Out of Sight Communities
Z MAGAZINE ONLINE-ONLY ARTICLE
Christina Nelson and I pull off the main road into the fisheries trailer park in a small, rural town in coastal Maine. Located within walking distance of the factory, the trailer park is owned by the fishery and maintained exclusively to house their laborers—a tucked-away community composed entirely of Latino immigrants and migrants.
A native of Maine, one of the whitest states in the nation, I had left the state with the assumption that nothing cross-cultural would be found within its secluded fishing, logging, and farming communities. Rural Maine is known as much for its stubborn insularity as for its land-working traditionalists. So it was with surprise that, coming home some years later with an interest in immigration, I discovered just how much of rural Maine’s grunt work is actually being done by Latino workers—hidden communities that are anything but new.
Christina drives her green Subaru slowly on the dirt road, kicking dust up despite her caution. It hangs in the air behind us, lit in the hard light of sunset and creating a wake which our third companion, a lawyer named Ruben, follows with his car. Christina keeps up a steady narration as she drives, naming the occupants of every trailer and explaining several community dramas. The park has all of the trappings of a classic “white trash” slum, but it’s mostly Mexican mothers who hang up the stained work clothes on the clothesline.
Christina seems to know everyone. She first came into contact with this community of expatriated laborers over a decade ago, while promoting literacy in economically disadvantaged counties such as this one. It soon came to her attention that it was not just the rural white poor who needed literacy; behind the scenes and outside of the widespread town centers, scores of Mexican and South American laborers were not only doing seasonal harvesting in the region, but, family by family, starting to stay. She began instituting ESL classes, first out of her own house, then from a town library.
This is my first glimpse of the migrant subculture. It seems that Ruben and I are those last-minute guests to the reunion. We are here for two reasons: to introduce me to Elena and set up English lessons and to discuss the legality of recent evictions from this same trailer park. Ruben, who is half-Mexican, often represents migrants in Maine. “They call me the opener,” Christina told me in the car earlier, “because of my role in the community. My relationship with these people is not professional—it’s entirely personal. They trust me. So this is a big deal to be introducing Ruben to them today,in his professional capacity. He couldn’t just walk in here and have them talk to him. I’m taking their trust in me and placing it on him.”
After many introductions, we get down to business. The Perez family, Elena explains, was evicted with no advance warning. The owners came and asked them to leave, “bueno, not that second, but ‘as soon as possible.’” To make this all the more clear, the owner drove by their trailer every 20 minutes or so just to see “if they were leaving yet.”
The Perez family was well-known as the family who stood up for everyone else’s rights, who complains when they aren’t given enough hours to qualify for unemployment, who demands fair treatment, and encourages the other families to do the same. It’s no mystery that this is the cause of their precipitous eviction.
After Elena has outlined the situation, Ruben leans forward to speak. “The most important thing,” Ruben says, “is that everyone is aware of their rights.” Ruben explains that while the eviction was within the lines of the law—you can let people go at anytime for most justifications, excluding out-and-out, clear discrimination—everyone has a right to some advance warning before being thrown out. Above all else, Ruben stresses the importance of standing up for these rights. If they don’t demand them, no one else will protect their civil liberties—especially not out here.
“But,” Elena says, “people are afraid to speak up for any of their rights because while most here in the trailer park have documents, others do not.”
The Perez family have papers, but not everyone in the trailer park does. And without the Perez family standing up for all of them, the likelihood of the others rallying on their own for their rights is not high. While even those without documentation have a certain number of basic rights, the undocumented don’t address them. In the unlikely event that they even are familiar with these rights, many feel that substandard treatment is better than deportation.
For those who are documented, language barriers and a general ignorance of their legal rights as foreigners keep people from knowing what rights they can claim, much less how to claim them. Ruben’s urgings seem to fall short, a brave but somewhat unconvincing argument when taken in light of recent repercussions. A clear message has been sent that life can be made difficult for those who stand up for themselves.
This makes it difficult for human rights abuses to be monitored. Five years ago, one famous case made the news: 14 Honduran and Guatemalan workers were killed when their van, driven by their crew foreperson, went off a bridge on a private road in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway of Northern Maine. The men, some of whom had been returning to Maine annually for 5 years on 6-month H-2B visas, were paying $84 dollars a week to ride this van the 2.5 hours each way, daily, between their housing and their workplace. Such a commute, particularly in the more dangerous roadways of Northern Maine, is rife with unnecessary risks: hazards related to fatigue, poor visibility, poor roadways, moose, and other wildlife.
It’s typical that it took such an accident to bring working conditions to the attention of the state. After the deaths, the Forest Resources Association said that its members would explore ways to provide housing in the woods where H-2B workers were employed in an attempt to reduce such lengthy and dangerous commutes. Unlike H-2A farm workers, though, H-2B workers do not legally have to be provided with housing by their employers.
Harvest materials in a Maine field—photo by Margaret Adams
Maine hires migrant farm workers with H-2B visas in several areas of the state: in Cumberland County to pick strawberries, in the western Hills to pick apples, deep in northern Maine for the broccoli harvests, and in the down east region at the blueberry barrens. Juan Perez-Febles of the Maine Department of Labor says that the state has had a peak of 8,000 migrant and foreign workers at one time during the last five years, including many employed as H-2B workers. According to the DOL, most are supplied with housing and transportation. Two things which, in remote areas such as this, are virtual necessities for survival.
Dusk is coming fast. Christina stops and studies another car coming down the road and into the trailer park. She apparently recognizes the vehicles and she starts hustling me towards her car: “We gotta get out of here now or we never will, we’ll be here all night.” It’s already been a long day. I wave goodbye.
The general lack of awareness that these communities of foreign workers even exist is striking. In a place where towns fade into numbered townships and the average drive to the grocery store can take nearly an hour, it is easy to lose sight of who, exactly, is working the lowest jobs in the struggling rural economy. These workers rarely leave their own circles. Isolated by language barriers and pigeon-holed into work environments they have little control over, they become virtually invisible.
Rounding the bend and merging back onto the paved road, I look in the rearview mirror and see no indication of the park we just left. I probably have driven past it before, still imagining that migrant labor and all of the issues associated with it had yet to find its way to my state, lodged as it is on the opposite border. You cannot protect the rights of vulnerable communities if you cannot see them. The only way we can begin to achieve fair working conditions and protect worker’s human rights is by being aware of where and how working communities exist in the first place.
Margaret Adams’s writing has appeard in Transitions Abroad magazine and Down East magazine. She is a weekly columnist for the Bangor Daily News.