

(Dillon) The small church is lit by candles and the diffused light from stained glass windows. Father LeClerc retells a story that almost all Mexicans know by heart. In 1531, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared before a Native American peasant named Juan Diego.

In his homily, LeClerc explains that Our Lady of Guadelupe is the patron for all the Americas. In an interview later, he says she’s especially important as the protector of Mexico.

(LeClerc) “They’ve always had a tremendous devotion to our lady, our Lord’s mother, and they always felt that she’s been a great help for them…”

(Dillon) Across the street in the parish hall, a feast is laid out. There’s turkey and gravy. Soup and corn. And hot chocolate thick with cream.

(Farmer) “As well as being a dairy farmer, I also cook!” (He laughs)

(Dillon) The farmer is happy to talk, but reluctant to give his name. Most of the estimated 2,000 Mexicans in Vermont are here without proper documentation. Their illegal status makes them a target. In the past few weeks, a number of Addison County farm workers have been arrested and face deportation.

The farmer says the feast day is an opportunity to learn more about Mexico, but also to find out how much the two cultures share.

(Farmer) “It’s a great learning experience for us and for them. I mean they have no different problems than what we have. There’s really no cultural differences as such because everything they have problems with we do too. There’s more things we have in common, than not.”

(Dillon) The organizers of this event point out that immigration enforcement officers staged a massive roundup of workers at Midwest meatpacking plants on December 12 – the actual feast day for Our Lady of Guadelupe.

They’re worried that even a parish hall may not provide sanctuary, so they ask that this church not be identified. It’s a paradox, because even the state of Vermont says the workers are integral of the farm economy.

The farmer says if the government deported all the Mexicans, about half the farms in Addison County would go out of business.

(Farmer) “We as Americans should not be afraid of them whatsoever. They’re people that are just trying to get a living. They want to have a job, they want to raise a family, all the same values we have.”

(Dillon) On this day, about 40 Mexicans who often live in the shadows are celebrating in the open. Cheryl Connor helped organize the service and the feast. She says many of the farm workers are devout Catholics, yet it’s difficult for them to get to church.

(Connor) “Loneliness is one of the things that we fight with the migrant workers. They get very lonely. They’re many times isolated; they have no way of traveling from one place to another. And they depend on the patrones to take them somewhere, and this at least gives them a time where they can all get together.”

(Dillon) One young worker has arrived recently in Vermont. He wears a rosary around his neck and says he was happy to learn about the mass. A Middlebury College student translates.

(Worker translates) “His whole family is Catholic and it’s a pretty important part of his life. But here, since they don’t have Spanish mass every week, he only goes once a month. Now it’s not as much a part of his life as it used to be. But he still wants to be good with God.”

(Sounds of a birthday song)

(Dillon) It’s a holy day but it’s also a birthday for one of the Mexican children. So Emily Rasmussen leads the crowd in song.

The organizers hope more immigrants can attend Mass in the future. They want to help the Mexicans feel at home and to be a part of the community. All this is happening through social time, shared meals, pickup soccer games and celebration of faith.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Addison County.

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