Last summer, I spent a month interning as a medical translator for migrant farmworkers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. It wasn’t the typical summer vacation, and there were some challenging moments. I don’t have any illusions that I changed the world or made a big impact, but I learned a lot about what it means to be human.
As a bit of historical background, during World War II, the United States established the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican farmworkers to replace the U.S. farmers who had gone to war. This system of importing labor from nearby countries evolved and became institutionalized; farms came to depend on it. However, with stricter regulations on immigration and growing nationalist anxiety, it became easier to promote the hiring of undocumented workers. Although some farmworkers do have documentation, immigrant exploitation is entrenched in the industry. For companies, the advantages are many. There is minimal regulation on wages, health benefits, or living conditions. Workers may get paid too little or not at all.
The Eastern Shore is fairly rural, and transportation is difficult, at best. Patients could rarely come to the clinic, unless they came in a group in one of the cars sometimes available. Schedules for appointments were iffy too, because, from what I understand, there is a point system in the camps, and missing work, even for health reasons, meant that points are deducted. Rainy days were more crowded in the clinic because patients would try to come on a day when they wouldn’t lose points.
There were good moments at the clinic. I particularly remember one woman who thanked us repeatedly after her appointment and said that we looked at her like she was a human being. That really struck me. Of course we did; that wasn’t something to thank us for. Everyone deserves to be looked at like they are human. But the migrant labor system just looked at her like she was an object, a tool to be used.
I remember another woman who couldn’t stop crying. She was having a nervous breakdown because she feared that if she died, her children wouldn’t be well cared for, and perhaps there was some truth to that. One of the deepest human instincts is love for your children, and no one deserves to live with that kind of fear.
Another man came in with a toothache and ended up needing emergency oral care because of an infection. In the camps, he lacked the resources to do something as basic as caring for his teeth properly. He deserved more than this. The clinic set him up with an emergency dental consultation as quickly as possible, but the problem should never have happened in the first place.
The patients were strong, not passive. Diabetics, although it was difficult for them to afford and access nutritious food, were striving to eat healthily and improve their lives with the resources available to them. Many parents braved whatever difficulties came up without complaint in order to have their children immunized. The clinic offered a lot of wonderful resources, such as a diabetes education program, but what really struck me were the patients’ heroic efforts to improve their lives.
I’ve visited migrant worker camps three times. I’ve seen different living arrangements each time, including barracks, old houses and warehouses, but they all have common threads. The camps are old, small and overcrowded. The houses and the barracks were the worst. The houses I saw were dilapidated with broken windows, with up to 40 people living inside. The barracks had one sink in the center and a couple of shared bathrooms for the whole camp. When I visited the camp last year, there were children laughing and playing. This year, new regulations attempting to minimize domestic violence limit the camps to men. I don’t know what to think about the efficacy of that idea, and despite the new rule there are still families living in the camp — it, like many camp regulations, is rarely followed.
Efforts like Migrant Head Start, a summer educational program to keep children out of the fields, were a ray of sunshine. Again, access was difficult because of transportation, but it was something that might help provide a better future for the children.
A year later, I’m still processing what I saw at the clinic and in these camps. I want to help in whatever way I can. I plan to continue making yearly trips to the Eastern Shore with my church. As I continue pursuing my minor in Hispanic Studies, I will work to become articulate and educated concerning these issues, to better understand how they affect all people. I will continue to educate myself about immigrant advocacy and legislation, such as the DREAM Act and efforts to shelter and care for the children and families at the U.S.-Mexico Border. I will listen to as many stories as I can, because people deserve to tell their stories. I will strive to treat all those that I meet with the respect and compassion they merit, just by being human.
We all have a role to play in working with people for justice. Most of all, I learned the importance of solidarity when working with migrants. I always need to remember that everyone is a person with rights and dignity. Everyone deserves to be loved. Everyone deserves to be looked at like a human being.