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For foreign farm workers, loneliness harder than work

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By Miles Layton
Chowan Herald

Monday, October 15, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a three-part series on foreign farm workers who work in the region.

COLERAIN — Although foreign farm workers in North Carolina typically live together in small groups, sharing living quarters to save on expenses, most work here for long periods of time apart from their families.

The loneliness of that experience is apparent as Alphonso Aguilar, a farm worker from Durango, Mexico, talks about his life and the lives of four other men from Mexico with whom he’s working this summer harvesting tobacco and cotton in Bertie County.

Aguilar said he and the other men generally work seven to eight months a year in the United States and then return home after the harvest, typically in November. They spend time with their families and then return in the early spring to begin another year of toil and sweat in the fields.

“When I'm away, I miss my family,” Aguilera said. “But if I don't do this work, they wouldn't have money back home.”

Aguilar and Father Carlos Arce, a Catholic priest in Edenton who ministers to foreign farm workers, explain that the men aren’t in the U.S. because they want to be. They’re here working because they have few other options for raising their families.

Aguilar said a day's work in Mexico pays a small fraction of what he earns harvesting crops in Bertie County. Aguilar sends most of the money he earns home to his family of nine.

Farm workers get paid by negotiating, usually in groups, contracts with area farmers. Aguilar said his contract pays him $11.46 an hour, though many workers are paid less. What a farm worker makes depends on the contract, the farmer and the type of work.

Aguilar's contract provides him and the other four men with whom he’s working this summer a place to live. The men share a small house in Bertie County. They buy their food at grocery stores in Ahoskie or Williamston. There’s not much left over for anything else since they send so much of the rest home.

“People struggle to survive,” Aguilar says of farm workers.

Aguilar did start of the growing season this year with his 23-year-old son, Ivan, for company. Father and son worked alongside each other until Ivan got sick and the farmer they both work for sent him home.

Although Aguilar eventually was able to visit his son in a Mexican hospital, initially he felt he couldn’t leave.

“I wanted to go back to Mexico with Ivan, but I needed the work so I had to stay,” he said.

Aguilar said he got angry that his employer sent Ivan home for medical care and has spoken to the Mexican consulate about the matter. When Bishop Luis Zarama of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh visited Edenton in August, Aguilar talked with him privately about his son's treatment.

“In Ivan's case, there is nothing to do, but he doesn't want it repeated,” Aguilar said, referring to Zarama.

Aguilar said his employer has promised to bring Ivan back for work next year. He also said he and the farmer have repaired their strained relationship over Ivan’s leaving.

“Sometimes the boss is angry, but most of the time he is fine,” Aguilar said. “The farmer is a good person.”

As he talks, Aguilar's hair shows a few flakes of gray and his large hands show the rigors of farm work. He has lived and worked in eastern North Carolina since 1993 in places such as Pitt and Greene counties, Lillington and even Fuquay Varina. For the most part, Aguilar primarily works in the fields, but he’s also done landscaping or light construction work.

Like the other men with whom he works, Aguilar is a devout Catholic and holds Catholic priests in high esteem. For that reason, Arce serves as a powerful ambassador to farm worker communities in the region. Every so often, Arce conducts Eucharist in a farm field as part of his farm ministry. Many seasonal workers attend these worship services because they lack transportation to a Catholic Church.

Arce describes Aguilar as a very devout Catholic.

“I would like to go to Mass every Sunday, but it's not possible,” Aguilar said.

Eucharist services are conducted in Spanish and include Latino music performed by a small band. Except for the language, the Mass resembles any service that takes place at a Catholic church on any given Sunday.

Oscar Vasquez of Coahuila, Mexico, served as a lector at a recent service Arce conducted in the field. The other six days a week, Vasquez, 48, toils in the field, working, he said, between 12 and 13 hours a day.

“The heat is worst part about working in the fields,” Vasquez said through interpreter Hector Bermudez, who recently graduated from John A. Holmes High School.

Though Vasquez shares a house with six other farm workers, he, too, is alone.

“I'm here to send money home to my family (wife, daughter and son),” he said. “I miss them. It is horrible being away from family.”

Jose Linares, 43, of Guerrero, Mexico, also talks about his loneliness away from family.

'The work is hard,” he said through Bermudez. “We get all the things we need — water, food. I have three sons and one daughter back in Mexico. I send my money back home. I miss them a lot.”

Aguilar also agrees the work is hard, but says the “loneliness is more difficult.”

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