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Immigrant Farmworkers in Maryland - 2004-09-09

Immigrant farm workers, most of them from Latin America, play a crucial role in harvesting the fruits and vegetables Americans produce and consume. Today, as the United States celebrates Labor Day, New American Voices focuses on two of these farm workers, who have decided to settle in a small Maryland community.

Many of the immigrant farm workers travel with the weather and the seasons. In winter they start out picking and packing tomatoes in Florida, where the harvest ripens soonest thanks to the year-round warm weather. Then they work their way north through farms in Georgia, then in South and North Carolina, until in early summer they arrive in Maryland, just in time to harvest the tomatoes, watermelon and corn for which the Eastern Shore of the state is known. Many farm workers find themselves each year in Salisbury, an Eastern Shore town surrounded by lush fields about 200 kilometers east of Washington.

Frank Lorenzo Hernandez, a burly Cuban who spent ten years working as a chef in Spain before immigrating to the United States five months ago, came to Salisbury following a fairly typical trajectory. He speaks through a translator, Rosa Rodriguez.

“He came from doing the packing-house tomato from state to state, moving from Florida to South Carolina then to Maryland, and he was packing corn here in Maryland, and that’s where he learned about Telamon.”

Telamon is a non-profit agency funded by the Department of Labor, charged with assisting immigrant laborers while they work on farms, but particularly if they want to settle down and find other kinds of employment. Rosa Rodriques is a caseworker for Telamon.

“What we do is focus on training and employment for farm workers. We assist farm workers to find housing and jobs, and we have English classes, computer classes, we can do on-the-job training, we can do a contract with employers where we pay up to 50 percent of the salary while the client is learning the skill required for the job.”

Frank Hernandez works on a farm packing tomatoes, but when the season is over he plans to stay in Salisbury and make a life here. He says he thinks the town offers what he hoped to find in America.

“First of all it’s good opportunities. I’m taking a computer class. I would like to learn English so that I could better myself and live like a person. I’m going to establish myself here, trying to get employment, so that I can send money to my family in Cuba.”

Ultimately Mr. Fernandez would like to open a restaurant in Salisbury and introduce people here to Cuban cuisine. He says he thinks he knows the primary requirement for success in this country – after learning English, of course.

“The first thing is to make sure what is my goal, what I really want to do. To have goals set, because that’s the only way to know whether life is going to be good for you. You need to know where you want to go, to have goals in mind.”

While Mr. Hernandez is only taking his first steps in America, his compatriot Alberto Montesino has been in this country for 25 years. For most of these 25 years Mr. Montesino, a wiry, weather-beaten man, followed the harvests up the east coast of the United States. In all this time, he has not had the time to learn English.

“Because all the time he’s been here it’s just working, and working and working, you know, around Hispanic people, and he didn’t have time to go to school, he had to work to send money to his country, to support his family there.”

Last summer Alberto Montesino decided to settle in Salisbury –the prettiest town in America, he calls it – and quit farm work for better-paying employment. Telamon helped him find a job with Perdue, one of the largest chicken-processing companies in America.

“What he does is, when they bring baby chickens to the farm, he feeds them, gives them water, he makes sure that they’re at a good temperature, and makes sure they’re comfortable and everything. He feeds them until they get big, and they’re sent to the other farms so they can lay eggs or they can be killed to, you know, to sell them to the stores.”

As a farm worker, Mr. Montesino was paid the minimum wage, $5.15 per hour – which is also what Frank Hernandez makes now. In his new job with Perdue he gets $9.35 an hour, plus benefits.

“Perdue pays 80 percent of the medical bills, and dental, eye checks, and things like that. And they have fringe benefits, like they can collect unemployment if they have to, and also they have a retirement plan. But basically the medical is really good, they have a really good medical plan.”

While many of the farm workers that decide to settle in Salisbury do find jobs with the Perdue company, one of the attractions of this small town to those who decide to leave agriculture is that there seem to be many opportunities for employment.

“We have people in hospitals, the housekeeping department, the nutrition department, we have placed people at the University of the Eastern Shore - housekeeping, maintenance, and we have some electricians or assistants, also painters.”

To many of the Hispanics like Frank Hernandez and Alberto Montesino, who come as farm workers and then decide to stay in Salisbury, Telamon’s sympathetic and helpful bilingual staff is like family. Next week on this program we’ll talk more with Rosa Rodriguez about her work at Telamon and about her experiences as a Dominican immigrant in the United States.