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Caseworker for Farmworkers - 2004-09-10

Many of the people working in resettlement agencies and the many organizations that help immigrants adjust to life in the United States are themselves new Americans. Today on New American Voices you’ll meet Rosa Rodriguez. Originally from the Dominican Republic, she assists Hispanic migrant farm workers in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland.

Rosa Rodriquez is a caseworker for Telamon Corporation, an agency funded by the U.S. Department of Labor to improve the lives of migrant and seasonal farm workers. She works out of a branch in Salisbury, a town in a rural part of Maryland known for its bountiful summer crops of tomatoes, maize, watermelon and cantaloupes. The migrant farmers who are Ms. Rodriguez’s clients have spent their years in the United States moving from state to state, following the harvesting season. When they come to Salisbury, many are tempted to stay.

“We have a large amount of people who want to stay in the area. There are some who go back home, like they go back to Florida, some keep going to New York, New Jersey to pick apples, and others who would like to stay here and settle down. When we tell them about our program, and how we help them find employment and housing, they like the idea of staying in one place.”

Often communicating with her clients in Spanish, Rosa Rodriguez advises them on child and health care, enrolls them in English language classes and their children in school, makes arrangements for on-the-job training, and takes them to job interviews, and medical or dental appointments. To her clients she is like family, a person who speaks their language and understands their concerns, having herself gone through the immigrant experience.

Rosa Rodriguez and her three brothers came to the United States in 1985 to join their mother, who had married an American. They landed in New York City in the wintertime.

“It was very strange, very different, very difficult. It was really cold and snowing, and the wind just hit me in my face and I almost fainted. I mean, I had never seen anything like it. Those tall buildings, and so many people!"

Ms. Rodriguez enrolled in school to learn English, and got a job as a cashier in a restaurant, where she worked for many years. Later she moved to a cashier center, where she helped Spanish-speaking immigrants cash checks, get food stamps, and translate documents. She married and had three children. Then her husband lost his job in New York, and moved the family to Salisbury, where he found work as a truck driver. “I went to school here for a while, and my best friend used to work for Telamon doing pesticide safety training. And she said, “Rosa, you have to do this. You’re a people person, you love being with people, you have to come to Telamon.”

Ms. Rodriguez followed her friend’s advice. As part of Telamon’s farm worker support program, she traveled around the state of Maryland, from farm to farm, showing field workers how to protect themselves against unsafe exposure to toxic pesticides.

“It is a big problem, because they don’t know about the laws, they don’t know that they can get sick if they expose themselves to pesticides. The way they protect themselves, they have to cover their body with clothes, I mean long pants, long shirt sleeves, shoes and socks and a hat. even though it gets very hot, they really have to cover themselves just to keep the pesticide away from their skin, because that’s the main place where they can get infected.”

Eventually she moved on to become a Telamon caseworker. Each year the Salisbury office deals with some 250 migrant clients, plus 30 to 40 who want to leave agriculture and settle in the town. Ms. Rodriguez says Salisbury offers many job opportunities and a good quality of life – not just for the farm workers, but for herself and her family as well.

“I like that it is safe, safer than New York, it’s good to raise children, it’s not so crowded, and it’s not so crazy”, she laughs.

Ms. Rodriguez’s three children are American by birth, but their mother says they nevertheless have a strong connection with her native country.

“They’re pretty much Dominican. They like to eat rice and beans every day, and they like plantains, the green bananas. We go to my country ever year. My daughter just spent the whole vacation there, three months, and she’s ready to go back in December. My fourteen-year-old daughter, she’s going to turn 15 in March, and we are planning to celebrate her quinceaniera, her fifteen years, in Santo Domingo, it’s going to be a big party, we’re inviting everybody to come.”

For all that she still maintains contact with her family and friends in the Dominican Republic, Rosa Rodriguez appreciates life in America for the opportunities it offers both to her and her children. For herself, she says she truly enjoys her job and her lifestyle in Salisbury. As for her children, she is grateful that here, they have an unlimited future.

“One of my daughters wants to be a marriage counselor, and my youngest one would like to be a lawyer. My son wants to be a mechanic, and he also wanted to be able to go to the moon. I just tell them, you have to go to school, because knowledge is power, and you can do whatever you want if you have the education.”

Rosa Rodriguez and her family, and the farm workers she helps settle in Salisbury, are part of approximately 10,000 Hispanics who make their home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.