1998-06-30 Grand Haven Tribune "Thinking of our migrant workers"

Thinking of our migrant workers
Grand Haven Tribune

As I sit in my air conditioned office during this summer of sweltering heat, I ask you to consider, for a moment, those individuals among us whose work is outdoors. As I walk from my air conditioned office to my air conditioned car, I note the temperature. I resent the oppressive heat that has built up in my car ... but forget completely as the air conditioner does its job. This is not the reality for those among us who labor daily in this blazing heat.

In particular, I would like to note the reality of our migrant workers. These men and women are in the fields at 7am. The women have been up since 4:30am, preparing from scratch the food for their families for the day and taking younger children to child care.

Due to the pesticides used in the fields, these workers must wear long pants and long sleeved shirts - all day long. This is not a population of people that can afford to run over to Penneys or Sketees to pick up white cotton clothing. They wear what they can find at Salvation Army or second-hand shops. Most often, it is flannel shirts and heavy jeans.

While you are I are arriving at work ... when we are wandering over to the coffee pot for that mid-morning refill ... while we ponder if we event want to venture out for lunch on these hot days ... our migrant friends are toiling in the fields (or even worse, in the plastic covered green houses where the heat is magnified and the breeze is eliminated). There is no shade as the sun beats down on the black soil where these workers are bent over all day planting the crops we will use.

During their half-hour lunch, you may find some of the women laying on the cement floors of the building sheds, seeking coolness and rest. At 12:30pm, they are back in the fields and greenhouses until 3:30pm, when they are sent home "early" because of the heat.

The usual day go on for 12 hours, when the heat is not so oppressive. This routine plays itself out six days each week.

The heat is taking its toll. The people are getting weary. It is hard for them. "It is so hot," they tell me.

Today I got up at 7am and the eastern sky was cloud covered. It was cooler. I immediately delighted in the idea my migrant friends would not suffer so today. But as I walked to the west side of my house, I saw the western sky was all blue. A respite, but only for a little while. It is now 9am and 83 and climbing, the sun is burning down. I am worried and sad for these people. I remarked to the 12-year-old son of one woman, "I don't know how your parents keep doing this work in this horrible heat?"

"It breaks my heard," Pedro responded, "I cry for my mom" and he ran his finger from the edge of his eye down his cheek. I cry for his mom, too.

So what is the point of this letter? What do I desire? Only this ... when you encounter migrant workers and their families in our town please be gracious. Extend a smile, a kind word. You will know these people because their skin is darker than ours and the adults speak predominately Spanish (although they struggle hard to learn English).

In a community that has little exposure to racial or cultural diversity, there is often fear or suspicion of people who don't look and speak as we do. Don't be afraid. The people of migrant camps are some of the most respecful, family oriented, hard working, appreciative people I have been blessed to know. Whenever I stop out at the camps, I am offered tortillas, Mexican cake, cookies, and (always) Kool-Aid. Let us be so giving and embracing of these families. We have a great deal to learn from them, if only we open ourselves to their perspectives. Let us start today.

I would also like to extend a heartfelt thanks to those of you in the community who have responded to requests to provide supports for the migrant families. When I requested two fans for families with no relief, many stores responded that donations had been exhausted for the month, or forms would need to be completed and forwarded to the corporate office, etc., etc.

Not Bill Whittaker of our own Grand Haven Meijer. I bothered Mr. Whittaker at the end of the long morning - I asked for just two minutes of his time. "Yes," Bill responded, "how many fans do you need? Pick them out right now."

Thank you so much, Mr. Whittaker, the families I gave the fans to kept saying, "Grand Haven Meijer" through their smilies.

Thank you to all the volunteers who are working with Mary Mitchell and St. Antony's Church to read to the children at the camps, to the individuals volunteering to be mentors and take a child to the beaches, parks or YMCA, though the Higher Horizons Program.

To Kelly Smart, who allowed me to bring ten migrant children to her pool, taught many swimming skills and will be inviting them back again!

To Scott Stunborser who set up swim lessons at the YMCA for 20 migrant kids.

To Hope College Summer Repertory Theater, for providing tickets for the children to see the live production of Cinderella, and inviting the parents next.

To everyone who has responded to the request for books, games, fans or clothes to help meet shortages at the camps. Thank you call.

Finally, my deepest thanks to the people who come to our community to work in our fields at jobs we would never consider. You have given me the greatest gift - the opportunity to learn, love, and take with my the gifts of your culture.

I am so richer because you have welcomed me into your lives. You have my deepest respect.