It’s been over ten years since migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, started making the long trip north to work on Vermont’s dairy farms. While many stay only a few years to earn money and then return home, some have decided to stay and make a life here in Vermont.
One of those Vermonters is Alfredo Ulloa. He was just 18 years old when he walked two days through the desert to cross the border to the United States, then spent five days crammed in a car headed to Vermont. Ulloa was joining his father, who worked on a dairy farm in Bridport.
“He didn’t think I was going to last too long. He thought I would make it like six months and I’ve been here over ten years,” he said.
Recalling the trip now from the kitchen of his farmhouse, Ulloa says he thought of it as an adventure.
“I wanted to know another country, work in another country where you don’t speak the same language. And make money, of course, that was pretty much it,” he says. “That was the whole point.”
Along with his father, both of Ulloa’s brothers have worked in Vermont, though they have all returned to Mexico. Going home was also Ulloa’s plan.
“But after two years, I got into the English so much. My way to learn was like I got addicted to it,” says Ulloa. “I was listening to music in English, I was watching TV in English. I switched my phone since 2007 to English. I really wanted to learn; I was writing everything in my hands. I really forced myself to learn. It was something that I needed so bad until I met her, my wife.”
Ulloa had moved on from Bridport to a farm in New York and then to Whiting, Vermont, which is where he met Belinda LaFountain.
“My parents had lost their house," LaFountain recalls. "So we were living in a camper on the farm that my father worked at which was the same place that [Alfredo] worked at."
“I met her, she was doing her own thing and I was doing my own. I didn’t want to focus on having a girlfriend,” Ulloa said.
“When you’re in love it just,” he paused. “You can want to go back even if you have millions of dollars back there, that is not going to stop you to do what you want to do. It doesn’t matter what I do have, what I don’t have, it wasn’t going to stop me to make that decision at all.”
After dating for years, the couple decided to get married. They now have a one-year-old son named Rio, who played on the floor while LaFountain made his dinner.
Ulloa is bringing the same determination he used to learn English to make sure his son is bilingual.
“I’m speaking Spanish to him. English is going to be his first language, he’s going to learn it anyway, he’s going to go to school and stuff. He's going to get that automatically," he explains. "So I'm just trying to get him to listen to what I say [in Spanish]."
Being bilingual has been key to Ulloa’s success in Vermont. He used that skill to get a job as a herdsman at a new farm, which he says has better hours and is more interesting work than milking cows. The herdsman's job allows him to spend more time with his family and allows him to play soccer one day per week.
Another big change in his life was getting his driver's privilege card two years ago.
Both Ulloa and LaFountain say they feel safer now when in town than they used to.
Erin Shea, program director at UVM Extension's migrant education program, says many migrant worker families also tell her they are more comfortable in Vermont these days.
“I feel really strongly that Vermont has become much more welcoming," says Shea. "I think as short as 10 years ago, Vermont certainly wasn’t known as the most welcoming place to be in the sense of we’re a border state and we’re working in the dairy industry where we don’t have a visa system that supports year-round agriculture.”
“In a relatively short time we’ve seen anti-bias police policies pop up around the state we have now drivers privilege cards for folks, people are moving freely," she adds.
Now that he has a family here in Vermont, Ulloa wants to stay, and he's working with an attorney.
“We’re trying to do the process which is going to take supposedly like a year and a half to two years, it’s a lot of difficulty stuff," he explains. "Hopefully, it will work. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but, at least, I’m trying."
LaFountain is still in college working on an environmental science degree. And Ulloa hopes to someday get more education.
“I’m looking forward more to like [a] mechanic, that’s what I really like. I love like greasy tools, stuff like that,” he said.
“He’s always fixing our cars up,” Belinda added.
Ulloa says his wife and son are his family, but he still misses his parents and brothers back home.
“I haven’t seen my parents, my mom at least anyway for like over ten years. Not because I don’t want ... because it’s easy to go back, but the way back won’t be so easy, maybe impossible,” he said. “And now, having a family, it would be even tougher to go because it’s not just about [his parents and brothers], it’s about my family too.”
Belinda hopes that someday they will be able to visit Mexico so she can meet her husband and son’s extended family.