What two Mexican migrants taught me about friendship and resistance: A reporter’s notebook

Part of
Published on: April 21, 2023

Table of contents

  1. A Disappointing Job

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Mario and I spent a whole morning together face to face while I held a microphone to interview him. We covered all the interview questions that I had prepared. In the end, I still felt him uneasy with my presence.

Until we got in the car and I started driving.

It was challenging to convince Mario to see me. He was afraid. Making his story public would endanger his family in Mexico. He asked me to omit some details about his place of origin and not to publish his real name. In return, I would interview Mario and Diego, his best friend. These are not their real names but ones our team decided to use. During the months of this investigation, we always called them Diego and Mario, even in our files and internal meetings.

For several weeks before my trip, I tried to gain the trust of Diego and Mario, ages 36 and 29, through conversations over the phone. Even so, it was only during that ride in the car, after the interview, that Mario began to loosen up. I don’t know if it was the distance or the fact that there was no longer a microphone between us.

While driving, Mario asked me if my grandparents were still alive. When I told him they weren’t, he gave me his condolences and remembered his own. His grandfather had passed away two months earlier, he said. Mario estimated that he was about 110 years old.

I remember that I was impressed by his grandfather’s age. “Before, they ate very differently than they do now,” he told me about the health of his ancestors, natives of an indigenous town in southern Mexico, where Mario was also born and raised. “They ate the vegetables that come from the field, chayote, beans, and corn. Right now, everything we consume has chemicals.”

We were advancing on a long, flat road. On this site, the houses were widely dispersed. Several had Confederate flags on their porches. I saw many churches. From time to time, trucks loaded with wooden logs passed us. As we talked about Mexico, I thought about how these men had ended up in such a different place from where they grew up.

Mario’s life has taken many turns. He could not be by his grandfather’s side to say goodbye. For the past five years, he has lived in a city of fewer than 10,000 people, almost 2,000 miles from his home. Without his family, he has made a new life here. He was able to see snow for the first time, learned to drive and slowly, he’s been learning some English words.

Mario didn’t dream of living here.

In 2018, he lived in Mexico in a house made of aluminum sheets he had built himself. He felt he could not build a better home for his children and wife. So, he obtained a visa to work in the United States as a farmer for six months. It seemed like an excellent opportunity: he would earn  much higher wages than in Mexico and would have guaranteed housing and food as part of the program. And he would not be alone. His friend Diego would also join the adventure.

Mario soon understood that rural living in the United States was very different from his homeland. In Mexico, he grew up farming coffee, corn, and avocado. In the United States, the scale of the agricultural industry–and the extensive use of pesticides–was unknown to him.

Mario was aware of the country change implications. He said goodbye to his family, convinced that he would return in six months. His employers in the United States abruptly cut short that aspiration.

A Disappointing Job

As part of the H-2A visa rules, employers must provide their workers with food and lodging in addition to paying their wages. When Diego and Mario arrived at the farm where they would work in North Carolina, company employees settled them in an abandoned house with tick-ridden mattresses. They stole their wages and threatened to confiscate their passports.

  • To find out more about this investigation, listen to the first episode of our series “Head Down”

Mario and Diego were starving and fearing for several days until they managed to escape.

They ended up in the town where they live now for an almost fortuitous reason. In the United States, workers with H-2A visas can only work for the companies that recruited them. If they escape or resign, they lose their legal status. Diego and Mario did not have a support network in the United States or money and became undocumented. They were desperate. Until Diego remembered that he had a friend in the U.S. After contacting him, the friend agreed to welcome them to his home.

Five years later, Mario and Diego still live in that small town. After the interview, I visited a nearby town with Mario, about 30 minutes away by car. We stopped at a small store with Mexican products, one of the few around. Mario goes to the store several times a week to find out how much the currency exchange is from dollars to Mexican pesos. If he sees that it suits him, he makes a transfer and immediately notifies his wife. This is the only store with a money transfer service near his house.

Since they moved to that city, Mario and Diego have worked in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant. They only have one day off a week. They use it to talk extensively with their wives. Sometimes they play soccer with other migrant friends. During my visit, Mario was excited. After four years at the restaurant, they would finally be allowed a week off. His plans were to visit a zoo.

My visit happened in the middle of summer. The heat was intense, but the city was surrounded by natural places to visit. Mario and Diego have never been to any of them. They spend almost all their time earning money to send to their families in Mexico. They live in a modest house with other coworkers. They sustain themselves with almost no money and support each other. They both told me they only have each other as a family away from home.

“Here, we all come from almost the same place. So it’s a little easier to socialize. Many do not speak Spanish well. We speak our languages,” Diego said. Unlike Mario, who is serious and reserved, Diego is charismatic and talkative.

As I recorded them in their daily lives, I thought about the community these men had formed and how this small town was slowly becoming populated with people like them, willing to work and live in rural America. As a reporter, I have learned that immigrants and U.S. citizens prefer to live in large urban centers that offer opportunities. By being here, these migrants are contributing to local economies and customs.

It is also inevitable to think about how much these men have lost. I was moved when Mario showed me the video of his daughter’s graduation on his cell phone.

“That’s her!” he told me, pointing at a tall girl in a cap and gown, walking to receive her diploma.

Mario and Diego lean on each other to cope with the deep trauma of their arrival in the United States.

“He has taught me to make big plans, save, and not waste money. He’s older and more serious than me,” Diego said while he looked at Mario with a smile. Mario has always been impressed by Diego’s ability to learn new things fast.

Today, these friends are like brothers. Together they have made perhaps the most critical and risky decisions of their lives: to come to the United States, escape the horror they went through on the farm where they worked, and not keep quiet or lower their heads. Together they sued their former employers in the H-2A visa program. Although they did not admit guilt, the defendants had to pay Mario and Diego a little more than $10,000 each for the damages caused.

Now, Mario and Diego decided not to keep quiet again. They shared their story with me and with the rest of the world. The storm has passed. Both recently obtained new visas in the U.S. for people who have experienced human trafficking. After these years, they finally imagine a future with their families. I do not doubt that they will succeed.

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