For the Fair
Every year, thousands of Mexicans with temporary visas go to the United States to work at the county fairs. For many, this seems like an opportunity for a better life, but often the conditions at the fairs are not what they expected. A group of these workers decided to take action, but sometimes doing the right thing can put you in a difficult situation.
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Translation by Patrick Moseley
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[Levi Bridges, producer]: Doing this job, eight months or more out of the year, is really hard because they don’t let you sleep.
[Daniel]: This is Levi Bridges, a US journalist. In 2014, he spent the summer working at a fair in California. One of those typical fairs that has…
[Levi]: Rides, animals, food, like corn dogs, caramel apples.
[Daniel]: In other words, really healthy food.
[Levi]: Well… [Laughs] Not really. Not really.
[Daniel]: In other words, it’s like diabetes mixed with [laughs] rides.
[Levi]: Well, more or less.
[Daniel]: They’re temporary fairs that are set up in different towns and cities in the US throughout the year. In English, they’re called county fairs. There’s at least one in every state.
Lev started out working in games of chance. He was in charge of that game with the plastic ducks floating in a little pool… and people pay about five dollars to throw big rings trying to get them around the little duck. The prize, of course, is a stuffed animal.
Then they had him operating the rides.
[Levi]: Sit down.
[Children]: Is this scary?
[Levi]: It’s not scary.
[Children]: I’ve been on before.
[Daniel]: And what did your job consist of?
[Levi]: You take the tickets. You greet the people who are going to go on the rides.
[Children]: Will we fall?
[Levi]: You’re not gonna fall. Not if you do what I tell you to do.
[Children]: Ah, my shoe.
[Levi]: You, sir, right over there, feet go all the way on the bottom of that pocket, let me help you.
You learn how to do everything. How to take down rides. How to run the rides too.
[Daniel]: In the fair where Levi worked, there were Mexican and US employees. Before, most of the workers at these fairs were gringos, but in the early 2000s, the companies that run the food stands and the rides started hiring a lot of Mexicans. It was hard to find Americans who wanted to go from city to city for months.
At the fair where Levi worked…
[Levi]: The Mexican people lived on one side. And on the other side, are the people from the US. They didn’t mix much. They didn’t work together.
[Daniel]: Rather segregated communities.
[Mexican workers]: As my grandfather would say, play La Cucaracha…
[Levi]: The Mexicans were in charge of the biggest rides. The rides that were the hardest to take down.
[Levi]: The people from the US never worked on the complicated rides, they were always on the kid’s rides… Most of the people from the US had problems with drugs. They were always drunk.
[Daniel]: It’s not that the Mexicans never went out to party, but according to Levi, not as much. A few beers on the weekends, and that was it. In general, they took the job more seriously, and maybe that’s why they were in charge of the more complicated rides.
[Levi]: So it was like there were two different cultures at this, this carnival.
[Daniel]: But Levi was interested in the Mexicans. He wanted to know more about the work situation and the visa that a lot of them had… A temporary work visa. That’s why he had gotten a job at the fair. He started earning their trust and spending more time on that side. And since he speaks some Spanish, the boss themselves sent him to work with the Mexican employees.
He told me that one day in particular: Levi was driving a group of his Mexican co-workers around. He was driving a van. And they were really tired… They had worked a lot of hours that week and had spent the whole night taking down the rides at the fair. Which isn’t at all unusual.
[Levi]: And that job takes until eight in the morning or sometimes ten or noon. So you work like 24 hours or more.
[Daniel]: That Monday morning, Levi and his co-workers were on their way to the next destination where they would set up the fair.
[Levi]: We were going from California to Idaho.
[Daniel]: More than 800 kilometers on the road. And Levi was so tired that…
[Levi]: I was really afraid I was going to kill them, that I was going to kill the people in the van. I think I fell asleep twice while I was driving, I mean, I fell asleep and woke up.
[Daniel]: With 10 Mexican co-workers snoring in the back.
[Levi]: I remember I was driving through the mountains of California, and I was thinking about their town in Mexico, their families because I had already spent a lot of time in their town.
[Daniel]: A town in the state of Veracruz that Levi knew well: Tlapacoyan, which is where most of these workers are from. There he had met a lot of the families that depended on this job.
[Daniel]: It seems very powerful, that image of crossing the mountains and thinking about how if I fall asleep and we crash I’m going to leave behind 15 widows in that little town in Mexico.
[Levi]: That’s what I was thinking.
[Daniel]: Of course, and how many orphans? And…
[Daniel]: There’s nothing more gringo than a county fair. These county fairs are an important, almost iconic part of US culture. At the same time, as Levi can confirm, these fairs depend on Mexican labor.
After that summer, for several of the following years, Levi would return to Tlapacoyan several times in order to understand how this little Mexican town came to be the center of such a gringo cultural event.
Levi followed this story for more than five years. His editor, Silvia Viñas is going to narrate it.
[Silvia Viñas, editor]: It’s two in the afternoon in Tlapacoyan, a Mexican town in the state of Veracruz, about a 300-kilometer drive east of Mexico City. In a soccer field, there are men in blue and red shirts playing in an unbearable heat.
It’s the final, the last game in the annual tournament. The teams: Blue Star and Corazón de América. The winner of this match gets a gold trophy and, more importantly, the adoration of the townspeople. Corazón de América is ahead on the scoreboard.
This isn’t just any tournament. Blue Star and Corazón de América are also the names of two companies that run fairs in the US. And the players are their employees. They just came back to Tlapacoyan, after more than six months working at fairs, to spend Christmas with their families.
Omar Encarnación is 31 years old. He works with Corazón de América.
[Omar Encarnación]: I’d like to thank my boss, Robert Warner, uh… Miss Yuri since, honestly, every year she helps us put the team together…
[Silvia]: The match this afternoon is part of an event called “The Migrant Festival.” It’s the same week as the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, December 12th.
During the day, the streets are filled with parades and religious processions. At night, they set off fireworks… It’s not just a festival in honor of the Virgin Mary, but also the migrants who came home safe and sound.
Tlapacoyan is located between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Gulf of Mexico. From the nearby, hills you can see the church. It’s a white building, with a tower that shines so brightly in the midday sun it’s almost blinding.
And beyond the town everything is very green: there are hills covered in orange and plantain trees, and coffee planted in the shade.
The Migrant Festival of that year, 2016, ends with a meal for the workers. They make it in a field, with dozens of tables under a white tent. Hundreds of workers sit to eat, facing a stage where a band plays traditional music from the region.
When they’re done eating, a special guest arrives: Jim Judkins, a labor recruiter.
[Presenter]: I’d like us to welcome Mr. Jim Judkins. (Applause)
[Silvia]: Jim works and lives in Texas. He has short, gray hair, and he’s about 60 years old. And he seems to feel comfortable on stage, holding so many people’s attention. He goes up to the microphone with confidence, even though Spanish isn’t his native language.
[Jim Judkins]: This is year number 38, 38 for me, traveling to visit my friends and family, because you are my family here in Tlapacoyan. (Applause)
[Silvia]: The workers look at Jim. They’re sitting around tables with white tablecloths and bottles of Coke. Jim speaks in Spanish and then translates into English for a few fair owners from the US who have also arrived. The whole event is bilingual.
[Jim]: This is my 38th year of traveling to visit my friends and family, and you’re all my family…
[Silvia]: In the ‘70s, Jim started working at a circus that toured the US. He did a little bit of everything. He was a cook and driver. He was also a magician… Seriously, the kind of magician you’re imagining… He would breathe fire and lay on a bed of nails. And there, he met a met a man from Tlapacoyan named Víctor Apolinar. Then, Jim started his own circus, and Víctor went to work with him.
Today, at The Migrant Festival, Víctor is next to Jim on the stage and Jim introduces him.
[Jim]: My good friend, honestly, my brother: Víctor Juan Apolinar Barrios. (Applause)
[Silvia]: You can tell they’re very close. Víctor has black hair and is a little short. He barely reaches Jim’s shoulders. He’s dressed a little formally, with a white dress shirt.
[Victor Apolinar]: Believe me, it’s an honor for me to be speaking to you, because I am part of a team which was built over man years, which was…
[Silvia]: In the ‘90s, Victor worked at Jim’s circus, who at that time started hiring foreigners. He would bring them to the US on temporary visas.
They’re called H-2 visas. There are two kinds. One is the H-2A, which is for jobs relating to agriculture. The other is the H-2B. This is for other industries like landscaping, seafood processing, carpentry, and of course, the fairs.
Jim realized that there was a large demand for fair workers. So, in the early 2000s, he started a company, JKJ Workforce Agency, which recruits migrants to work in circuses and fairs in the US. And Víctor went back to Tlapacoyan and started recruiting people from there.
Today the company recruits workers for more than 100 companies. Mostly for fairs. Every year they apply for H-2B visas for more than 4,000 Mexicans so they can go work in almost every state in the country.
[Man 1]: I’m working in Kentucky, Alabama…
[Man 2]: Tennessee, Ohio…
[Woman 1]: Texas, Arizona…
[Man 3]: West Virginia, Virginia…
[Man 4]: Florida, Nueva York, Michigan
[Woman 2]: And California.
[Silvia]: For the fairs, they recruit men and women, but mostly men. And for a lot of people in Tlapacoyan, getting this visa can mean an enormous change in their lives. At the fairs, they earn more money than in the town and, where the most common job is harvesting oranges and plantains—which barely gets them enough money to survive day-to-day.
[Jim]: Every year, I see more and more children and grandchildren who no longer have to work in the fields.
[Silvia]: It’s true, the fairs help the people of Tlapacoyan a lot. But that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect job.
Some workers told Levi that the customers don’t always treat them well. When there is a complaint about a ride, for example, they tell the Mexican workers that they’re stealing jobs from Americans… They tell them to go back home… This, despite the fact that they’re working legally.
And then, there’s the pay. The standard work week in the US is 40 hours, and the legal minimum wage varies from state to state, but it’s around $7.25. And if they worked that schedule at the fair, well, what they make wouldn’t be bad.
But when Levi spoke with the workers, they told him that those 40 hours are often doubled. Or more.
[Bernardo]: At first, when I arrived, they paid me… $340, 330, 340…
[Hector]: Well, I was making about $275 a week…
[Woman 2]: We worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day…
[Bernardo]: From 90, 92 hours more or less, which you work in a week there.
[Hector]: And when I was driving, then they gave me $25 more and that’s how it ended up being $300, mhm, a week.
[Woman 2]: In total, 98 hours a week, with $322 pay.
[Silvia]: $322 for 98 hours of work… That’s about $4 an hour.
All of this is a little complicated, but the fairs can’t just pay minimum wage. By law. When they ask for permission to hire temporary workers, they have to promise to pay salaries that would be attractive to citizens. In other words, more than the minimum.
I’m mentioning this just to give a little context. The workers should be making more than minimum wage. Much more. They shouldn’t be making $4 an hour… Not by a long shot.
[Miguel Montalvo]: We’re talking about how they should be earning around $1,000 a week.
[Silvia]: This is Miguel Montalvo, a Mexican lawyer who helps migrants who are victims of labor abuse in the US.
Miguel is giving an example, of course, not all carnivals are like that. But in the cases he’s mentioning, the average amount they pay them is $600 less than what they should.
[Miguel]: So I see people who are going with these companies for five or 10 years and only come to see their families four, five, six weeks out of the year, and the rest of their life from the… from the moment they wake, to the time they go to sleep belongs to the company… Basically, this is a form of modern slavery.
[Silvia]: Levi tried to speak with Jim Judkins during The Migrant Festival in Tlapacoyan, to ask him about the worker’s salaries and about their working conditions…
[Woman 2]: This song to remember this great person that all of you had the chance to meet…
[Silvia]: When Jim stops speaking, he gets off the stage “My Way” by Frank Sinatra is playing in the background.
(SOUNDBITE “MY WAY” BY FRANK SINATRA)
[Silvia]: Some local reporters approach him immediately. Levi follows behind. One of the journalists asks Jim how much they pay the workers…
[Journalist]: How much is their salary?
[Jim]: Well, it depends on where they work, but it’s $10-$15 an hour.
[Silvia]: Levi takes advantage of the situation and asks what he thinks about reports of labor exploitation at the fairs that had come out in the US.
[Jim]: Well, the stories that have come out, a lot of them that have been put up by groups like Derechos de los Migrantes are made-up stories, they are not true stories or the way it really is…
[Silvia]: I’ll translate: Jim says that the stories about exploitation are made up. Fake news. That they don’t reflect the reality of the fairs. Then he tells Levi that maybe they can meet up later to do a deeper interview, but then, he leaves.
It’s worth mentioning that Levi asked to interview Jim many times, but he declined to speak with him. He told him that he doesn’t speak to the press anymore because journalists always change his words.
But some people in the town, the fair workers themselves, did speak with Levi.
[Andy Contreras]: I worked with Ride’s Amusement one season, Cowboy Kettle Corn also one season…
[Silvia]: This is Andy Contreras, a 37-year-old man from Tlapacoyan who’s worked a total of six seasons at fairs for various companies. He doesn’t do it anymore, and you’ll understand why later on.
Now he lives in Tlapacoyan again, and he drives a taxi and sells elotes asados. On sunny days, he goes into the forest to hunt snakes.
[Andy]: Like five meters long man, I’m out of there. It scares me.
[Silvia]: One of the days Levi visits him, Andy is with his friend Diego, looking for snakes with a machete in hand.
[Diego]: A five-meter long one, can already strangle you, right?
[Andy]: The two and a half meter one is already trouble! The two and a half meter one, you won’t get off!
[Silvia]: Then, he sells the skin at the market. People use it to make boots and wallets. Since he was young, Andy had to learn to make a living on his own. His dad died when he was 17.
[Andy]: I’m the youngest. There weren’t a lot of economic resources when it came to me. Since, since I was little, there weren’t those kinds of birthday presents, at Christmas parties or the Feast of the Three Kings, or Children’s Day.
[Silvia]: He worked at the market in Tlapacoyan, loading and unloading fruits and vegetables.
[Andy]: I already knew that I had to work to be able to buy things. I started to save money to buy a stereo. I listened to old-school music… I listened to songs from bands like the Beatles. I listened to The Rolling Stones…
(SOUNDBITE “(I CAN’T GET NO) SATISFACTION” BY THE ROLLING STONES)
[Andy]: The Who, Pink Floyd.
(SOUNDBITE “COMFORTABLY NUMB” BY PINK FLOYD)
[Andy]: I worked in the market for a long time and the pay every week was about 800, 900 pesos sometimes… It wasn’t a lot.
[Silvia]: Less than $100 at the exchange rate at the time.
[Andy]: We worked 90 some, almost 100 hours a week. It was a lot of hours working and the, the, the pay wasn’t very much.
[Silvia]: A lot of work and little pay. The same thing he would experience at the fairs in the US.
The recruiters didn’t want to talk to Levi to explain what the recruitment process for the fairs is like. But the workers did.
They told him the first step is to apply for a job at an office in Tlapacoyan. And this is going to sound a little odd, but they told him that every time they went to work at a fair in the US, they had to pay a fee to the recruiter’s office. Yes, you pay to be hired.
[Andy]: If you’re willing to go to the US, you have to put an amount of money in an envelope, which is 5,000 pesos.
[Silvia]: Between $350 and $400, which was the value of the Mexican peso compared to the dollar when Andy went to work at the fair in 2010 and 2011. Other workers in the town paid similar amounts.
[Andy]: And you show up with your name written on this envelope. You show up at the office, and you give it to them, and now you have the right to get a work visa.
[Silvia]: According to some workers and testimony from the recruiters in public documents that Levi looked through, that fee was to pay for the visa and travel. At any rate, charging them that fee isn’t illegal if later the company that runs the fair reimburses the expense. But the workers say they never gave them that money back. Several studies indicate that it’s very common for recruiters abroad to ask for payment with the pretext of using it to get a visa.
Levi has not been able to prove if Víctor —Jim Judkins’ Mexican partner who recruits in Tlapacoyan— gets a cut of that fee or not. But recruiting workers in the town seems to be a big business. According to legal documents, Jim paid Víctor $100 for every migrant he recruited. And remember he brought thousands of migrants to the fairs every season. It’s a lot of money. And well, there are also other expenses for the workers. For example, to arrive in the US in order to start working…
[Andy]: You pay for the… your hotel, your food.
[Silvia]: According to labor laws in the US, the company that hired them should pay for all of the travel expenses, or at least reimburse employees. But with this type of workers, it’s rather common for that not to happen. And well, the government isn’t monitoring to see if they are making those reimbursements either.
A lot of migrants take out a loan to be able to pay the recruitment fee and all of the travel expenses. They think that with the pay they’re being promised, it’s worth it to do it. That they can pay off their debt later. But what usually happens is…
[Miguel]: They go there, they get into debt, they ask for a loan to go there and they arrive, and they can’t even pay the principle, and they’re being charged interest.
[Silvia]: Levi asked the US Office of Consular Affairs about the fee the recruiters supposedly use for the visas. The US consulate in Monterrey responded generally, saying that they make a great effort to make sure these things don’t happen.
They’ve even had campaigns on the radio and YouTube to better explain this work visa to people.
[Consulate]: Do you want to work legally in the US to earn money for you and your family? The H-2 visa program makes that possible.
[Silvia]: They inform migrants of their rights.
[Consulate]: Avoid fraud. Don’t pay fees to anyone in order to participate in the H-2 visa program.
[Silvia]: But workers are in a complicated position because the recruiters are the ones who help them with paperwork for the visa. They have to trust them in order for everything to turn out alright.
And several people told Levi that the recruiters also tell them what they should say in the interview. For example: “If someone at the consulate asks if you paid a recruiter, you have to say no.”
They even go with them to the consulate. And on top of that, some say that the recruiters even tell them the amount of money they should legally be paid at the fairs—and they make it clear that that is the amount they have to say at the consulate.
If they answer the questions correctly at the consulate, proving that the recruiter and the employer are obeying the law, they give them the visa. The process from the time of the interview until they give them the visa last about 3 days. And once they have it, they get on a bus headed for the US.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we were in Tlapacoyan, where thousands of workers at gringo fairs come from. Legal workers, of course. Recruited and hired by US companies.
With visas in hand, they cross the border and travel between one and three days on a bus—depending on the route they take and how far away their destination is—in order to arrive at their jobs.
Silvia Viñas continues the story.
[Silvia]: As you heard before, the fairs have a very tough schedule. It varies from fair to fair, but many of them are open from 10 in the morning to 11 at night. On top of that, once they arrive in a new city, they have to set up the rides, and when the fair is over, they have to take it all down.
[Andy]: Sometimes, we don’t have enough light.
[Silvia]: And workers like Andy don’t just have to disassemble the fair in near darkness, but also under a large number of difficult conditions…
[Andy]: Sometimes, in the rain. Sometimes, it was cold and, well, the irons slip out of your hands. And sometimes, we would find snakes, raccoons, skunks, and, well, sometimes, it was kind of dangerous because you don’t want to bother that kind of animal.
[Silvia]: They work all night so they can travel early in the morning.
[Andy]: We had to hurry, move ourselves, without, without stopping, so sometimes, we would go up without, without caring if we were wearing helmets or gloves.
Sometimes, we didn’t have ladders. Sometimes, they didn’t give you the harness or some necessary piece of equipment to be able to work. Sometimes, we went up on the bars that are welded to some of the rides and climbed. We would use them like ladders because we had to, to hurry to take everything down and we couldn’t waste time waiting for someone else to let you use the ladder.
[Silvia]: And of course, working under these conditions, accidents happen…
[Esaú Morales]: I hurt myself putting up a tensor. I mean, the tensor got loose and hit part of, of my face.
[Silvia]: In 2014, one of Andy’s co-workers, a young man who’s now 32 named Esaú Morales, was on Telemundo describing how he was injured by a tensor cable. He was setting up a ride. He was employed by a company called Deggeller Attractions. They run one of the largest fairs in the US.
After the accident, Esaú went to the hospital. And the next day, even though he was hurt…
[Esau]: I had to work like it was a normal day. There with the inflammation and the pain, working.
[Silvia]: His head hurt, and his nose was bleeding. He explained how he was feeling to his boss, and he told him to gather his things and go back to Mexico. He fired him.
[Miguel]: It’s hard for them to complain because today they’re here, then the next week, they’re somewhere else. How are they going to find a lawyer to help them with legal services or whatever they need, right?
[Silvia]: This is Miguel Montalvo, the lawyer we met earlier. Miguel had heard about these cases, of Mexicans working at fairs who were mistreated by their bosses, and he wanted workers to be able to defend their rights within the US justice system.
[Miguel]: We were basically asking, house by house, to see if they had gone and what company they had gone with and to tell us.
[Silvia]: Miguel started looking for workers in Tlapacoyan to inform them of their rights, to see if they wanted legal help. Miguel and some fellow lawyers that live in the US thought that if a group of migrants sued and won, maybe they could help reform the working conditions at all the fairs.
[Miguel]: I always thought, I said, there has to be someone who isn’t happy. There has to be someone who they won’t take anymore, and we have to find that person or those people, and they are the ones who are going to file the suit.
[Silvia]: Miguel says that a lot of them were afraid to speak with him because they thought if someone from the town saw them talking to a lawyer, and the recruiters found out, they wouldn’t take them to the US anymore.
Nevertheless, for six months, Miguel took several trips to Tlapacoyan to speak with the workers. Until one day, Esaú told him that he wanted to sue Deggeller Attractions for the accident and for how he was treated afterwards… for making him work the next day when he was recovering. Miguel and his colleagues took the case, but they kept talking to other workers.
[Miguel]: It took a long time for people to start talking to us because they had a lot of questions, and they were afraid, so we have to explain the law to them, and we have to explain the situation until they understand, and it can take a… Well, you talk like that one afternoon with someone, and sometimes you talk to people and, and, and in the end, they say they’d better not.
[Silvia]: Miguel noticed something in common among a lot of the workers at Deggeller Attractions: the company wasn’t paying them what they had promised.
So, the lawyers decided to focus on their salaries. After months of conversations, a group of 19 workers decided to sue the company.
The lawyers asked an expert to do a report, and they found that Deggeller Attractions owed nearly $85,000 in unpaid salaries over three years. And that was just an analysis of 11 of the workers who had decided to sue the company. There were dozens more people who had worked with them.
Miguel and his team filed the suit in 2013, in a court in Florida because that is the state where Deggeller Attractions’ offices are located. If they won, the plaintiffs could recover a large portion of their lost salaries. But the workers didn’t have the support of all of Tlapacoyan. Though it may sound cruel, from the town’s point of view, it’s understandable. Remember, a lot of the town lives off of jobs provided by companies like Deggeller Attractions.
So, many people doubted the group intentions. Including Andy’s, who was also suing the company.
[Andy]: Some people look at you like… like a person who wants to make easy money because you got involved in this suit, they see you as a lazy person, as a person who just wants to sit around and get money, and that’s it.
[Silvia]: The same year they filed the suit, in 2013, Víctor Apolinar, the recruiter for the fairs in town, launched a campaign to be president of the municipality, in other words, the mayor of Tlapacoyan.
[Víctor]: We believe this is a model of what Veracruz is…
[Silvia]: He won with more than 30% of the vote. Víctor was very popular in Tlapacoyan, which didn’t help the suit at all…
[Andy]: A lot of people thought it was against Víctor, this person who sends you to the US to work, a lot of people thought that it was disrespectful to him.
[Silvia]: And the fear that Miguel mentioned, that if you associated with a lawyer, they wouldn’t let you go back and work at the fairs, came true. The next year, a lot of people went to apply for jobs at Víctor’s office. They thought that maybe they could get a position at another company because they were only suing Deggeller Attractions, not the recruiters. But they realized that…
[Andy]: We couldn’t go back and work with, with the only person that is in charge of, of giving you opportunities to work here in Tlapacoyan.
[Silvia]: Andy and other plaintiffs say that Víctor’s office denied their applications. There’s no direct evidence of this. And in one statement for the court, Jim Judkins—the recruiter in Texas—denies it. In that same statement, Judkins explains that the company gives the recruiters the names of workers who they wanted to take.
Miguel Montalvo isn’t convinced that there haven’t been reprisals…
[Miguel]: Víctor puts you on a blacklist, and they don’t take you, or they don’t take your relative, or your son, or your cousin who wants to go, and, and the other person complains to you because they won’t be taken because you went around bad-mouthing Víctor.
[Silvia]: Remember, Tlapacoyan is a small town. Everyone knows each other.
[Miguel]: Well, basically, people don’t want to say anything because if they say something, if Víctor hears they said something, they’re going to get back at them. So, that’s why they’re afraid. That’s why almost no one wants to talk.
[Silvia]: According to the lawyers and the plaintiffs, some of them started to receive threats, even anonymous calls telling them to leave the suit. At first, it didn’t seem like anything more than that: calls to scare them. But one day, Miguel said that Esaú, the guy who was hurt while working for the company, was having a few drinks with some friends…
[Miguel]: Some other people they didn’t know came up and started talking about the fairs, like a kind of intimidation. They beat him, and he was badly hurt.
[Silvia]: According to Miguel, Esaú ended up in bad shape, with broken ribs from the beating he’d gotten.
The attack scared the other plaintiffs even more. Esaú told Miguel that they people who beat him had a message for the rest…
[Miguel]: He was the first on the list, because supposedly, they were going to go on to the rest, the ones who had sued him. And that was why, because of the suit.
[Silvia]: Levi tried to speak to Esaú to better understand what happened.
[Levi]: Hello, Esaú?
[Silvia]: But every time he called him, Esaú told him it would be better to talk another day.
[Esau]: It would just be tomorrow.
[Levi]: Tomorrow? Around what time?
[Silvia]: And when “tomorrow” came, Esaú said he couldn’t, or he just didn’t answer. It’s obvious that he doesn’t want to talk to journalists. And he wasn’t the only one.
[Levi]: Hello, excuse me…
[Silvia]: The same thing has happened with the other plaintiffs.
[Levi]: Ok sir, have a good day.
[Silvia]: The threats complicated the case, which, additionally, took way longer than they expected. At first, the lawyers were confident. They had proof, documents that showed that Deggeller Attractions hadn’t paid them the money they had promised.
[Miguel]: Working there, well, for almost nothing, and working so much, and in extremely dangerous and unhealthy situations.
[Silvia]: The argument the company gave is going to sound a little stilted, but I’ll try to explain.
Essentially, they say that they never negotiated the terms of the contract directly with the workers. That they don’t have the right to sue them for breach of contract… because that contract never existed.
Let’s see if you follow me. According to Deggeller, they had promised the US government to pay more than minimum wage, as is required by law. And the government accepted their application. So, Deggeller argued that the contractual relationship was with the US government and not the workers. In other words, the only one who could sue them for not meeting the terms of the contract was the government.
A judge agreed with Deggeller’s argument and threw out the case in 2014. But Miguel and his colleagues appealed, and in late 2015, a court of appeals ruled in their favor.
The case was reopened and not just that, it set a precedent: now temporary workers could sue their employers for not paying them what they had been promised. It was something that hadn’t been seen before. However, that didn’t resolve the case for the Tlapacoyan workers. It remained open for more than two and a half years.
In the years they waited for the suit to proceed, there were a lot of changes in that part of Mexico. Veracruz, where Tlapacoyan is, became one of the most violent states in the country.
It’s a very dangerous place for journalists and human rights defenders. A lot of them have been killed.
[Journalist]: The violence in Veracruz doesn’t stop. Last year, it ranked fourth nationally in terms of executions with nearly 2,000, and this year, 2018, it’s going to be about the same.
[Silvia]: So far in 2018, the number of homicides in Veracruz has doubled compared to 2015. And Tlapacoyan isn’t immune to that violence. Sometimes, bodies turn up in the river that runs through the town. Miguel Montalvo doesn’t feel safe there anymore.
[Miguel]: And I said: I can only be here for four days at most because I imagine it would take four days to plan something against someone, that’s what the situation in Tlapacoyan is like.
[Silvia]: In 2016, people in the town organized protests against the local government. They blocked the road to Mexico City. They wanted their mayor, Víctor Apolinar, to do more to combat common and organized crime.
[Woman 2]: We’re a working family… It’s not fair. It’s not fair.
[Silvia]: Levi wanted to interview Víctor for this story. So, in April of 2017, he went to see him at the Municipal Palace. It had been three months since the Migrant Festival that we heard at the start, and Víctor had been mayor for a little more than three years.
[Man at the Municipal Palace]: Yes, sir, come in and go up.
[Silvia]: A secretary directs Levi to the second floor.
[Man at Palace]: With regards to, to what?
[Silvia]: Levi tells him that it’s to talk about migration… A few minutes later, an assistant comes out to tell him…
[Assistant]: He is the municipal mayor, he is the president, and, and he doesn’t deal with the issue of immigration.
[Silvia]: For years, in Tlapacoyan, the name Víctor was synonymous with emigration. He took thousands of residents of Tlapacoyan north. But now, as a mayor, that’s not what he does. According to people in the town and a registry of foreign recruiters from the US government, now Víctor’s brother, Jesús, is the one in charge of that. Víctor’s assistant recommended that Levi go to Jesús’ office to ask for an interview.
[Levi]: Hello? Is this the office the migrants come to?
[Silvia]: It’s a little, red two-story house. That day, there’s a sign outside saying that there was change to their hours of operation. It’s signed by Víctor.
[Woman 2]: Maybe… I don’t know, check another day.
[Silvia]: The people working in the office that day didn’t want to talk to Levi either. A woman tells him that they’re very busy, and no one can see him. Levi leaves his phone number, but they never call him.
In 2017, the town held elections. This time, Víctor’s party lost.
Levi hasn’t been able to confirm if Víctor is recruiting for Jim Judkins again. But he found that there is an open case against Judkins and his company in the US Department of Labor—more specifically, the office that certifies companies to bring employees to the US on H-2B visas.
Levi spoke with a former official at the Department of Labor and with the assistant to the judge in charge of the case. They said that the case appears to be a way to discredit Judkins so that he cannot bring any more workers to the United States.
When we closed this episode, the case was still open.
Nearly four years after the suit was filed, Andy invited Levi to Tlapacoyan.
[Andy]: We’re going to make kettle corn.
[Silvia]: Kettle corn. It’s sweet popcorn. A classic fair food.
[Andy]: You can hear when the, the corn starts popping.
[Silvia]: In a frying pan, Andy puts corn kernels and sugar in the hot oil.
[Andy]: Like we made it in Los Angeles.
[Silvia]: When they filed the suit in 2013, Andy felt taken advantage of by his bosses at the fairs, because of the money they didn’t pay him, because of the conditions they made him work in. But after living in Mexico for several years without being able to return to the US and now trying to raise a son, it all seems different.
[Andy]: I want to go back to the fair to make an, an improvement in my family’s economic situation. I’ve contacted a few fair owners… I’ve sent emails, and I’ve made a few calls.
[Silvia]: But since most of the companies get Mexican workers through a recruiter, Andy hasn’t had any luck. In fact, he made a drastic decision. He thought that maybe his previous employer, Deggeller Attractions, the company he was suing, would give him work if he dropped the suit.
He wrote one of the lawyers in the case an email, saying that he wanted out. After a few months, he got an answer from one of the lawyers in the US. He read it to Levi.
[Andy]: Mr. Contreras, you are no longer part of the suit. Attached you will find that your name does not appear on the amended suit. This should be sufficient to prove that we do not represent you in any legal claim. Good afternoon.
[Silvia]: It was rather risky. Because he left the suit, Andy wouldn’t get any money if they won. But he felt that his economic situation required him to make this decision. He needed money now, a job, hopefully at a fair, instead of waiting to see what happens with the suit. That’s why he tried to repair his relationship with Deggeller Attractions.
[Andy]: Leave everything in peace. Leave everything at square one.
[Silvia]: Andy wasn’t the only one. Another two also left the suit to try to get back into the fairs. Whatever it took.
[Andy]: Some of us withdrew from the suit because we wanted to go back to working for Víctor. It didn’t matter that they were paying what they were paying or that you work too many hours. I regret having tried to do something good that turned out bad. I lost the opportunity to go back and work and more than anything I lost time, you know?
[Silvia]: Levi spoke with several plaintiffs for this episode, and all of them said they wanted to go back to the fairs.
[Daniel]: The suit against Deggeller Attractions closed this year, 2018. The workers and the company arrived at a confidential agreement. The fairs and their relationships to the workers continue to be essentially the same.
Meanwhile, since 2012, the number of temporary work visas has doubled.
Levi Bridges is an independent journalist. Silvia Viñas is an editor for Radio Ambulante.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas, Luis Fernando Vargas, and me. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Our editorial intern, Andrea López Cruzado, did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Our editorial interns are Lissette Arévalo and Victoria Estrada. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.