The Invisibility of the «American Dream» and Self-Exile
“I Sing to the Cows Because They Like it”
Fairlee, Vermont.- The column Hands That Speak is born from the need to share the stoic stories of the migrants who work on the dairy farms of the Upper Valley in New Hampshire and Vermont. It is also born from the desire to free them of the condemnation of invisibility and to provide a space for their narratives in lands where they are self-exiled in the pursuit of the “American dream”.
Within Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, there are murals by José Clemente Orozco titled «The Epic of American Civilization,» painted between the years 1932-1934. This artistic gem located in the basement of Baker Library presents a pictorial narrative full of contrasts and scenes that invite us to immerse ourselves in a world of social reflection; the starting mural panel is coincidentally titled “Migration”.
On a different panel, titled “Man in the Industrial Era”, viewers can find the modern worker, sporting white gloves and resting comfortably in front of a construction site. His prominently depicted hands hold a book. Those who are familiar with Orozco’s work are probably aware that one of the leit-motifs in his work are hands. Orozco had a fascination and obsession in painting hands detailed with expression, emotion, denunciation, subversion, and personal voice. Perhaps, this obsession had something to do with the fact that he lost his left hand when he was just nineteen years old, due to an unfortunate accident with gunpowder that resulted in amputation at his wrist.
Detail of the mural “Hombre en la era industrial” (Man in the Industrial Era) by José Clemente Orozco. Baker Berry Library at Dartmouth College. Photo by Jorge Carlos Álvarez
In the book La mano siniestra de José Clemente Orozco, author Ernesto Lumbreras describes the hand as the “first brain recorded in the evolution of man” and the gift of life itself as a “curious and persevering” limb. He emphasizes that the human brain “would not be found in the cranial cavity but rather in those two five-pointed stars of upper extremities”. Later on in his extensive essay, Lumbreras points to the hand as a “proprietary of thought and language, visible in its labor” and ends the quote quite poetically by saying that the hand, “with the discretion of the worker, follows orders from ‘above’”. Anaxagoras said that “man is intelligent because he has hands.”
And this image of the relaxed worker, wearing a scally hat and holding a book between his white-gloved hands peeks out and strikes me like a fresh utopia, almost surreal and contrasting strongly with the hands of the migrant farmworkers in the Upper Valley, only 28 kilometers from the College. The modern worker depicted in the mural, with the right to rest and the right to an education. I insist—it’s hallucinative, almost surreal.
Hands That Speak aims to bring to light the hard work of the tireless hands of the migrants who reside at the dairy farms, their lives and their stories, in these northern lands of bitter winters. “Hands that Speak” is merely a channel for the narratives of the men and women whose hands generate approximately 68% of Vermont’s milk production economy. This column, then, is born from endless conversations with them, to provide a space for their voices, to lift them, if even a little, from the isolation of self-exile and now COVID-19.
I started my conversation with my friend Doña Marcela with a simple question: What do your hands mean to you?
“For me they are commitment, family, community, effort, performance, creativity, stability, support. My hands are dedication, the tools we have, work.”
Doña Marcela then began telling me her personal story, the journey, the crossing, the challenges, the fears…
Doña Marcela came to Vermont five years ago. She left Veracruz following her husband who has been working at the same dairy farm for ten years. Three years ago, Doña Marcela got pregnant and had a baby. In order for Doña Marcela to continue working and sending money to Mexico, she had to pay a babysitter. “My husband and I decided to send our one-year-old baby to Mexico with my mother so that she could take care of him and I could work. My mom is happy with the child. I already sent my mom money to fix the bathroom in her house and we sent her money to remodel her kitchen. We are almost done building our house. «
Doña Marcela continues narrating her journey to the U.S. and her migratory odyssey…her struggles and fears
“I came through Monterrey, I took a bus and everything had been prearranged with the coyote. My husband borrowed $10,000 from his employer to pay for my entire trip. They crossed me over the Rio Grande and through Laredo and McAllen, Texas. There were four of us, I was the only woman. In McAllen, we walked twelve hours at night and as I passed the chain link fence I fell down and injured my left leg. I was in a lot of pain, but I didn’t stop. I was in different houses; there they fed us. Once a man told me «lock yourself in this room and do not go out at all, do not open to anyone unless they are a woman.» He told me that because there were many people around us who were doing drugs and smoking. I was very weak and tired. It took me fifteen days to get to Vermont and it took my husband nine months to pay the loan.»
Doña Marcela does not know limits to work. The word “rest” doesn’t appear in her personal dictionary. Her workday begins at 3:00 am in the ruthless cold of Vermont. She wakes up and goes to clean the stables where the cows are and the milking stations; she takes the temperature of the cows, and says:
“Poor creatures. They suffer too much and cry for their mother cow. There are many times in which they become so depressed that they refuse to eat, and I have to remove my gloves in the cold in order to coax them into drinking the milk. I like cows a lot. When the calves get separated from their mother, they are so rough and kick around so much that you end up crying. They don’t know what’s going on and it’s not their fault. The harder aspect of my job is having to clean the troughs the cows eat from. We use acids to clean them and sometimes I accidentally forget to put on my gloves. I end up hurting my hands, but I keep working. Whenever the boss sees me, he says “I love you, Doña Marcela” and in the past, he would also give me a hug. It’s because he sees me singing to the calves often; they like hearing me sing. Last week I worked nearly seventy eight hours, but because I am still paying off the debt from childbirth, a lot of money is discounted from my check. I like Vermont a lot. The people are really nice. I like the lakes and the people here are great to us. They love me a lot at our farm. Everyone respects me at the farm.”
Doña Marcela’s workday ends around noon or 1:00, but she then spends many afternoons cleaning her colleagues’ homes to make some extra money. On Tuesdays she cooks and sells Mexican food. She’s like a pinwheel—she doesn’t stop, and she is always smiling. Hope never fades from her face. Marcela reminds me of a quote by Mother Teresa of Calcutta that says: “I cannot stop working. I’ll have all eternity to rest.”
What do you miss most?
“My family, my lifestyle, my child, my mother, my niece and my sisters.”
How has your routine changed with the coronavirus?
Well for me, the coronavirus has changed my viewpoint on life. Before, I used to take for granted that life smiled at you. Now I value my health more and that I am able to help others so that we’re all better together. But there is more stress, for sure, and I go out in fear. I used to feel calmer going out because we have a lot of family in the other farms and on our off days, we would visit each other. It’s not the same anymore.
To end my interview with Doña Marcela, I asked her if she believed in the “American Dream.”
Oh yes, it is worth everything. It’s beautiful out here, I love the landscape. The folks at the farms treat us well. My husband and I are almost finished building our house and we’ve helped our parents with theirs. It’s time to start planning a return. We are already planning the return. For me the dream is complete when the return is fulfilled. I close my eyes and see myself getting off the plane hugging my child’s face. That will be the complete dream. Since we left Mexico, we have dreamed of returning.”
Doña Marcela answers with an almost illuminated face.
I dedicate this column to Doña Marcela and to her tireless, helpful and generous hands.
Maria Clara De Greiff
October 1st, 2020.
«Hands that speak»