When one thinks of Vermont, one doesn’t typically consider the state a hotbed for illegal immigration and undocumented worker employment. Yet, the Vermont Dairy industry would force many to reconsider this assumption. In Fairfield, Vermont, the death of undocumented worker José Orbeth Santiz Cruz on December 22, 2009 in a dairy farm accident drew community and media attention to the surprisingly widespread employment of illegal immigrants in the Vermont dairy industry.
The dairy industry alone employs an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 undocumented workers. The majority, including José Cruz, left their hometowns in Mexico, facing the dangers of crossing the border, to work on Vermont dairy farms. Once there, many spend their time in hiding for fear of deportation. As a result, this silent, undocumented community secretly struggles to meet its basic needs of healthcare, education, food, and decent housing.
When Ortiz was found dead after being strangled to death when his clothes got caught in a gutter cleaner, local community members wanted to know more about who he was. Where he was from and why had he come to Vermont in the first place? After discovering little to nothing about Cruz in the alienated and disorganized Hispanic immigrant community, the Vermont Migrant Farmer’s Solidarity Project was born after organizing the return of Cruz’s body back to his hometown in Chiapas, Mexico. On this journey, Teran and O’Neill, the two co-founders of VTMFSP, filmed the documentary “Silenced Voices” to highlight the details of Cruz’s life story, the stories of those left behind in Mexico and those who migrated to Vermont. Now, Silenced Voices has been shown in a number of New England cities, schools, and universities and has attracted media attention to the plight of Cruz and the general “invisible” immigrant worker community of Vermont. Through the use of the documentary as well as other means of raising awareness, the VT Migrant Farmer’s Solidarity Project hopes to promote understanding and tolerance between the immigrant and existing communities to foster healthier, more socially and economically just and mutually beneficial farming communities and food systems in Vermont.