Roberto Tecpile often puts in 70 hours a week at the Rosenholm dairy farm in Cochrane, Wisconsin — a place where winter days are short and can be bitterly cold. It is a job that farmers say most Americans refuse to do.
Tecpile, a native of Astacinga, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, has spent nearly 20 years in the United States, the past four working for farmer John Rosenow. According to his boss, Tecpile is the “go-to guy” for fixing farm equipment — whether it be a lawnmower or a gauge. Tecpile said the job is going well, and right now it is the most important thing as he prepares to return home in a year or two.
Tecpile is saving money to build a kitchen for his wife, Veronica, “with cabinets and everything.” She currently cooks outside in their mountain village for their two sons, Kevin, 15, and Aaron, 9, and their daughter, Megan, 4.“I want to work a little bit more. … I want to buy a kitchen for my wife, and for the kids, I want them to have something better,” the 39-year-old dairy worker said. “At times we say being able to be together would be much better, but at the same time, we still don’t have everything arranged.”
Tecpile himself comes from a family of nine children, and it is difficult for him to be away from all of his family. But Rosenow makes sure they know Tecpile is being cared for and that he is working hard.
Rosenow has visited Tecpile’s family twice in Astacinga. Rosenow’s farm is one of 60 to 70 in western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota involved in Puentes/Bridges, a small nonprofit that organizes annual trips to Mexico to bridge the cultural gap between farmers and their employees — and the physical gap between the workers and their families.
Began in 1990s
The program began in the late 1990s when immigrant workers began to show up on Wisconsin dairy farms. Immigrants now make up an estimated 51 percent of all dairy workers in the United States. Many of these employees are undocumented, making trips back and forth across the border dangerous.
Puentes/Bridges founder Shaun Duvall said she wanted to strengthen language skills and cultural competency so farmers could work better with their new employees.
She recalled that the program started as a challenge from a local University of Wisconsin-Extension agent who suggested, “There’s a lot of farmers in Buffalo County that are hiring Mexican employees. Don’t you want to teach these dairy farmers some Spanish?”
Today the program’s overarching goal is relationship building. Rosenow, who is on the Puentes/Bridges board of directors, said the program has helped him gain insight into the lives of his employees, who risk detention — or even worse — in their quest for a better life.
“I understand a little bit of their motivation to put themselves in danger to come here and to work in a different climate and to make money,” he said.