MADISON, Wis.(Jan. 19, 2017) – Just as Western European immigrants came to the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries, today’s Latino immigrants come from a variety of backgrounds and for many different reasons.
What unites them is the goal of a better life — a message shared during a panel discussion with Latino farm employees at Dairy Strong 2017: The Journey Forward.
The dairy community relies heavily on Latino employees so it is vital that farmers understand their perspective and recognize their differences, said Cody Heller of Central Wisconsin Ag Services, who moderated the discussion.
The three panel members were: Ignacio (Nacho) Escamilla, who provides translation services for Central Wisconsin Ag Services and works at Heller Farms in Alma Center as a herdsman; Joaquin Vazquez, herd manager at Vir-Clar Farms in Fond du Lac; and Ricardo Jaime, a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who also works at Heller Farms.
They shared their stories and provided feedback on a variety of issues, including assimilation, acceptance and establishing good working relationships with their employers.
Ignacio (“Nacho”) Escamilla
Escamilla came to the United States in the early 1990s, first as an illegal immigrant, later receiving legal status and eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. Escamilla and his wife have six children. He said there can be a disconnect between dairy owners and their Spanish-speaking employees.
“A farmer will tell me he’s having trouble, and I talk with the workers and they feel like they are not being respected,” Escamilla said. “I tell them respect goes both ways. Coming to America, the biggest challenge is learning English, especially if you are working. Learning English is hard work, but worth it.”
Dairy owners also need to realize the cultural differences between their Latino employees and themselves, Escamilla said. For example, the Mexican Mother’s Day holiday on May 10 is very important as is the holy day for Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. Employees may prefer to work Thanksgiving or another holiday and instead have those two holidays off.
“Americans think Cinco de Mayo is a big day for us. It’s not,” Escamilla laughed.
Escamilla said most immigrants want to be legal residents and eventually citizens, but that the paperwork and process can be daunting. “And you need to know English well since it’s all in English. I studied very hard for my citizenship test and it was very wonderful to get it,” he said.
Vazquez came to the United States in 2002 at age 13 after his father was kidnapped and killed by a drug cartel. “I am too afraid to go back,” he said. “It’s a beautiful country, but it is very violent.”
When Vazquez started school in the U.S., he knew little English but improved his skills through high school. Since his father owned cows and grew pineapples, Vazquez felt home on a dairy farm, getting his first job on one at age 17. Now, 11 years later, he is a herd manager and he and his wife have four children.
Latinos living in the U.S. still want to enjoy their favorite foods and cultural differences, Vazquez said.
“It’s great when you can go into any grocery market and see your favorite foods on the shelves,” he said. “In some places, there’s no longer a ‘Hispanic aisle’ but the foods are incorporated throughout the store.”
For the most part, Vazquez feels that community members have welcomed him and other Latinos.
Vazquez said building a relationship with an employer is important to an immigrant’s success. “Once you build that solid relationship, everything falls into place. Speaking English is very important since that helps with the communication.”
Jaime was born in Black River Falls into a family of immigrants – his parents and nine older sisters all were born in Mexico. His parents came to the U.S. seeking a better life for their family. Jaime started working at Heller Farms at age 14 and began at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse last fall.
“I still work on the farm when I can. My 64-year-old father works there, too. He still doesn’t speak English very well, but his boss is understanding and patient,” Jaime said.
A few of Jaime’s older siblings have started their own businesses and found success in the U.S. “Even in our small town, people have been open and accepting,” he said.
Religion is important to many Latinos – most are Catholic – and Jaime said if dairy farmers can help connect them with the local church, that can go a long way and help them feel welcomed in the community.
“Latinos are very hard-working. I look at my dad who gets up six days a week at 5 a.m. to milk the cows – no matter what the weather is,” Jaime said. “We have a great work ethic and know that those cows don’t care if it is icy out – they want to be milked. We all want to build a good life here.”