Celebrating Thanksgiving With Migrant Farm Workers in the Hudson Valley
Introducing Thanksgiving to kids, the focus is on tracing hands and helping them figure out whether there’s a point to making a cornucopia. For adults, the meaning is more complex.
Jesús spoke to me. He said, “I like pizza with ham and pineapple.”
It is October and I am in my Mom’s ESL class with Jesús, a 20-year-old from Colima, and a few other students. We are studying words about food and the weather, to prepare for Thanksgiving. Jesús is telling us what foods he likes best, when he’s not busy picking fruit at one of the many farms here in Ulster County. He pops a Tostito into his mouth and considers further. “It’s cool,” he says.
Since 2013, my Mom has spearheaded a farm literacy program in the part of the Hudson Valley where I grew up, and where she still lives, reaching out to local farmworkers who want to improve (or begin) their English language skills. They are paired with individual tutors or attend classes she and other instructors lead. Since the program started, they’ve taught four dozen students at seven farms; not bad for a county in New York State where the largest and only city has 23,000 people.
While the Tostitos are optional, food remains a universal, a way to get people talking about themselves even when their vocabulary is limited. Last year, I went to Thanksgiving at my Mom’s house where she hosted many of her ESL students, introducing them to the tradition of Thanksgiving. It is safe to say that pumpkin pie remains a tough sell for the recent Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants to the Hudson Valley. Apple pie was much more popular, surprising given that it is the crop many of her students harvest every year.
I wish that pie choices were the only difficulty her students faced. One year later, our national politics have upset the applecart. The certainties we knew are no longer so certain.
ICE deported the man I sat next to at Thanksgiving last year in March. Despite the fact that his fellow farm workers—and his employer—banded together to raise money and hire an immigration lawyer, nothing could be done. He was deported, flagged for having a DUI. Mom talked to him on the phone the other week, hearing his voice from Guatemala for the first time since she visited him in jail months earlier. He’s a resilient twenty-something and will do fine whether he stays in Guatemala or goes elsewhere, but rending him from the community did not happen in a vacuum. People talk. Some of the students were afraid, are still afraid, to drive across the Mid-Hudson Bridge, worried that ICE will use that as a choke point to pick them off and deport them.
The farms of the Hudson Valley have relied on immigrant labor to harvest the crops for generations. When I was growing up, a Jamaican community handled much of the apple picking in the area. Now, the laborers are Central American for the most part. H2A visa inconsistencies for the Jamaicans from year to year, some of whom have been coming for decades, has made that system untenable for the farms and the pickers. Their numbers have dwindled. It’s a little on-the-nose, even for 2017, but the lone bar and restaurant in my hometown, once a reggae hotspot for the Jamaican pickers, is now an (excellent) German restaurant, popular with weekenders and day trippers.
When essential parts of the community fabric are torn for no real reason other than the whims of angry people in different communities (with different problems), no one wins. It’s not just the unease and fear. Those emotions, the ones simmering in various parts of the country throughout the election, made a more permanent home in this corner of the world. If you had asked me for a prognosis a year ago, I would have said that I believe in the power of our institutions and of ourselves. This year, I’m not so sure. Hey, we got each other, and that’s a lot! But it may not be enough.
Small-town cops shouldn’t have to be checking papers, they should be doing what they’ve always done: terrorize my father with speeding tickets. The farmers shouldn’t have to puzzle through solutions to a broken visa program that exists to help them. White people don’t want jobs picking produce. Mexicans and Hondurans and Guatemalans do, yet we’d rather send them packing than feed ourselves.
I think of Jesús and his Hawaiian pizza. He wants to be a part of the United States so much that he’s willing to eat what is categorically one of the worst kinds of pizza we make. He and others like him are hungry. How does it help them assimilate when they feel threatened crossing the bridge to go learn English?
I sit with my mother and do the menu planning for this year’s Thanksgiving. She prepares the turkey with a shower of herbs—basil, thyme, rosemary—garlic and salt. It’s a perennial favorite with her students, especially of Hippolito, one of four gregarious students she’s taught since the start of the program.
“They’re healthy eaters. They loved the steamed green beans with lemon and butter,” my mom says. “It was harder to convince them about the gravy.” Many of her students hadn’t seen it before, at least not as a thing to place on mashed potatoes. I asked Hippolito about it during class. He remains skeptical.
What do we hope to impart teaching the tradition of Thanksgiving? Introducing the holiday to kids, the focus is on tracing hands and helping them figure out whether there’s a point to making a cornucopia. For adults, the meaning is more complex. Here is a holiday where we come together as families and communities and to provide for others. We provide food, we provide a home and we listen to what our guests have to say, barring the occasional wingnut uncle. But are we living by the tenets we teach? In our communities—not just where I grew up, but all across America—there are people who give us the spirit of Thanksgiving every day. They harvest the produce that we buy. They prepare and cook the food that becomes our dinner. They clean up after the meal. They’re the ones giving us, the haves, the food, the shelter and the space.
Mom drives Jesús and two other students back to their homes, as she often does, and I ride along. Two of her students, including Jesús, go back to Mexico at the end of the month. She sends them back with lessons, so that when they return the following year—if they return—they can pick up where they left off. This year, she’s been pushing them to download Duolingo to practice on their phones when they have down time to do so. As we sit in silence, the familiar chime of correct answers on Duolingo comes from the backseat.