How Latinos are contributing to life on the Eastern Shore

Keyris Manzanares, VPM

Alongside the embrace of nearby waters and among fields of fertile soil, the rhythm of Latino life on the Eastern Shore beats strong.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 1 in every 10 Virginia residents is Latino. In Accomack County, 9.7% of the population identifies as Latino. And from March to October, seasonal migrant farmworkers reside in camps and play a vital role in America’s food chain supply and the state’s billion-dollar agricultural industry.

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry: It has an economic impact of $82.3 billion annually and has provided more than 381,800 jobs statewide, according to a 2022 UVA Weldon Cooper Center economic impact study. The shore is also home to Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms chicken processing plants, oyster farms, nurseries and a variety of produce farms — all major sources of employment for Latinos.


Working on the shore

Over the years, having once arrived with dreams of abundance and opportunity, Latinos like Alejandro Cruz settled and deepened their roots on the shore.

“In ’89 I came to the Eastern Shore and I started working in [tomato fields], and I worked until ’92 picking tomatoes,” Cruz told VPM News Focal Point in Spanish.

Cruz came from Mexico to the United States on an H2-A visa. For a U.S. company to qualify for H-2A nonimmigrant classification, they must prove there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the temporary work.

When Cruz arrived in the Eastern Shore in the late 1980s, he lived at a migrant farm camp and worked picking tomatoes. He said there is beauty in the life of a farmworker — but also isolation and loneliness.

“One feels enclosed because when we came, it was just work and fields. From where we lived to work in the fields,” Cruz said. “On the weekends, they would take us to buy groceries, cash our checks, wash our clothes and then [go] back inside.”

Not much has changed since Cruz was a farmworker. Those who work the seasons still face language and transportation barriers, as well as lack of consistent internet access.

When summertime hits and tomato season starts, Cruz said migrant farmworker camps come alive with people arriving from Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor certified around 370,000 temporary jobs under the program — more than seven times the number of people certified in 2005, and double the amount in 2016.

On the Eastern Shore, the Florida-based Lipman Family Farms hires the most agriculture workers with H2-A visas.

One of the first people these workers often meet is Cecilia Hernandez. She’s a community organizer with Legal Aid Justice Center, which focuses on advocacy on behalf of migrant workers.

“During the summertime on the Eastern Shore, approximately 1,500 farmworkers come with H2-A visas. My job is to visit them and speak to them about their worker’s rights,” Hernandez told VPM News Focal Point in Spanish.

Working conditions in the fields can be grueling for migrant workers due to a lack of essential labor protections like minimum wage, overtime pay and the right to organize. Workers also face isolation and hunger: Hernandez said when there is no work due to inclement weather or harvest, workers don’t get paid.

Hernandez, who also lives on the shore, spends her summers providing legal assistance, supporting workers by organizing for better conditions and giving vital information.

She said one challenge facing Latinos on the shore is community misinformation surrounding tax-filing and H2-A visa requirements. Migrant workers file their taxes using Tax ID numbers and H2-A visas are strict, but the jobs are always offered to Americans first.

“Sometimes we hear comments like ‘they come and steal our jobs,’ and those jobs are offered, because they can’t be filled another way,” she said. “I think that’s one of the difficulties that we face as Latinos because of the lack of information.”

Hernandez is also a part of the shore’s Agricultural Workers Advocacy Coalition.

“Right now, we have a big Latino community on the Eastern Shore, it’s truly big and everyone contributes immensely to the community,” Hernandez said. “We have a lot of community working in the chicken plants. They also work in the nurseries and in the water.”

Latinos working on the shore’s poultry processing plants also face dangerous conditions: In 2020, poultry processing plants in Accomack County werehot spots for COVID-19.

More recently, Tyson and Perdue are facing a federal investigation after a New York Times Magazine article detailed that migrant children were hired to clean the companies’ plants on the Eastern Shore.

A second generation

A second generation of Latinos are now contributing to the community in various ways. Juan Gomez was born to Mexican parents and raised on the Eastern Shore. When he saw how COVID-19 was affecting the tight-knit Latino community there, he decided to step up.

“I think it’s just seeing a younger me. [Looking] in the eyes of our kids that come to our clinics and [understanding] the importance of not having adequate housing, maybe not having adequate food supplies or [if] their parents know what health insurance is,” Gomez said.

As an outreach specialist for Eastern Shore Rural Health, Gomez works with the Spanish-speaking population to ensure their access to health care. According to the center, in 2022 it served 1,308 migrant and seasonal farm workers.

“Our migrant population is here on a seasonal basis. So when they’re here, we provide all the health services that we can,” Gomez said. “My team goes out and does blood pressure checks, does glucose checks — we are making sure that [they’re] being seen, and that their voices are being heard.”

A changing demographic

The importance of bilingual education is what drove Zorylu Bonilla to move to the shore in 2002 to teach at Accomack County Public Schools. Her first job was as a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Accomack Elementary.

“It was a pilot program to see how kindergartners learn the English language,” she said. “But we were also teaching them Spanish.”

Bonilla witnessed firsthand the Eastern Shore’s changing demographics. By the time she stopped teaching in 2018, the Latino student body had grown.

“It grew to the point where, in one classroom, you have half of the classroom be Latinos. Maybe more than half of the classroom be Latinos in some classrooms and that’s how I’ve seen it grow. In the high schools, you walk down the hallways — a lot of faces that are of Latino heritage,” Bonilla said, adding that the students and their families have added rich and varied traditions to the Eastern Shore’s culture.

The demographic change can also be seen driving along U.S. 13 on the Eastern Shore where a variety of small Latino-owned businesses are popping up.

On Chincoteague Island, you’ll find Lily’s Little Mexico, owned by Liliana Velasquez — who came to the shore as an agricultural worker in 2002. She said that Latinos are making an impact in the region, too.

“I was born in Chiapas, Mexico, and to be honest as a kid I suffered poverty. When I came to this county, I came with the decision to succeed and prosper,” Velazquez said in Spanish. “… The impact that we have is that we are creating jobs when we open our own businesses. We also are contributing to this country’s economy.”

Cover Photo: Liliana Velasquez arrived as a farmworker on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 2002. Now, she’s the proud owner of Lily’s Little Mexico serving authentic Mexican food on Chincoteague Island. (Screen Capture/VPM News Focal Point)

Publisher’s Notes: How Latinos are contributing to life on the Eastern Shore was first published in VPM and was republished with permission.

Part of LNN’s mission is to amplify the work of others in providing greater visibility and voice to Hispanic, Latino communities.

© 2024 All Rights Reserved.

Latino News Network