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Cornell Study Says Upstate Mexicans Largely Invisible

Cornell Study Says Upstate Mexicans Largely Invisible

A new study by Cornell University finds more Mexican farmworkers are settling in rural upstate New York, but they remain almost invisible because of language and education barriers.

About two-thirds of those surveyed said they could not speak English well. Ninety percent said their top need was learning English. About 95 percent of seasonal farmworkers upstate are now Hispanic.
The report surveyed more than 1,300 farmworkers and former farmworkers and 1,250 non-farm residents — both sides of what researchers called a “cultural gulf.”

“It’s kind of tragic, to be honest,” says the report’s co-author, Dr. Max Pfeffer, a professor of rural sociology at Cornell. “We asked about friendships. The incidence of that was very low. There were few instances of direct contact.”

Less than 20 percent of farmworkers who could not speak English said they had close American friends.

The survey found schools do the best job in pulling the two communities together, and it recommended more English-language training to help increase interaction.

Pfeffer says the study will be turned into a book.

Researchers found language and cultural barriers could turn even optimistic signs of community growth into misunderstandings. In one example, some longtime residents said they were afraid to go into immigrant-run stores simply because the windows were papered over, often with notices of sales.

On the other hand, some Mexicans said they felt unsafe on a quiet town street when no one was around because they’re accustomed to bustling public spaces back home.

It’s a gap more language learning and civic participation could help solve, the report said. Despite the differences, about 60 percent of farmworkers and former farmworkers surveyed said they found their communities welcoming.

Basic miscommunications drove the Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas in western New York last fall to set up bimonthly meetings between farmworkers and community leaders. The first group of 30 people graduated from the program last month.

“The biggest question raised at first was, ‘Why are farmworkers always in such large groups?’ I think that’s been a fear for some community members,” says Rosa Rivera, executive director of CITA, which represents about 1,800 farmworkers.

Each week in a growing number of upstate towns, groups of a half-dozen or more farmworkers show up to shop and run errands. That’s because just one of them has a driver’s license, Rivera says. The Cornell report says 72 percent of those surveyed depend on others for transportation.

“Otherwise, they’re invisible,” Rivera says. “You see them on a certain day, and that’s it.”

The report also found Mexican farmworkers who have settled in New York have an average of nine years of education and an average household income of about $20,000. About 28 percent are unemployed.
Not all surveyed for the study agreed completely with its results. John Degnan, director of the Middletown Business Improvement District, says he sees interaction among business owners and workers downtown, no matter where they’re from.

As for relationships outside business, Degnan says, “I never paid too much attention to it, as long as they were coming and getting into the storefronts.”

Money, he says, is one language everyone knows.

Associated Press

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