We’re cutting off the hands that fill our bellies. Hands like Pablo’s*, already pocked with scars.
Mornings, Pablo feeds the Holsteins that make our children’s milk and mozzarella for our pizzas. He scoops corn from a white bucket into a row of haylage on the ground. The cows’ mouths shift from side to side as they chew. When they’re done, he drives the cows to one end of the corral. Whistling and raising his arms, he’s barely taller than the bovines. Shit shellacs his black wellies. His knee shows through ragged jeans. A black shadow of shorn hair dips below his khaki cap.
Afternoons, Pablo takes on repairs like replacing the windows on the farm’s old barns, now used for storage. Three stories up, he sees white plastic-covered feed bunkers the size of small moraines. Beyond them, strips of corn cross the hills that line the valley. In the evenings, he looks for deer skulking out from the wooded hilltops.
His Wisconsin is both what we imagine—family-run dairies of red barns and pastures speckled with Holsteins—and it’s not. He lives in a dark schoolhouse on the farm where he works six days a week. The cows on the farm rarely go outside, but their new, warehouse-like barns are more comfortable than the old structures. Most of Wisconsin’s milk comes from farms like this one, fueled by immigrant laborers, at least half of whom don’t have the papers we say transform an “alien” into “legal.”
On his day off, Pablo often sleeps. Once in a while, if he feels safe, he drives ten miles to the closest town to get a burger. Or he reads: Secretos del liderazgo de Jesús, Matrimonio: romance o desastre, El negocio del siglo 21. Faith, family, business. What could be more American?
Pablo was born in a village of some 50 houses in the mountains of Veracruz, Mexico. He grew up eating beans and tortillas every day, meat once a year.
We might think no one asked him to come the United States, but a plantation in Arkansas sent a recruiter to bring him to cut pines in 1998. There he lived in a trailer with eight other Mexicans. Then he cut pines in Georgia. When the work dried up, he didn’t have enough money to get home. So he stayed, paperless. In South Carolina, he picked tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. He packed tobacco in Kentucky. But while we were framing houses and making salads and smoking, he couldn’t earn enough for his family in Mexico to build his own home.
He heard from a friend in Wisconsin that dairy farms paid more. Since the late 1990s, thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans have migrated to Wisconsin, turning all-white rural communities into coffee-tinged multicultures. As dairies expanded, consolidated, and required more labor, farmers couldn’t find enough reliable local workers. There’s no visa program for year-round immigrant farmworkers, so dairy owners often turned to immigrant recruiters and whomever appeared in their barns.
Pablo landed in a milking parlor, working 12 hours a day attaching machines to teats. He learned English, his third language. (He didn’t speak Spanish until he was 13. Nahuatl is his native tongue.) Pablo is what we call an Indian, as are legions of those we dub “illegal.” The irony is not lost on him that his people lived on this continent thousands of years before anyone imagined our idea of America.
For seven years Pablo missed his wife and son. To talk to them, he’d call a phone booth they could only get to every two weeks. As much as he wanted to visit home, he didn’t, because he would have had to pay a series of coyotes a total of about $7,000 to get back—between a quarter and a third of his annual income. But when his grandfather died, he returned to Veracruz. He stayed three years. His wife bore two more children. To feed and clothe them, he left again.
He took a bus to the border with 40 others. He floated across the Rio Grande, then walked two days through the desert with 30 pounds of water, Gatorade, tortillas, beans, chocolate, and spare clothes on his back. “In the desert, there’s nothing, just rocks and nopales,” he recalls. To quench his thirst, he cut, peeled, and ate those prickly pears, too.
The band of pilgrims reached Carrizo Springs, Texas. From there, onward in trucks. Each step of the way, Pablo paid a different coyote. $1,000 here, $1,500 there. He reached Houston with several Salvadorans, then headed north to Chicago. There, he met his brother-in-law and called his wife to tell her he had made it. That same night his brother-in-law drove him to the dairy in Wisconsin, and Pablo started milking the next day. He calls the journey his “vacation in the desert.”
Last year, someone from Pablo’s village drowned crossing the Rio Grande. The Border Patrol found him in the water. “He was a good man,” Pablo says, “It’s sad. You come for money, and you die.”
When Pablo was a kid, he didn’t have clothes. “But I had my papa,” he says. “Now, my children have clothes but no papa.”
America, which would you choose?
* Pablo’s name has been changed to protect his identity.