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Are We Correctly Remembering Our Immigrant Past?

Read what this author discovered about his ancestors' immigrant labor.
When you grow up the child and grandchild of immigrants, you get the sanitized version of history — the cleaned-up, CliffsNotes, keep-it-simple storytelling.

You learn of your grandfather’s time as a migrant sheepherder in broad strokes. He settled near Mountain Home, Idaho; he was the best at making sheep fat; he never went into town to spend his money. You grow up in a community that celebrates the heroics. You have grand banquets at Christmas time to celebrate the history of sheepherding. Somebody brings a cute, cleaned-up lamb for auction. You dance and laugh and think fondly but vaguely of men once herding sheep in the hills of Idaho. It’s all a story from long, long ago.

Then you take a camera to the mountains and meet the men who are still herding sheep. The Peruvian men, with skin darker than yours, eyes weary from lack of sleep, shoulders heavy under the burden of supporting a family a thousand miles away. Your sanitized memories meet the dusty reality of migrant work. All those memories shaped by second-generation American mythologizing are the lived experience of men standing before you. You’re confronted with the privilege you were born into, the labor that made it possible, and the continental gap between your inheritance and their struggle.

I spent a recent afternoon in the mountains of Idaho, about 40 miles from the vacation town of McCall, with a band of Peruvian shepherds. I was shooting a story on Betzi Quiroz, a nurse and public health advocate who has dedicated much of her life to caring for these migrant workers.

The daughter of a Peruvian shepherd, herself, Betzi regularly takes medical supplies to the men, teaches them first aid, tracks their blood pressure, and more. The woman is a walking saint caring for men who are otherwise invisible to the world.

Save for the occasional encounter with a hiker, these men live alone in the farthest reaches of the Idaho wilderness. They lead their sheep through howling deserts in the winter, where they have to melt snow for water. They lead them through rocky mountains in the summer, where a wildfire could easily overtake them. They work a job so difficult and daring that of course only an immigrant would take it. Were it not for Betzi, their cuts and breaks and hypertension would go unremarked.

This was not my first time filming shepherds. I’ve produced a pair of films about the subject; I’ve spent time in their camps and interviewed these men on camera. But I hadn’t met Betzi — and her advocacy made all the difference. Interviewing shepherds in the past, I had found them always, well, sheepish. You’d ask the question, “Is the work hard?” and they’d hem and haw and answer along the lines of “At times.” You’d ask if they missed their families, and they’d quietly answer, “At times.” Betzi was unequivocal. She’d seen their work first-hand over various landscapes and several decades. Was the work hard? Absolutely. Do they miss their families? Viciously.

Betzi filled in the lines that I only ever had hinted at in the past. She talked openly of the depression of the herders, born out of endless isolation in the fields. She told me how so few of them are properly told what their work entails before boarding a flight to the states. She told me that their healthcare is limited to the first aid kit they’re given at the start of the season, which can easily run out in a matter of months. I watched as Betzi took these herders’ blood pressure. She gently explained the cuff and squeeze ball to one man who had never had his blood pressure taken before — he’s 50 years old.

This author observed the truths of immigrant labor as he recorded the work of nurse Betzi.

Most importantly, Betzi laid bare a truth I had never considered before. Today’s herders have the benefit of cell phone technology — at least whenever they can get service in the midst of mountain wilderness. I asked, naively, if it helps that they can call home and talk about the work.

Betzi made it clear: these men don’t tell their families what they’re going through. They don’t share their depression, fear, loneliness. They feel obliged to protect those back home from worry. What matters is that they’re sending money home and taking care of business. Their own needs come second.

This is a crucial detail — a missing detail in the story of migrant labor. You leave your homeland for a better life. You inflict that ghastly wound of separation from your family out of desperate hope. To arrive in a strange land, to get handed a band of 3,000 sheep, to be told to go out for 12 months and keep them alive — my God — it’s like waking up to a total nightmare. And yet you don’t dare scare your family so you keep up the myth that America is wonderful, beautiful, bountiful. You minimize the backbreaking labor, because it’s the only way to keep going each day.

My grandfather herded sheep for almost 40 years. He never told his children what he went through. Every account I’ve heard of my grandfather is that he was a man of few words. Betzi’s father kept his experience to himself as well. I have no doubt these two men — from two different countries and two different ages — had the same motivations for their silence.

So of course you grow up and think nothing of what your forebears went through. You put decals of cartoon sheep on your car as a nod to your past without any thought to the real, actual, still-roving bands of smelly, noisy sheep. You celebrate your immigrant past, understanding vaguely that the work was tough, but boy were your ancestors tougher. Your cultural pride is simultaneously puffed up while ignoring the terrible realities of the immigrant experience.

And there lies the really ugly truth I learned from my day with Betzi. My grandfather, Joaquin, worked the same job that Cesar, Jose, Julio, Walser, and the rest of these Peruvian herders work today. They’re hiking up and down the same mountain trails. Yet despite that shared labor and hardship, the present-day realities of this new ethnic group are totally invisible to my Basque community. We’ve moved on with lives of privilege and opportunity. We have forgotten these men, who for any other string of occurrences would be our own fathers, grandfathers, and selves.

I left the shoot with Betzi and the herders with my head hung low. My parents had joined me, and we spent the bumpy drive home in reflection — what could we do for these herders, whose experience is so similar to our own family’s? We brainstormed collection drives for medical supplies, a Christmastime get-together, collaboration with cultural groups, but the larger truth loomed.

We live in a country built up from a collection of immigrant experiences, each swirling and mixing within the great American experiment. This is a country where the trauma of one immigrant’s arrival to America paves the way for the next generation’s improvement, a country where that trauma is glossed over for the next generation’s ease. So we forget what came before us. We ignore what’s happening around us. We forget to look back, reach back, support and love the immigrants among us.

I’m so proud of my family’s history and efforts to make it in America, but seeing that history reflected in the present day made me recommit to that call from Christ to welcome the refugee (Matthew 25:35-36). If you are an American, I guarantee your own family’s experience is reflected out there somewhere — the isolation, the backbreaking labor, the hope that it’s all worth it. So go and find it, embrace it, support it. Your past is their present. Let them have a similar future.

This author explored his ancestors' past and learned something fascinating about immigrant labor. Here the author stands with the Peruvian sheepherders he met in Idaho.

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