Nopalitos in the Catskills – Immigration in Sullivan County, NY
Immigrant workers in upstate New York gain visibility through a legal advocacy center and health clinic, but Spanish-speaking teens struggle to find their place in a new country.
In one of Monticello, N.Y.’s Latino groceries, Acatlan
Photos: Julie Ardery
Between late May and early September each year, the population of Sullivan County, NY, (est. 76,000) triples. The streets of sleepy Woodbourne bustle with Hasidic visitors in long whiskers and black hats. Bungalow colonies fill up with families, and harness track fans pack the “racino” outside the county seat, Monticello.
This was once the famed Borscht Belt, where entertainers like Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett sharpened their wisecracks for live audiences. Before everyone had a television set and jet-air travel could whisk New Yorkers off to Florida or abroad, the resorts here, just 90 miles west of Manhattan, boomed. More than 100 hotels, motels and tourist courts catered to thousands of summer travelers, and hired thousands of seasonal workers, too — the cooks, waitresses, maids, and grounds-keepers who kept vacationers happy. Though its glory days have passed, the summer tourists still come. Immigration in this seasonal sense is nothing new to Sullivan County.
Since 1990, however, other sorts of immigrants have arrived in this Catskill county ““ New Yorkers fleeing the city post 9/11, second-home buyers from the eastern seaboard, a Ukrainian community that settled in the southern township of Lumberland, and, significantly, a new wave of Latino residents who have moved here into cheap housing and low-wage jobs.
Though its influx of Hispanic newcomers doesn’t match big increases in the South and West, Sullivan County between 1990 and 2000 showed the third highest gain in new immigrants (those coming to the U.S. after 1965) of all non-metro counties in the Northeast (after Nantucket and Dukes counties, Massachusetts).
“We’re on a rebound,” says Marc Baez of the county’s Partnership for Economic Development. Baez, whose Puerto Rican parents moved here in the heyday of the old resorts, says that when Sullivan’s tourist industry collapsed, starting in the 1970s and declining steeply over the next ten years, “We fell on really hard times.”
The tourist-centric economy, its cabins and grand hotels deteriorating, was pained to recover. “We didn’t have an underlying industry poised to expand,” explains Laura Quigley, director of Sullivan’s Workforce Development Board. Local leaders adopted a fairly desperate strategy, “Then, anything that walked through the door we’d take,” says Baez. Bill Pammer, since 2004 the county’s Commissioner of Planning and Community Development, shakes his head, “We got a landfill. To make up for that difference, we started importing garbage.”
The western half of Sullivan County had long been dairy country (outside the town of Bethel, the Woodstock Music Festival took place at Max Yasgur’s farm in July 1969). But, like Yasgur, local dairymen have been phasing out for the past 20 years. Meanwhile, poultry industries multiplied and expanded. “There are 26 million New Yorkers only 50 minutes away,” Marc Baez notes. During the 1990s, especially, the local economic development strategy became, Baez says, “What do they want and how can we serve them?”
In this regard, one of Sullivan’s more exceptional businesses is Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Here some 170 workers, nearly all of them recent immigrants, force feed ducks on a strict schedule throughout the day and night. This controversial process swells the birds’ livers four times the normal size, producing the ingredient for pÃ¢té, a delicacy priced at over $50 a pound. Along with this rare breed of business, Sullivan County (New York’s top poultry producer) has more conventional chicken plants, egg processing factories, and over two dozen small poultry farms. “The types of people that are willing to work in those environments is very few,” Baez. says. All these enterprises rely on immigrant labor.
Sofia Romero, 32, moved to Sullivan County in 2001 from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Her long trip north involved, among other risks, three days walking through the Arizona desert. In Honduras, she had worked since age 14 at a garment factory, raised by her grandparents; her mother had come to the United States when Sofia was only 12. When Romero emigrated to the U.S., she left behind her own son, now age 12, in her grandmother’s care.
In Honduras she had earned 340 lempira ““ less than $19 ““ per 40-hour week. Romero says she came to the U.S. for higher wages, and because in Honduras “when you’re 30, there’s no more work.” Factory owners typically shuffle older women out of the plant and hire teenagers to replace them. At first, Romero lived in the Bronx. She came to Sullivan County because her mother lived here. Wiping her eyes, she explains, “I wanted to come meet her, the person who had abandoned me.” Mother and daughter lived together for two months, but the relationship grew tense, and Sofia moved out. She now lives with her boyfriend and their young son.
In Sullivan County, Sofia Romero was hired at an egg processing plant in Woodridge, making minimum wage, then $5.15 an hour; after two years, she was earning $5.75, working 6 am to 5 pm. Her job peeling eggs under a constant stream of cold water and washing machinery with a high-pressure hose and caustic detergents caused psoriasis on her hands, a condition that worsened after Romero became pregnant. She quit, and says she will soon start work at a chicken processing plant.
At a small gathering of friends in Hurleyville, Romero expresses shock; she’s just heard about a new on-line video game called “Border Control,” where the object is to kill immigrants coming over the Mexican border. “You get more points if you shoot a pregnant woman,” she informs the group. Her life in Sullivan County has been hard but by staying she sees “an opportunity to make money to send home to my son and my grandmother.”
Carlos Mendoza, 34, moved from El Salvador to Sullivan County with his wife in May 2004. They left their two sons behind with his mother. Asked what his father did for a living, Mendoza shrugs, and then pantomimes swigging from a bottle.
Mendoza had a sister in Sullivan County and relatives in Texas also. He says he chose rural New York over Houston thinking that there would be “not so many people” and that finding employment would be easier here. His first job was cutting sacks at the Formaggio cheese plant, six days a week. He then worked at one of the egg companies, and most recently at a factory in Liberty packaging “galletas” — snacks. On an evening in April, Mendoza was fuming having just been fired from the snack company for a dispute over his hours. He contended that he’d been shortchanged for 3.5 hours of work and was told by a manager “the computer doesn’t lie.” When he continued to press for the lost wages, he was dismissed. Mendoza’s wife works second shift at the snack factory, but he’ll be looking for something else ““ not easy, since the couple lives in Liberty, has no car, and, as in many rural counties, there’s no public transportation here.
Among most long-time residents in Sullivan County, this new wave of immigrants remains fairly invisible. “They work in restaurants and garages, and generally keep to themselves in this area. You know, they have their niche,” said a staff person at the Chamber of Commerce. Both the foie gras farm and Formaggio cheese house many of their employees, an arrangement that eases getting to work but further isolates an immigrant community already set apart by language. Undocumented workers, who may first welcome such invisibility, have found themselves, like Carlos Mendoza, at the mercy of employers.
Ninon Hutchinson, minister of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Monticello, has tried various ways to involve her largely non-Latino parish with the new community, from serving coffee and doughnuts outside the duck farm to winterizing the shabby apartments near one of the chicken factories. When an immigrant family was “run out of housing over a labor protest,” Hutchinson said, the family moved temporarily into the church itself. With two other clergy from nearby towns, Hutchinson officiated at a service to bless the opening of Monticello’s new Latino Deli. St. John’s holds periodic fundraisers for organizations serving the immigrant community. Still, she concedes, “It’s a very difficult connection to make.”
Gradually, new institutions have emerged to make the presence, contributions, and needs of Latino residents known. In 1992, Aspacio AlcÃ¡ntara, himself a Dominican, helped to organize the Centro Independiente de Apoyo a los Trabajadores AgrÃcolas (CITA). The group, first based in neighboring Orange County, worked to get basics like bathrooms and clean drinking water for farm workers in the Hudson Valley. The organization’s legal arm brokered one of its first agreements with a Sullivan County poultry firm, a company that had been unfairly withholding workers’ wages for rent and uniforms.
Attorney Dan Werner worked with CITA on that early case though the Farmworkers Law Center. He and his partners recognized that the area was changing, “shifting from agriculture to a suburban economy” more focused on construction, landscaping and light industry. “Many of our clients who were moving into these new jobs,” he says, “found the same problems,” principally non-payment of wages and unpaid overtime. The Hudson Valley’s farmworkers have been, “almost exclusively Mexicans,” most of them from the impoverished Southern state of Puebla, but “in these other industries its much more of a mixed bag,” says Werner. The recent immigrants who work in Sullivan’s poultry and food processing plants come from across Central and South American, notably Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Werner now directs the Workers’ Rights Law Center of New York. Founded in 2004, based in Kingston, it serves nine Hudson Valley counties. The Center has been involved in more than 300 labor disputes, several in Sullivan County. All its Sullivan clients have been immigrant workers (Federal law protects workers’ rights regardless of their immigration status).
Formaggio Estates, worker housing in Sullivan County
One significant case was settled in the spring of 2006, a class action suit brought against Formaggio cheese for unpaid overtime and illegal deduction of wages. After an introductory talk at the Spanish-language Pentecostal church in Liberty ““ part of the law center’s outreach program — one worker came forward with grievances against the cheese plant. Eventually three more current and former employees joined the suit. Over the next two and a half years, $250,000 will be distributed to eligible workers.
An older case, still pending, shows the complexity of enforcing labor law for immigrant workers in a global economy. The farm owner, a Chilean, operated alpaca farms in New York, in South America, and on two other continents. Werner says she underpaid a number of employees (paying one Sullivan county worker Chilean wages); she also tried to declare bankruptcy after, presumably, shifting most of the New York assets to her other farming enterprises. As Werner and his team now work to get the case moved out of bankruptcy court, he says the suit has turned “into a protracted battle,” likely to go on “for several more years.”
Because immigrants often move from job to job, like Carlos Mendoza, and fear arrest and deportation if they confront an employer, violations of labor law often go unchallenged. And without long-term advocates, like CITA and the Workers’ Rights Law Center, such challenges tend to sputter out. Employers can outspend or just outlast immigrant plaintiffs. Aspacio AlcÃ¡ntara believes that CITA’s decade-plus of work, backed up in court, has “changed the relationship” between farm workers and employers. “They cannot fire people so easily.” He also finds, “There’s a little more respect”¦ There’s not one legislator in New York State who doesn’t know about the farm worker now.” Likewise, with the ruling against Formaggio, Dan Werner says, “I think that a lot of people who might have been afraid to step forward will recognize this is real.”
Aspacio Alcantara. founder of a farmworkers organization serving immigrants, and Sullican County activist Sandra Oxford, May 2006
Photo: Julie Ardery
Sandra Cuellar Oxford is a community activist who’s been involved in New York prison reform, bilingual education, and, most recently, the living-wage issue, opposing tax-abatements and other governmental supports for companies that pay low-wages. In Sullivan County, Bella Poultry, Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Formaggio Cheese all have received funding and/or tax breaks through the local Industrial Development Agency and state Empire Zone program. These financial incentives are “the engines,” Oxford says, “helping these employers who’ve been abusing workers.”
A native of Colombia, Oxford moved to Hurleyville from Long Island looking for affordable housing. When she first moved to Sullivan County 14 years ago “not one Latino student had graduated from (Fallsburg) high school.” She and others founded Somos la Llave del Futuro (We’re the Key to the Future) in 2002 to rally local Hispanics and work on their behalf.
The group first mobilized around health, a serious problem for immigrants here. Sullivan County has New York State’s highest rate of HIV/AIDS outside New York City, and though by the 2000 U.S. Census, Hispanics comprised only 9.24% of the county’s population, in 2004 25% of the HIV patients in care at Catskill Regional Medical Center were Latinos. In 2004, Sullivan’s infant mortality rate was the highest in New York State.
Carol Ryan, the county’s public health director, says that many new immigrants are in bad health. She recounts a wide range of health concerns, from poor diet to rape: “No health insurance. No sick pay. Not enough sleep. Respiratory complaints. No prenatal care. Domestic violence. Alcoholism”¦these are the problems of any impoverished group.” Yet among immigrants “there’s also despair,” she says, “and a lot of stress on them, being away from their families.”
Ryan emphasizes that just making programs like WIC, prenatal care and immunizations available isn’t sufficient when dealing with these new communities. Immigrants resist seeking medical care when doctors speak only English, and they are typically reluctant to enroll in basic health programs, fearing discovery and deportation. To reach immigrant clients, Ryan says her office has adopted “more of a service orientation.” Two years ago, Sullivan County’s public health office hired its first bilingual outreach worker, Zaida Chasi. A native of Ecuador, Chasi had already worked as a translator in the local courts and in Sullivan County’s Heasdstart program. “That’s when I started working with the community, with families in crisis,” she says. After three years with Headstart, “people started to know me, I was out in the community, doing outreach, getting the children into the program.” She noticed a change, “The more an advocate that I was for families, the more children were enrolled in the programs.”
Ryan agrees. “It takes a trusted person. That trust brings them into care.” Her department records show no immigrant families participating in the WIC program until 2004, the year Chasi was hired. Since then, WIC enrollment among immigrants has gradually increased, from 10 families in January 2004 to 41 in March 2006.
A promising new organization in Sullivan County is Hudson River Community Health. This 30-year-old nonprofit, with fourteen branches throughout the region, offers primary, preventive and behavioral health services without regard for ability to pay. The Monticello office has hired both Chasi and Aspacio AlcÃ¡ntara as outreach workers. In neighboring counties, the organization, as well as administering health care services, has been a conduit for language training, social services, and community empowerment though its “Comités Latinos.” Sandra Oxford believes the organization will take the same strong role in Sullivan County. “Once that health center really takes root, it can be a cornerstone for the emerging community,” she stresses. “There’s a path of support.”
Since September 2003 a Latino Service Providers group ““ involving Sullivan County health care, school, and social service offices — has met monthly to discuss changing needs and strategies for cooperation. But beyond this group of professionals, citizen organizing within the Latino community has been erratic. What’s often inscrutable to longtime residents here, Hispanic immigrants are a diverse group. Zaida Chasi says, “Even though we’re Latino, we don’t speak the same language, in a sense. We have different dialects. We have different culture, and there is not that unity. There needs to be.” Chasi, Oxford and others say that discrimination based on education is especially keen among Hispanics and has made unifying the immigrant community hard.
In the public schools, such divisions sharpen. Fallsburg High School‘s bilingual social worker Paco Mazo, after 16 years, can count the Latino graduates on one hand. All of them had come to the U.S. as young children, from educated or affluent families. “The younger the child. the easier it is to assimilate,” Mazo says. “The older they are, the more barriers.” He has yet to see an immigrant student who arrived in Sullivan County as a teenager ““ and there have been many — earn a Fallsburg diploma.
Mazo underscores how immigration often splits families apart. Young adults like Carlos Mendoza and Sofia Romero have paid between $3000 and $15,000 to cross into the U.S usually leaving their children with relatives south of the border. While they find jobs, work long hours, and maneuver to avoid deportation and/or gain legal status, parents typically can’t go back home, even to visit. It’s not uncommon for immigrants who’re separated from spouses and children to start new families in the United States.
When young people arrive in Sullivan County as teenagers to rejoin their birthparents, after sometimes a decade or more apart, they bring high expectations: “There’s a honeymoon for awhile but it’s a short honeymoon,” Mazo says. “They give up their peer group, they don’t know the language.” A teenager finds that he or she has traded a big extended family back home for life in a Catskills housing project, the newcomer among relatives they barely know.
Most Latino teens, Mazo says, feel they “have no reason to learn English,” They look around and soon ask themselves, “What am I doing here in school when I could be working in the chicken plant and buy myself a gold chain?’ They’re playing football,” says Mazo, “staying among their Spanish speaking friends, listening to novellas. They’re here in America but they’re immersed in a Hispanic subculture, and that’s where they stay.”
He and Chasi both are trying to bring to light a widespread problem in the Latino community here. Teenage girls, who are struggling both a home and at school, are easy prey for older men. “The young girls who are being seduced and getting pregnant so young, they’re not finishing school,” Chasi, says. “It’s like an epidemic.” Mazo agrees. “A girl has a one night stand and is thrown out by her parents, living with an older man. When the baby comes, he’s out the door.” Sullivan’s teenage pregnancy rate is by far the highest in the Hudson Valley.
Historically, Sullivan County society has been more patched than woven. Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer, who grew up on a farm here, says that diverse populations have tended to self-segregate. “The neighborhood enclaves you saw in New York City were being played out in Sullivan County,” he explains. The Hasidic communities kept to themselves; German-Americans farmed the western “Bund Belt”; Ukrainians settled in Lumberland. This pattern of mutual evasion seems to have persisted, now exacerbated by the barrier of language and disparities in education, earning-power, and legal status.
Segregation can be a state of mind as well. The many commuters and second-home owners buying and building in Sullivan County tend to view the area, Marc Baez says, as “a playground,” missing its very real, “urban”-seeming problems: poverty, lack of public transportation, AIDS, sum housing, traffic.
“When you have (groups) that isolate, they want to land in your community but not live in your community,” says Laura Quigley, the workforce development director. Quigley’s description fits both of Sullivan County’s new immigrant groups: the Hispanic newcomers here to work and wire money off to relatives in other countries, and the city émigrés who have come looking for a rural idyll. Over time, these social disjunctions “can impact your image of yourself as a community,” she says; a county or a town devolves into “just a fractured group of people on the same plot of land.”
Rev. Ninon Hutchinson of St. John Espicopal Church visits Ema and Albero Marim’s store
Photo: Julie Ardery
Groups like the Workers Rights Center and Hudson River Community Health, and activists like Oxford, AlcÃ¡ntara, Hutchinson, Mazo and Chasi have made inroads. Their endurance may be the most significant victory. “This town has changed their attitude,” Zaida Chasi says about Monticello. “Before it was like they would close the door on you. They’re a little bit more receptive to see the (Hispanic) community walking in the streets or seeing the stores open. Now there’s more awareness that we’re here, and we’re not leaving.”
Right across from Monticello Bagel, Acatlan, occupying a former pizza parlor, is doing a brisk lunch business. Nopalitos (cactus pads) are on display in the cool case and packets of hoja santa, hierba buena and dried chiles line a long sales rack. The TV is tuned to a Latino music station. There’s not one Asian, Anglo, Hasidic or German looking customer in sight. At the Latino Deli just up the block, Rev. Ninon Hutchinson catches up with proprietor Ema Marim under the downward gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe, hanging by the soft drink case in her cocoon of stars.
Note: This piece was originally part of the Carsey’s Institute’s report on Immigration in the Rural U.S.