“We Are Acknowledging They Are Here”: Migrant Farmworkers in the Upper Valley and Dartmouth FUERZA

by Mia Nelson '22


Professor Maria C. De Greiff and three student co-founders of FUERZA Fund, named for the word “strength” in Spanish, have run two campaigns totaling thousands of dollars each to support migrant farmworkers in Vermont during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund is an offshoot of FUERZA, an unrecognized club at Dartmouth College arising from the class “Migrant Lives of the Upper Valley.” In 2017, FUERZA was created to maintain connections between Dartmouth students and migrant farmworkers beyond the term of the class offering, and still exists today as a blend of community outreach and community connection. Keren Valenzuela Bermúdez ‘21 says that club includes a mix of inviting the farmworkers to campus, establishing gardening projects between farms, providing english lessons, and hanging out. The club is not yet recognized by the college, requiring FUERZA club members to use personal funds and vehicles for club events. Despite the challenges of being an unrecognized club, FUERZA remains a community that Valenzuela Bermúdez counts among her most important at Dartmouth. Speaking of the club’s unrecognized status, Juan Quinonez Zepeda ‘22 states that “When it comes to real environmental activism and work, students have to take action outside of the college.”


The work of FUERZA shifted when the pandemic hit and students were not allowed back on campus. Professor De Greiff saw an immediate need for aid and relief to the migrant farmworkers FUERZA has built friendships with. She asked the Coalition for Immigration Reform and Equality at Dartmouth (COFIRED), a student organization seeking to advance the rights of undocumented and mixed status members of the upper valley, for funds.


“This cannot wait,” Grieff stated. Greiff, her son Frank David Loveland, and her partner Michael Gaffnery, who is a physician's assistant, went to visit the sixty-three essential farmworkers FUERZA has relationships with and delivered vitamins, information, and 198 face masks, donated by Thetford Hill Church and FUERZA co-founder Gabe Onate’s aunt. Grieff stated that masks were especially important as the farmworkers reported higher instances of being stared at in public areas such as grocery stores. Since many of the migrant farmworkers are undocumented or in families of mixed immigration status, being visible in racial and linguistic ways has always provoked fear; Grieff stated that for the migrant workers, the visibility of being unmasked in the upper valley has intensified that existent fear of being seen.


FUERZA Fund grew out of the original partnership between COFIRED, FUERZA and Greiff. The fund provides support for the needs of migrant workers beyond just materials, including travel reimbursements and medical bills.


“The FUERZA Fund is an all encompassing fund and it is an honor to work with our friends at the farms,” said Quinonez Zepeda. “In many ways, we were first responders in that they needed us and there we were,” he said.


One woman at a partner farm worked a 78-hour week even with a broken arm. The owner of her farm wouldn’t pay her for time off, and so she continued her days of waking up at 3:00 AM in Vermont winter to milk the cows. The woman, Grieff said, is someone who walks with joy in her life. She sings to the cows in the morning and she truly loves them. On her day off, she sells home cooked food to contribute to her community.


“I know a lot of farm owners in the upper valley, but I haven’t met a farm owner who works a week like our migrant friends,” said Greiff.

In Vermont, there are 1,800 migrant farmworkers and 70 percent of milk production relies on migrant hands. Milk and dairy staples at Dartmouth like “Ben and Jerry’s” and “Cabot Cheese” have contracts with the farms FUERZA fund supports.


“These farms are a couple of minutes from Dartmouth, but no one ever really cares about the conditions of the workers” said Valenzuela Bermúdez. But we should since they are less than 15 miles away; Grieff states, “The migrant workers help their families but they also bring food to each of our tables.”


The FUERZA fund is one step for co-founders Bermúdez, Grieff, Onate and Quinonez, however no amount of money would be enough to give the migrant farmworkers the relief they deserve, Grieff stated.


“Twenty billion dollars wouldn’t be enough––this work is about care and empathy. This, what we are doing, is sustainable justice: acknowledging their existence and contributions to our economy,” said Greiff.


Ways that FUERZA seeks to cultivate care and empathy is looking towards a future program of consistent language skill shares on partner farms. With a language program, Greiff emphasizes, they can understand their rights more easily and they can gain a political voice in the Upper Valley.


“The voices of the farmworkers, they are like the Dartmouth slogan. They are the true voices calling out into the wilderness and no one is taking the time to listen and hear them,” said Quinonez Zepeda.


Acknowledging the migrant workers is also about recognizing and appreciating their contribution to sustainability knowledge and land care.


“We have a really Westernized concept of an environmentalist, and we need to deconstruct what that means,” said Quinonez Zepeda.


Sustainability often is conceptualized in a way that imagines the only substantive work as that done by a white, affluent person with a reusable water bottle and spork. That definition of sustainability, that westernized concept on an environmentalist, precludes cognizance of the sustainability practices of diverse communities. FUERZA and FUERZA Fund do revolutionary sustainability work by honoring migrant farmworkers whose work with land and animals is essential to how our Upper Valley community eats and sustains itself. To Quinonez Zepeda, deconstructing a Westernized concept of environmentalism comes from acknowledgement of the knowledge and care migrant workers bring to the upper valley.