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Photo by Angela Evancie
Photo by Angela Evancie

Bikes break down migrant worker barriers

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It's practically a given that you need a car if you want to live in a rural place. Not all towns have grocery stores or pharmacies. Work can be miles away.

The distances and empty landscapes are particularly isolating for the hundreds of undocumented workers on dairy farms in the region. Undocumented migrant workers, can't drive - they're not eligible for driver's licenses.

A group of Middlebury College students is providing local farm workers with a two-wheeled alternative.

Angela Evancie has the story.

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It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in Middlebury, Vermont.  A few dozen students are setting up a barbecue outside the Unitarian Universalist Church near the College campus. 

Nora Hirozawa, a senior, delegates tasks.  Students put out food – someone starts playing Mexican music on a Blackberry.  A few others unload used bikes from the back of a van. 

Hirozawa welcomes the Mexican men that arrive in ones and twos with volunteer drivers.

She knows many of them by name.  For the past three years, she’s been teaching English to migrant farm workers through a student initiative called “Juntos,” which means “together.”  She also serves as an interpreter at a free health clinic.

“One of the things I’ve found to be particularly problematic for a lot of the workers I’ve worked with is transportation, and this feeling of sort of isolation in the middle of nowhere, Vermont,” she said.  “Vermont can be a really different place depending on who you are.  So if you’re wealthy and you’re native born, you can go hiking all the time, or skiing…It’s sort of like a recreational wonderland.  But for a migrant worker, it can be isolating.”

Hirozawa realized that bicycles could fill that transportation gap, “And I was like, oh, well bikes are cheap, easy to maintain, um, even if you can’t bike in Vermont for half the year…”

So she got some funding, and found people to donate bikes.  Then she invited migrant workers from around Addison County to come to this event for free bikes, helmets, and spare parts.

One migrant from Hidalgo, Mexico, who asked not to be named, came today even though he doesn’t even know how to ride a bike, “Pues si…Si, necessito este: practicar, practicar mucho la bicicleta.” Practice, practice, is what I have to do, he says. Once he learns, he’ll be able to ride to the farm he works at in Addison, instead of walk.

“Puede ser hay un…una gasolineira circa, eh?  Nos lleva el patrón.” Miguel comes from Chiapas and works at a dairy in Salisbury.  He says he’ll be able to bike to the convenience store instead of relying on his boss for a ride.

In addition to bikes, the migrants get information – about their rights, about where to see a doctor, and about what to do if they have issues with their bosses. Presenters are here from the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, the Open Door Clinic, and Women Safe – all groups that are part of the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition. 

None of the migrants I talk to is afraid of being seen out in public – they say there aren’t that many people around to begin with.  One younger dairy worker from Vera Cruz said he would use his bike to just “go out.”  He lives in a very rural town.  He can’t even get to the grocery store: (reporter) Go out where? Anywhere.  Where do you go in Panton?  No se… en la carretra, andar, salir. He says, I don’t know – out.  And this, in Nora Hirozawa’s mind, is what it’s all about, “In terms of sort of breaking down isolation boundaries and getting them to leave their houses in the first place, that’s really important.  A lot of them don’t leave their houses ever, because they don’t have a reason to.” 

Hirozawa says it’s also about having a presence in the community, “Right now I think that the migrant worker population is very invisible.  And because people don’t see them they don’t consider them as part of the community.  And I think that the first step in that community building is partially the visibility.”

(A Treehouse Fund Grant from Middlebury College and donations from Little City Bicycles in Vergennes, Vermont helped support this project.) 

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