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Our New Neighbors: Exploring the Cultural and Historical Context of a Racist Conspiracy Theory Targeting the Migratory Agricultural Workers in my Hometown

“Mi familia, mis amigos, mi casa.”

That is what Lourdes Matheus, age 35, had to leave behind in Venezuela; her family, her friends, and her home.

Matheus was a Social Studies teacher and a social worker until economic instability forced her to seek agricultural work in the United States to support the people she was forced to leave behind. Those people include her mother, her grandmother, her brothers, and their children. 

She says the painful separation is worth it because the money she earns makes it possible for them to survive. The hard work and sacrifice are worth it, she says, but she dreams of making enough money so that her family can be financially stable and she can return home to them.

Lourdes Matheus and dozens of other migrant farm workers live in the Travel Inn on Route 233 in Westmoreland. The company rents out the whole motel so that they can provide them with free housing. Martinez and Sons, an agricultural staffing company based in Michigan, arranged their paperwork, lodging, and other basic needs. I spoke to her with the assistance of Gilbert Garcia, the site’s supervisor, who translated.

Garcia, a warm and friendly bilingual Texas native, is responsible for the nearly seventy people living in the Travel Inn, and several others living in a house in Oneida. He told me that workers are up by 4:30 AM each morning. White vans transport them to Green Empire Farms, a massive hydroponic farm in Oneida. Shifts vary based on the needs of the (indoor) growing season, but an average workday is a minimum of 12 hours in temperatures that can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“They go to work,” Garcia explains, “they come back, they go to sleep, they wake up the next morning and go back to work. We are helping them get on their feet.” 

A typical worker will stay for three to six months, but a couple staying at the Travel Inn have been granted asylum and have worked at Empire Green Farms for three years. As of August 1st, Martinez and Sons had rented out the motel for one year. 

It has been a productive year that has benefitted and boosted Westmoreland’s local economy. 

“If you’re here on a daily basis,” Garcia explains, “you see them walking back and forth to the ‘dollar store’ and Stewart’s.”

“They come and shop regularly,” says Haley McBride, assistant manager of Dollar General. She ticked off a list of the items they purchase from her store, including everything from food to toothpaste and shampoo.

Juan Martinez worked on citrus farms in his native Mexico. He is currently a migrant agricultural worker living in the Travel Inn in Westmoreland. (Photo by Ron Klopfanstein).

“They’re nice,” she says. “They’re good customers.” 

Their short walk back and forth from the Travel Inn to Dollar General by brown-skinned Spanish speaking people has generated a miasma of suspicions and prejudices that crystallized into a racist conspiracy theory that appeared on the neighborhood Facebook page. The libel was then promulgated by Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney who repeated them (along with a bizarre theory of her own involving President Joe Biden) on her official Facebook page.

It began with a post by a woman from Westmoreland, writing, “Not sure how many people are aware of what’s going at the motel right on rt 233 in Westmoreland, but it needs to be stopped!! They are busing in illegal immigrants and putting them up there on our tax dollars. [sic]”

Her social media post also claimed that the motel was owned by the State of New York. It is owned by Vope Properties, LLC, a real estate partnership between Carl Vogel (of Carl’s Wholesale Furniture) and his business partner Tasha Peterson. They lease out the entire property to Martinez and Sons, who occupy every room and make the community room, kitchen, and laundry area available to residents. 

The Facebook poster also raised the specter of “child trafficking” and placed immediate blame on what she described as an indifferent town government. Most alarmingly, this post attempted to rally the community to take action stating, “everyone needs to help our kids our grandkids nieces nephews friends kids and so on they need to be protected. [sic]”

This initial rant led to a piling on by people adding their own unfounded suspicions as proof of wrongdoing. 

“Their being flown into griffis from border facilities as transported by dhs van an staged their till they can be set up with free housing most times by the county welfare sys along with ther federal handouts their gonna get. [sic]” one person wrote, adding that he had a “trained dog” to protect his family from them. 

A statement from Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente’s office quickly disproved that notion.

Migratory agricultural workers celebrating the birthdays of three of their community members on August 27, 2022 at the Travel Inn in Westmoreland. (Photo by Ron Klopfanstein).

“According to Oneida County Aviation Commissioner Ed Arcuri,” County Executive Picente’s office told me via Direct Message on Twitter, “there is no record of any flights transporting any such passengers to Griffiss International Airport.” Additionally, the former Oneida County Airport was closed in 2007 and is on a site now owned by the New York State Preparedness Training Center (SPTC), a first responder training facility. 

The dangerous falsehoods accumulated on social media became a near parody of small-town ignorance, complete with cringe-worthy spelling and grammatical errors. It’s important to note that in a town with a population of over 5,924 people (according to the 2020 United States census), less than ten people chimed in on the toxic social media thread. But, the outrageous claims of those few people might be laughable and easily ignored if they weren’t so potentially dangerous to the men and women who now make Westmoreland’s Travel Inn their home. One commenter on the Westmoreland Facebook page stalked them. He posted a surreptitiously-recorded video on his personal Facebook page spying on them through the window to their community room. Another commenter dehumanized the people living in the Travel Inn by comparing them to “mobs.”

This dehumanization of “the other” that can express itself in the form of discrimination or even violence is rooted in nativism, an ideology that the interests of native-born or established inhabitants need protection from those of immigrants has been a pernicious thread throughout the history of this country. Among nativists, the fear of the “other” is often rooted in fear of people with darker skin, such as the migratory agricultural workers in Westmoreland.

While America celebrates its “melting pot” heterogeneity, it is also a country built upon a bloody foundation of White supremacy. The United States occupies 1.5 billion acres of land taken from the indigenous people of North America, who were sometimes swindled, but mostly violently coerced into their dispossession. The majority of the “founding fathers” enslaved people. Benjamin Franklin, who is celebrated for his statesmanship and regarded as an enlightened philosopher, drew a clear line between those he considered the “purely White People in the World,” and those he believed were not White enough. 

“In Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion, as are the Germans,” Franklin wrote. 

His fear of “swarthy” people is echoed by those propagating the racist conspiracy theory about the residents of the Travel Inn in Westmoreland. This sort of anti-Latinx racism has always existed, but it has become more aggressive since 2016 when former President Donald Trump told his supporters, “Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” According to the Brookings Institute, Donald Trump’s success in that year’s presidential election was demonstratively a result of “anti-immigrant sentiment,” as well as prejudice against other minority groups. Trump’s election triggered the second largest increase in hate crimes in the decades in which the FBI compiled such data, the only time period more hazardous for minorities was in months immediately following the attacks on September 11, 2001. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center, there are thirty-five active hate groups in New York State, including a chapter of the Proud Boys in Syracuse. Additionally, many local people have reported seeing vehicles with decals promoting the ultra-violent anti-government militia ideology known as, “Three Percenterism,” which is symbolized with roman numbers followed by a percent sign (III%) of by flashing a three fingered hand sign similar to an “ok sign” but with their fingers sideways. 

But, as Franklin’s writing shows, nativism is nothing new to this country.

Lourdes Matheus, was a Social Studies teacher and a social worker in Venezuela. She is currently a migrant agricultural worker. (Photo by Ron Klopfanstein).

“There were the Irish, also ‘White’ in the sense of a light complexion, but considered different and deviant at the time of their mass migration in the 19th Century as a result of the Irish Potato Famine,” explained Dr. Sherri Cash,a professor at Utica University who teaches U.S. immigration history.

Other nativist reactions to immigrants are founded on fears of religious and class differences. Those factors and race have shaped people’s notion of who is and who is not welcomed to the United States. The Protestant Scotch-Irish integrated easily, while the Catholic Irish faced a much more difficult reception and inspired a vein of Anti-Catholic sentiment in the 19th Century.

“This factors into what circumstances are considered legitimate reasons for immigration and what are not,” explains Dr. Cash. “Many people who are fleeing parts of Central America are doing so because they are fleeing violence [and yet] they are not considered refugees. So far, few have been granted asylum.”

The frustrating irony is that people whose labor was essential to the growth and sustenance of the country were discriminated against if the opportunity arose for them to acquire agency in society. The Chinese were forced to pay a monthly tax to mine during the California Gold Rush, but between 15,000 and 20,000 of them were employed to build the transcontinental railroad. Even while engaged in the backbreaking labor that united both coasts of the United States, they faced what is now known as conspiracy theories, such as the one centered on the Travel Inn in Westmoreland. 

“The Chinese were thought of as sneaky,” Dr. Cash told me via phone interview. “People thought they were plotting against everyone. Like today when Black people enter a store, they report that they are watched by [by security guards or other employees]. People of color have traditionally been under suspicion.”

While society’s changing definition of white (and people of color) can be mutable, the nativism and fear of immigrants has been consistent and subject to false notions about the immigration journey taken by members of one’s own ethnic group and forebears. 

The “my ancestors came the right way” argument is a misnomer, explained Dr. Cash. As long as a would-be European immigrant presented as healthy and not a criminal, they were admitted to the United States. “Until 1924 and the establishment of the ‘quota system,’ there was no border control, no visas, [and] no passport requirements to come through Ellis Island.”

The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, purposely excluded mention of immigration from the Western Hemisphere. The legislation recognized that, while not always welcome, the “Southern border” had been essentially porous for hundreds of years and that the flow of people into the United States provided an essential cheap workforce for the growing country. However, those who had crossed the border and made their home in the U.S. were generally treated as second-class citizens.

To fully grasp the historical and contemporary role of racism in American culture and society, it is essential to understand that White supremacy includes a sense of what Dr. Cash describes as “ranked whiteness.” This is particularly applicable to Latin America, where, historically, the racial structure has been more complex than that of the U.S. The migrant agricultural workers I spoke to for this story are, by definition, White. Still, they are also Latin Americans, meaning their heritage includes indigenous North Americans and the blood of Spanish conquerors, who, according to the thinking of Benjamin Franklin and far too many people today, makes them “swarthy” and thus “less than.”

They have also become routinely targeted by conservative politicians such as Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, who on August 23rd amplified and added to the racist conspiracy theory by posting about it on her official Facebook page, which has over twenty thousand followers.

In her post, she claimed to be “working with local authorities” to address what she described as “[President] Joe Biden’s midnight flights under cover of darkness.” Congresswoman Tenney alleged that “illegal immigrants had been flown into the Town of Westmoreland without the knowledge of local officials.”

I reached out by phone to Congresswoman Tenney’s Utica and Washington office and asked if she had any proof of what she was saying about the brown-skinned residents of the Travel Inn. She has not responded to my inquiry or offered additional comments to clarify or support the story she was repeating on her Facebook page.

Photo by Ron Klopfanstein.

Many of the questions I asked people I interviewed for this story were prefaced with “I realize this question is preposterous, but….” It is hard to prove a negative or disprove a lie.  One of the people I talked to was the town’s senior-most “local authority,” Town Supervisor Ken Eisnor. I asked him if he was “working with” Congresswoman Tenney regarding this issue.

In my investigation, I could not find evidence of the Congresswoman or anyone from her office “working with local authorities” regarding the employees of Martinez and Sons and their residency in the Travel Inn. [I called Rep. Claudia Tenney’s Utica and Washington D.C. office for comment. I have received no response to my questions.] The short answer is, no, she has not reached out to him, nor has he reached out to her.

“She’s never reached out to me,” Supervisor Eisnor stated, then added, “They haven’t been an issue or caused problems. I’ve had zero community feedback [or complaints] about them.”

Thankfully the workers themselves told me that they had not had problems with people from the town of Westmoreland. I spent a Saturday evening in late August with them as they celebrated the birthday of two of the workers and the site supervisor, Gilbert Garcia. 

A “Happy Birthday” banner was taped to the wall in the Westmoreland Travel Inn community room, along with blue and white balloons. The door was open, and the music of the Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny mixed with the sound of crickets, traffic on Route 233, and laughter and conversation. 

Lourdes Matheus, who I had met days before, handed me a Smirnoff Ice, and another woman offered me chips from a plate with potato chips, cheese curls, and Doritos. I brought a package of Oreos to the party; I set them next to the birthday cake. 

I said hello to Juan Martinez. He is 25 and has worked on orange and lemon farms in his native Mexico. He could not leave his rural home for the job opportunities others have in urban areas because he had only a high school diploma. There was no chance for him to pursue higher education back home. 

Without the money he earns at Green Empire Farms, his family cannot maintain economic stability. He was forced to leave his mother, three sisters, and a brother. While he was working here, his father died.

“When your dad died, were you able to go home for the funeral?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“No,” he replied. “I had to stay here and continue working,” he said. 

For Juan, there is also little opportunity to FaceTime or other video chat with his family back home since the rural part of Mexico where they live has poor Internet coverage. His conversations are primarily by phone. His dream is to return to Mexico and be with his family.  

“There are a lot of happy and sad times that I miss,” he says. “I never want to live [thousands of] miles away from my family.”

The common theme in all their stories is incredible sacrifice and hard work. These men and women work harder than we can imagine and have made sacrifices not seen in this town since our ancestors walked their path of immigration and near unrelenting toil.

I liked being immersed in their community. I greeted people with “Hola!” We all looked at our phones and walked around the parking lot to get a good signal. A bunch of us took a selfie together. Phones and music are universal languages, I thought. So is food. They filled tin foil pans with potatoes, chicken, and ribs. I talked to “Raul” (not his real name), and he was brushing honey glaze onto the ribs. I thought back to our conversation earlier in the week. 

“For the most part, the job is physically and mentally draining,” Raul told me. “But it is a steady job, and the employers are respectful and provide a good environment.”

In his native Venezuela, he was studying to be a veterinarian until economic circumstances made it impossible for him to continue. He hopes to return to his native country and continue his university studies someday, but for now, he “doesn’t see that as possible.” 

“What is it like,” I asked, “when you realize that you can’t stay where you are and you have to move thousands of miles away to a place where you don’t know anybody, don’t know the language, and you have to work so hard?”

Migratory agricultural workers celebrating the birthdays of three of their community members on August 27, 2022 at the Travel Inn in Westmoreland. (Photo by Ron Klopfanstein).

He paused for a moment and said that his mom was getting sad because he was so far from home. Not surprisingly, he was nervous at first. 

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he explained.  

“Raul” stays in touch with family at home via the Internet. He hopes that some of this family will come to work here; he has a brother and cousins who have joined him. His family asks him if he’s okay and when he is going back. 

“Everyone understands that I am here to provide a better future for his family back home,” he says. His mother, perhaps most of all, understands the sacrifice he is making for them.

Tables were pushed together in the Community Room. I poured a sauce on food made of tartar sauce, cilantro, garlic, and onions. I took a picture of the bottle which said, “McCormick Mayonesa (Mayonnaise)” and asked if they bought it at the dollar store in Westmoreland or Wal-Mart in Oneida. They laughed and said that they made it themselves. The word “familia” came to my head. I found I know a little Spanish; I am convinced it was borne out of the connection I felt to them. 

While we were standing around the grill, I told Raul that I lived just a few minutes away and motioned toward the Thruway. 

“We’re your new neighbors,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied. “Welcome to Westmoreland.”

Follow Ron Klopfanstein at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein and Instagram.com/RonKlopfanstein, and like him at Facebook.com/ReadRonKlopfanstein

Note: I am planning to organize English language classes for the residents of Westmoreland’s Travel Inn. If anyone would be interested in helping me please reach out via my social media accounts listed above. 

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