This weekend in Burlington the Peace & Justice Center is holding an event to honor the Migrant Justice, a group that works with Vermont’s community of migrant farm workers, trying to get them access to transportation, health care, and safe working conditions.
Author and Vermonter Julia Alvarez will be at the Peace & Justice Center event reading from her newest short story.
Alvarez has been engaged with Vermont’s migrant community for a number of years. Her 2010 book, Return to Sender is about the friendship between the child of a migrant worker in Vermont and a Vermont farm kid.
Alvarez said when she came to Middlebury College as a student in the 1970s, there were virtually no Latinos in Vermont.
But that started to change in the late 1990s when she started getting more calls from the local hospital and farmers to help as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking people.
“I thought, ‘What on earth is happening?’” One day her husband, a doctor, came home and said a farmer had brought in a Mexican migrant worker. “We were both really surprised, and came to find out that this underground population had been growing of migrant workers coming in from Mexico to work on dairy farms.”
Alvarez said it hit home when she began getting calls from schools. “Some of these workers came with their girlfriends or wives, families, they had babies here. These kids started to show up in local public schools and sometimes they didn’t know any English, and we don’t have the social services to deal with Spanish-speaking populations in the state.”
She said she would go to the schools and meet with the kids, who reminded her of herself at that age.
Alvarez lived in the Dominican Republic until she was 10, when her family was forced to flee.
She said the young farm kids also did not understand who these migrant children were and where they were coming from.
“My activism comes through the telling of stories, and we really need a story here to understand what’s happening to us. And that’s how I came to write Return to Sender.”
She said there are issues and certain farms that are problematic for workers, but overall, migrant workers tell her they choose to stay in Vermont because it has been a friendly state, and their kids are getting a good education.
“There is an opportunity in this state to begin to change things in a way other than a state that has a defensive policy set up. I think we’re much more open and welcoming,” she said.
At the event on Saturday, Alvarez will be reading from a story called “A Light Out: A Vermont Story in Five Voices,” from Contemporary Vermont Fiction: An Anthology, from Green Writers Press.