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Thursday, 12 October 2017 17:13

A Taste of Mexico: A Family’s Dedication to Migrant Agricultural Workers Featured

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Anabel Andrade prepares enchiladas for the migrant farm workers. Anabel Andrade prepares enchiladas for the migrant farm workers. Photo by Gabe Perez

The day of a farm worker starts at the crack of dawn and stretches well into evening. These work days also call for hearty meals to keep workers energized.

Preparing these meals makes for an even earlier morning for some.

From April to October, Anabel Andrade begins her days in the kitchen at 4 a.m. to provide homemade and authentic Mexican meals to the migrant workers at Scott’s Farm and Jones and Church Farm in Unicoi County, Tennessee. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, she is the fuel for these workers’ day of strenuous labor.

As a child growing up on Scott’s Farm in the 1980s, Andrade began building her cooking skills and igniting her passion for food by helping her mother in the kitchen.

“I first got involved helping out in the kitchen when I was little, probably about 12 years old,” Andrade said. “All the adults on the farm would go to work, while the older kids took care of the younger kids.”

Back in the '80s and '90s, farms such as Scott’s would hire entire families to work in the fields, as opposed to the single, male farm workers the farms hire today. This means that responsibilities were shared between men and women, leaving the children to not only look after one another in the living spaces, but also to prepare for the adults coming home.

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“My mother started leaving me chores to do by the time she got home,” Andrade said. “Once I got my chores done, I would have tasks as simple as boiling beans and peeling potatoes, so she wouldn’t have to start cooking from nothing.”

As time went on, Andrade’s maternal grandfather grew ill. Her mother tended to him, relying on Andrade to take the reins in the kitchen, cooking for the farm workers and family.

“I was working [in the fields] and taking care of my younger siblings all at the same time,” Andrade said. “We could have told the workers that we could not cook for them because of the family situation, but we knew how important our commitment to them was.”

This commitment is to the Mexican migrant farm workers under the H-2A work visa program during the farming season, from April to October.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the H-2A program allows U.S. employers who meet specific requirements to bring in foreign nationals to take on temporary agricultural jobs.

They receive nonimmigrant visas, which mean they are here to work for a fixed amount of time, as opposed to the more permanent immigrant visas. The temporary or seasonal nonimmigrant work visas are much more common than the immigrant visas.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, the government issued around 600,000 immigrant visas in 2016, compared to the 10 million nonimmigrant visas.

Andrade describes the program as being positive overall, benefitting the individual workers and the farms on which they work.

“The worker’s fare to get here gets paid,” Andrade said. “They come and have a secure job for the six months they are here and the farms have dedicated workers. If the workers leave their contract, they can’t come back next year, and if they get in trouble with the law, their contract is automatically terminated.”

The workers also positively affect the local economy by spending their own wages.

“A lot of businesses in the area see the boost when the workers are here for the season,” Andrade said. “It’s probably about 200 workers all together that arrive. It’s a big boost in the economy.”

In 2016, Andrade opened her family-run restaurant, La Meza, near both farms as well as her home. This opening allowed her to upgrade her operation of preparing food for the workers, as well as blessing the locals with her cooking. La Meza holds a well-established reputation in the area for serving authentic Mexican cuisine, all made from scratch.

Andrade’s upbringing in her mother’s kitchen, as well as on the farm, prepared her to effectively serve the farm workers today. She takes each meal into careful consideration, making sure they are nutritious, satisfying and diverse.

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“I never double-up meals in a week,” Andrade said. “I always try to give them something different. I know what it is like out there and how hard it is for them. Not anyone can do this. You need to understand the culture. It’s not just the cooking, but knowing what kind of food is best for them. That’s one of the things my mother taught me.”

The family’s restaurant is not only a place of business, but a second home. Andrade is assisted by family members in preparing and cooking food for the farm workers, as well as in the dining room during the restaurant’s time open to the public. When she is accompanied by her family in the kitchen, you can hear laughter from outside the kitchen door.

Her main help in the kitchen comes from her sister, Alma Andrade, and her son Daniel Meza. While the two assist Andrade physically, the sisters’ mother continues to help in the way they look at their dedication to the hungry workers. Alma recalls her mother’s philosophy and how it has carried over into today.

AndradeAndDaniel edited“My mother always said that no matter what time it was, or if the kitchen was closed, if someone was hungry, she was going to feed them,” Alma said. “They worked hard and were hungry. No matter what it took, she was going to give them food, even if they did not have the money to pay for it. That has been our motto: ‘If you are hungry, we’re going to feed you.’”

Her son Daniel explains how important this family time is, and how the relationships between Andrade and the rest of the family flourish in the kitchen.

 

"They have saved my sanity.”

– Anabel Andrade

 

“I'm very close to my mom,” Daniel said. “I tell her everything while we're at the restaurant, and she's helped me through many things that I asked advice on. We always have a determined mindset when it comes to cooking, but we also love to have fun when we can.”

While experience and the advice from a loving mother, as well help from other family members, can prepare someone for the job at hand, nothing can prepare a family for tragedy.

On July 9, 2017, Andrade’s world was shaken when her 19-year-old son Alan Meza, who would work as a server in the family's restaurant, died in a car accident.

The devastating loss caused the family to close La Meza, as it was one obligation too many for the family to endure during the grieving process. Fortunately for the farm workers, the owners of the restaurant building allow Andrade to continue preparing food for them in the kitchen, alongside her supportive team.

“Bonding with her has really helped both of us after the accident,” Daniel said. “Anyone that knows my mom can tell how important our family time is to get.”

Not only does Andrade see serving the workers as a commitment, but also a saving grace after the loss of her son.

“With my son’s accident, many would have given it up all together,” Andrade said. “At first I kept in mind that I was the only person feeding them. As time went on with my grieving, I realized that the farm workers and providing for them has kept me going. The workers don’t know that I’m not doing them a favor, they are doing me a favor. They have saved my sanity.”

 

Above right: Anabel Andrade prepares salsa. Center: Tortillas are warmed on the griddle. Bottom: Anabel and son Daniel enjoy bonding time in the kitchen (Photos by Gabe Perez).

Read 78 times Last modified on Friday, 03 November 2017 20:06