Power to the invisible
Dirt: You’re the director of the Alamo, an outreach center for farmworkers. Tell us about it.
SG: We bought this building in 1989. It was a ruin; it looked like the Alamo in Texas, and the name stuck ever since. The full name is Hudson Valley Health Care’s Farmworkers Community Center. We provide health and dental services. We just finished up a program on finances, and tonight they’re discussing the current election. We also provide hot meals every Sunday, clothing, and have a food pantry, which gets used a lot after the harvest ends.
What brought you to Goshen, NY all those years ago?
In 1969 when I got out of the Marines, I had been discharged and was looking for more adventure. So I shipped a bicycle to Del Rio, Texas and rode it all the way to Panama. It was about 3,000 miles, and it took three months. I got to know Mexico very well, and really appreciate its people and culture. When I learned about the farmworker population here, many of which are Mexicans, I decided to make a career out of lending a helping hand to them.
What are some of the challenges facing farmworkers?
A lot of our farmworkers don’t speak English. When they come here, they’re looking for all kinds of help: legal help, help with landlords and the labor department. If they get a letter and can’t read it, we’ll read it to them. If they have to go to court, one of us will go with them to help interpret as a cohort.
Do you have a background in farming?
No, but I’ve learned a lot over the years. When I first started working as an outreach worker I had just gotten out of the Marines. I could run 3.2 miles in 17 minutes with a backpack on. I thought I was in good shape. One day, I was talking to one of the farmers in Pine Island. They were all weeding in the field, and I made a remark that it didn’t seem like too hard of a job. The farmer told me to be there at 7:30 in the morning to see if I really thought I could do it. So I showed up the next morning, a Saturday, and by 11 a.m., I had collapsed.
They perform grueling work, and they deserve every bit of help they can get. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to eat.
We often hear “migrant” used to describe farmworkers. Will many head south post-season?
A few years ago they would migrate back Mexico, but now the border is just too dangerous because of the drug war. Some move around the U.S. to warmer states during the winter, but most of them stay here year-round and find different jobs.
What’s your most popular program?
We have a bunch of kids come from the 50 or so farms around here for homework help. Our staff transports them here and back home again—a lot of the farmworkers don’t have cars, or aren’t available to drop their children off in the afternoon, so we provide transportation. The kids really seem to appreciate it.
What would folks be surprised to know about farmworkers?
That they exist! Very few people realize that there are thousands of farmworkers doing all of this work that allows the rest of the nation to be fed.
INTERVIEW BY MOLLY COLGAN