The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

“I’LL KICK THE S**T OUT OF YOU!”

with 11 comments

I spent a memorable afternoon Thursday, beneath a tree on a corner in the little town of Conesville, Iowa, learning about a world that I hadn’t known before.

Melissa Regennitter/ Muscatine Journal

From left: Migrant worker Hector Manuel Cardona-Ramirez sits next to Monte Asbury, a Washington, Iowa, pastor. To Asbury’s right are two other migrant workers who bunk with Cardona-Ramirez and more than 600 others from Mexico in a migrant worker camp in Conesville. On Thursday, Asbury listened to a group of migrant workers who said they’d been unjustly fired and complained of illness. Asbury, an online blogger who writes about immigration and human rights was there to give moral support. Photo: Melissa Regennitter/ Muscatine Journal

My friend Carlos Rich (he’s a community organizer who works on immigrant health issues for the Center for New Community) had phoned, that morning, to tell me of some fellows who’d been fired from their jobs detasseling corn and picking melons.  Some had talked to a reporter the previous day, and Carlos wondered if that was connected to the firing.  Off we went.

We met eight men in a very hard spot.  They’d come to Iowa from their homes in Colima and Durango, Mexico.  Up at 3:30 A.M. each morning, they jockeyed for position on the buses taking workers to the fields. After a day in the blistering heat, they’d be back  – at 9:30 P.M. – for a quick meal and shower, then to the bunkhouse for 10:30 lights-out. Seven days a week.

Carlos invited reporters to join us (see Melissa Regenitter’s article in the Muscatine Journal).  While they made their way to Conesville, the boss drove past several times, sometimes stopping to pleasantly ask who we (Carlos and I) were, and to ask the men if they were going to work this afternoon.  It was a puzzle, given their certainty that they’d been fired. Carlos was cell-phoning what seemed like a dozen people – the Governor’s Office in Colima, some legal advisors – and the general drift I got was that it was a good idea for none of us to say much if we were questioned.

In the distance, the massive bunkhouse

In the distance, the massive bunkhouse

Which proved to be a handy thing to know.   For in a bit, an office worker drove up, eye-poppingly irate.  To the men, soothing mother-hen reproaches:  “How could you boys do this to [the bosses] after all they’ve done for you?  You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

In my mind, a window opened up and history blew in.  How many times had that siren-song seduced workers through the years?  Hadn’t it been sung in the dangerous factories of the north – the stifling cotton fields of the south – the brutal vegetable harvests of California?  It seemed like the timeless, place-less essence of the struggle of workers:  You  “boys” should be ashamed of yourselves. (Some were close to her in age.)  How could you be so ungrateful? What’s gotten into you?  We’re friends, you know we are!  What have they been telling you?

Endless line of portable toilets

A vast collection of portable toilets

The men were politely, firmly quiet.

To me, she gave a mildly derogatory “some kind of pastor” talk:  “What are you telling these boys?  They’re good boys!”

But to Carlos, venom:  “Shut up! … I’ll kick the s**t out of you!

It’s hard to imagine how trapped foreign workers are. If they want to quit, how will they get home, thousands of miles away?  Without English, to whom can they turn for help?  They’ll need to go to a city to get a bus.  But what city? And without transport, how will they get there?

One row of the bunkhouse. This room had about 160 beds, and was one of four.

About 160 men sleep in this huge bunkroom. Three more rooms, of 150-200 beds each, adjoin.

Intelligent, thoughtful men, all with perfect H2A visas (see the bottom of Melissa’s article), all with families at home needing income badly enough for them to risk this journey into a foreign country.  But it wasn’t going to work.  After telling of heat and work-related ailments, confusions about firings, conditions different than the Mexican recruiter had led them to expect, and less work than they’d hoped, they decided they just wanted to go home.  Since they’d borrowed to pay for their passports and visas, and after the $100 a week they paid the company for food, they figured they’d just about break even after the next morning’s paycheck.

Worried about staying in the camp after attracting media attention, they traveled back to Washington in my pickup.  They spent the night in the church, so grateful to be secure, so delighted to have found a way out.  Carlos gave a lift over to get paychecks on Friday (and the boss was more generous in the final settlement than they’d expected), and then up to Iowa City’s bus station to start the long ride home.

Most of us, after showers, at the church

Most of us, after showers, at the church - Carlos Rich is at the top left. I'm the one with the baby-bottom-pink face!

Perhaps most unexpected was the tenderness of the friendships developed in those hours.  After trading stories down at my place, glimmers of hope remained in my mind, suggesting that God had done something wonderful among us all.  I was honored to enjoy it.

What a memorable privilege it was, sharing that moment with these good men.


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Written by Monte

August 4, 2008 at 5:50 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Tks for help that people….two of them is part of my family….God bless you for ever….

    Alicia

    October 16, 2009 at 9:41 pm

  2. Feel free to use it in your next sermon!

    :-)

    ralfast

    August 12, 2008 at 6:49 pm

  3. ralfast, your comments blow me away. Thanks!

    Monte

    August 12, 2008 at 1:02 pm

  4. The true hero slays no dragons, faces no demons, he merely does what needs to be done.

    Well done Mas….

    ralfast

    August 12, 2008 at 11:12 am

  5. Good thought, HP. Everything affects everything; incrementally tiny acts are the ones that combine with those of unseen others and make permanent change.
    I am so impatient, that I keep forgetting that the things that I – everyone – can do are the things that make massive change a reality. Hope and agony!

    Monte

    August 8, 2008 at 12:22 pm

  6. Hi Monte.

    Really not much short of slavery, is it?

    Tragic, and yet another reason we should be buying our food directly from local farmers rather than the agribusiness products at the big chain stores. Not all of us can do this sort of work (though I’m glad you do), but we can all take responsibility for our choices as consumers. Without a market for the products of slavery, the bosses will have no choice but to change their ways.

    honestpoet

    August 8, 2008 at 12:00 pm

  7. Way to Go!
    Home run.
    Call – divine permission to do what your heart has been longing to do.
    “…send your tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp…” This is the America I love.
    It is one thing to talk, and quite another to walk with Jesus.
    Thank you!!
    Sharon

    Monte says: Thanks, friend! There is joy in it, as you know!

    sharon

    August 6, 2008 at 5:29 pm

  8. The privilege is mine, friend!

    Monte

    August 6, 2008 at 4:11 pm

  9. Monte,

    You are my hero too. I am proud to know you and to call you my pastor and friend.

    -Derin-

    Derin Beechner

    August 5, 2008 at 8:35 am

  10. Thanks, friend – I knew you’d get it!

    Monte

    August 5, 2008 at 8:13 am

  11. God bless you, Monte.
    this made me cry…

    giannakali

    August 4, 2008 at 7:57 pm


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