Originally published in The Weekly Packet, December 19, 2013
Living with guest workers
Sedgwick native Levi Bridges seeks to bring “invisible” lives to life - VIDEO
Sedgwick native Levi Bridges will speak on his “Travels with Mexican Workers” at the Blue Hill Library on December 19 at 7 p.m. He recently returned from Mexico and has interviewed migrant workers in New York and Maine.
by Anne Berleant
From Sedgwick to Mexico City to upstate New York and back to Maine—Levi Bridges, a native of Sedgwick, travels looking for the different stories of migrant workers.
Most recently, in Columbia Falls, Maine, he visited the Worcester Wreath Company factory, where Honduran workers, here on guest visas, help create hundreds of thousands of wreaths, including the approximately 120,000 that grace Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The Honduran guest workers cut the brush from the 4,000 acres of balsam fir trees and make the wreaths, Bridges said. They live in a five-room bunkhouse behind the factory, with 20 beds to a room.
“You could grow up here and spend your life here and never really think about it…or notice it,” Bridges said.
The workers, he said, were afraid to talk to him for fear of losing their jobs. The owners “were not excited to let me in….It’s sad. There’s so much fear on both sides.”
Bridges had spent the past year in Mexico, supported by a one-year Fulbright scholarship that ended in August. He plans to turn stories of the Mexicans and Hondurans who pick seasonal crops from Maine to California and work in the wreath factories in Columbia Falls into a book. The workers he speaks with travel on guest visas; some live half the year in Mexico and others follow the crops in the Unites States throughout the year. They mostly live in housing on the fields they work.
“They’re basically invisible,” he said.
Levi Bridges tells Penobscot Bay Press reporter Anne Berleant about his travels and his upcoming talk. Video by Anne Berleant
While living in Mexico City, Bridges spent much of his time looking for people to talk to in order to get “a sense of what their lives were like in the off season.”
“It took me six months to try and find the stories,” he said in a recent interview. “It was very slow going.”
Bridges said he noticed poor areas outside the city that led up into the hills, and would visit different communities in search of residents who filled migrant farm worker positions in the United States.
“I was just looking to create relationships with people.”
Finding these farm workers was “totally random,” he said, depending on whether an agricultural recruiter had ties to the village.
In his “Bridges and Borders” blog, he wrote of the experience:
“I passed my first night in the Sierra Gorda camped on top of a concrete sewage tank. A rickety old bus dropped me off at dusk in a small town within the mountains, called Escanellia, from where I planned to hitchhike in to my destination of San Pedro Escanela on a nearby dirt road the next day.
“A man, named Juan, let me inside a state park just outside Escanellia where I camped. In the darkness, I went to use the park’s outhouse, located on a steep hill, and heard a bubbling brook and the promise of a nice camp spot below.
“In the dark, I took one step onto the hill, slipped, and started tumbling down the mountain. A concrete sewage tank below the bathrooms broke my fall.
“And it was there, on that flat area, that I set up my tent and spent the night.”
In Mexico City, Bridges rode the trains to help “get a broad view of what was going on in Mexico.”
Before he returned to Maine and visited Columbia Falls, Bridges spent time picking apples in upstate New York.
“I finished the season and stayed a few weeks to do follow up interviews,” he said.
Now back home through the holidays, Bridges is already planning his next move, probably to Portland, he said, to continue work on the book he has started. He has about 40 pages completed and plans a “six-month writing stint” over the winter.
On December 19, he will speak on his travels with Mexican workers at the Blue Hill Public Library.
Bridges is aware that plenty of documentation and data exists on foreign migrant workers. His goal is to approach it from a different angle, for a different audience.
“How can I create a story that can capture the attention of someone who doesn’t care?”