Levi Bridges’ experiences of living and working among migrant cultures has forever changed the way he views the world around him – from the produce displays he sees at the local grocery store to the way he perceives immigration policies.
He no longer associates apples with school lunches or apple pie at Thanksgiving.
“I see all these fruits and vegetables, almost all of which are harvested by migrant labor, and I just feel bombarded by all of these stories of the people who pick the fruit,” said Bridges. “I see the towns they come from in Mexico, the humble houses and businesses they are able to start back home with the small amount of money they are able to save by working these jobs. I don’t see the food anymore, I’m just overwhelmed by the people who are part of the harvest and the great journeys they make to get there.”
For more than 15 months, Bridges, a Sedgewick native, has been working to document the lives of seasonal migrant workers for a book he is writing.
He will talk about his adventures at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Portland Public Library.
A Spanish and English literature major, Bridges was drawn to the subject while studying abroad.
He received a Fulbright Scholarship in creative writing in 2012 and has since been involved in an immersion program that, at times, has seen him traversing a 500-mile section of the U.S.-Mexico border and staying in the homes of Mexican families in an attempt to provide a realistic narrative about the challenges that migrant workers face when trying to find work.
Bridges’ writing is birthed from a desire to present a more accurate portrayal of the seasonal workers who come to America each year, while debunking the myth that most of them arrive here illegally.
“I began my research by focusing on the Mexican nationals, who decided to try to create a new life in Mexico instead of migrating to the U.S.,” said Bridges, of the millions of Mexicans who live in poor communities on the outskirts of major cities, many of them commuting several hours a day just to find low-wage jobs in places like Mexico City.
For most of these families, it will take a lifetime to scrape together enough money to buy a small plot of land to build a modest home.
It is common for three generations of family members to occupy the homes, with each successive generation adding onto the home and, eventually, erecting a wall to create their own family complex.
On the most recent phase of Bridges’ research, he worked in 10 different rural communities in Mexico, visiting them weekly to meet people, forge friendships and hear their stories.
“I noticed patterns in the development of these communities as I went along,” said Bridges. “I thought this was interesting work, but my challenge as a writer is to create an interesting story. I became so interested in what the outskirts of Mexico City look like, where these new migrants live, that I decided to spend some time living with each of the families who I met within the 10 communities.”
Bridges also went on a 17-day walking trip, hiking the mountains around the city and staying at the homes of the people he met in each community he visited along the way. That work is documented on his blog at www.bridgesandborders.com
According to Bridges, the U.S. grants short-term working visas to about 100,000 foreign workers each year, most of them Mexican laborers.
Because these foreign workers come on work visas that do not allow them to change jobs once they’re in the U.S., and many of them must take out high-interest loans to pay for their preliminary expenses to get here, they arrive in debt and often must stay at their jobs, even if they’re not happy.
Bridges’ book will talk about the good and bad experiences of migrant workers from two small Mexican towns, who were largely employed to harvest citrus and apples or to travel with carnival industries.
He will spend this year researching and writing for the third and final section of the book, focusing on what migrants’ lives are like in the U.S.
Once again, Bridges is immersing himself in the culture to better tell the story through experience.
“I’m trying to do the same jobs in the U.S., along with the migrants I met in Mexico, to connect their story on both sides of the border,” said Bridges. “I conducted the first part of this research last fall, by working on an apple farm in western New York, picking apples and living in a work camp with a crew of Mexican and Honduran workers.”
The Fulbright grant and its living stipend behind him, Bridges can relate to the themes of earning enough money to scrape by. He must now finance his expedition with what little money he makes doing migrant jobs and some freelance writing.
“Walking around Mexico City, venturing out to small Mexican towns where I knew nobody, getting to know people there over time, picking apples in the U.S., all of these experiences were each an adventure that left me with new insight,” said Bridges. “I hope this shines through in the writing.”
Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: