Cultivating a social and cultural space for Leamington’s migrant workers
uan Trejo Martinez doesn’t have a lot of time for relaxing.
For the last six years, Martinez, an IT professional in his native Mexico, leaves his family behind to come work in the fields of Essex County. He sends money back home to support his wife and four children.
Like many workers, Martinez works long shifts every day picking crops. If he’s lucky, he gets one full day of work off a week. “I do my shopping, maybe play soccer.” When asked if he ever does anything else, he laughed. “There’s no time.”
Over 20,000 migrant workers arrive in Canada yearly to take on the labourious jobs most Canadians aren’t interested in. They come from far-flung corners of the globe, including Mexico, Jamaica, Thailand and the Philippines. With them, they bring parts of their own culture. But a lack of space has led to a growing uneasiness in Leamington, Windsor-Essex’s agricultural centre.
In 2010, Leamington municipal council requested a Community Improvement Plan (“CIP”) from Jones Consulting Group. “During the information gathering stages in the surveys that we did, one of the issues that is constant was their [people’s] apprehension to shop in the uptown core area due to the number of migrant workers … basically being in the uptown core area,” said Leamington Mayor John Patterson.
Jones recommended that city council create what they call a “Migrant friendship centre”— a place for migrant workers to gather.
But Mayor Patterson would prefer to see migrant workers integrate into the community. “We don’t want to push migrant workers off the street. We want to make it so that everyone flows together.” He noted that community programs are already funded for the workers through the Migrant Worker Committee, a group that also receives funding through the Mexican consulate and NatureFresh, one of the largest employers of migrant workers in the area.
On a scorching hot June day in uptown Leamington, the streets seem busy with both migrant workers and full-time Leamington residents. Tacos Tony, a local Mexican restaurant, is filled with both, who come in and out to order take-out burrito’s and catch some of the Euro Cup soccer tournament on TV.
Just around the corner, Rene Vidal and his partner Mary are hard at work inside the Agricultural Worker’s Centre. Established in 2002, the centre now acts as a defacto gathering place for many of the workers who come to Windsor-Essex.
“We do some activities here,” said Vidal. “We had Father’s Day in Selkirk Park, we had a big barbeque for our 10th anniversary.”
But the two-bedroom house isn’t enough for the thousands of workers who live and work near Leamington.
For a year now, Vidal has had plans for a pavilion for migrant workers in Selkirk Park, a nearby green space that the centre already uses for larger events. “It would be positive for the workers because they have no place to go [right now].”
Vidal’s plan, created in conjunction with an engineering student from the University of Windsor, would see a pavilion and community garden built by the migrant workers themselves alongside volunteers from the community. There would be no charge for use of the pavilion. “The workers can sit and play music, play chess— whatever they want to do,” he said.
Vidal has reached out to the mayor with his plans, and hopes to approach municipal council, but time and money is an issue. Vidal is the centre’s only employee; his partner works as a volunteer. He’s on-call helping workers with almost any problem you could think of, from driving them to doctor’s appointment’s to helping them campaign to get access to their CPP contributions.
Vidal is also critical of the programs offered by the municipality and the Migrant Worker’s Committee. “It’s all funded by farmers— they don’t help the workers.”
Most of the programs offered by the committee also include a fee, something that few workers can afford as they save funds to send back home. Vidal thinks that programs should be free, which is why he advocates for the pavilion in Selkirk Park. “The community should give something [back]. The workers make the town get big and they create jobs for people. They should have a place where they can have some sort of recreation on their own.”
The importance of access to arts and cultural programs can’t be understated. “I think it’s essential,” said United Food and Commercial Workers organizer Stan Raper. Raper advocated on behalf of many of the migrant workers in Windsor-Essex and beyond. “We forget the human aspect or the humanity of the life we lead. The workers put in a lot of time on the fields and in the greenhouses. They generally need to feel connected to the rest of the world.”
As part of the centre’s 10 year anniversary, the UFCW commissioned Montreal-based artist Gilda Monreal to create a mural for the building. “I wanted to dedicate something to the dignity and to the respect of agricultural workers no matter where they come from because the dreams, sacrifices they have made coming to this country are because they want to plant seeds for a better future.”
The mural depicts a worker offering a tomato, symbolic of the contributions that the migrants make to the area through their labour. “One of these days someone will throw paint on it,” worried Vidal. It’s a telling comment that reveals how much tension still exists between the two communities that call Leamington home.