Culture of Life
Oregon Couple Help Ease Hardships for Migrant Workers
BY Hazel Whitman
August 23-29, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/23/98 at 2:00 PM
WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore.—Carlos's hands belie his 25 years. Stained a deep berry red, they look like those of a man twice his age.
Standing inside the office-cubiclesized wooden structure he shares with six others, he explains through a translator that migrant farming is helping to pull his family out of the dire poverty enveloping most in his home state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
“No, I don't think I want to do something else,” he answers softly when asked about his goals. “It is a hard life, but it's better than back home.”
Carlos's wife, Elaine, holds their oneyear-old baby, as the smell of tortillas and beans floats amid the nearly wall-to-wall bunk beds, folded clothing, and a small counter. Their three other young children play in the camp's tidy courtyard. This community near Scholls is where 150 people stay after spending their days picking berries.
Stepping into this makeshift home, Martha Dauenhauer's warm smile precedes her German-accented “Hola.” Some call her the Mother Teresa of Washington County. Dauenhauer asks if there is enough food and how the children are doing, as a cool summer evening breeze drifts outside. Dauenhauer smiles again as she glances down at the green apples and other staples delivered by volunteers from St. Francis Parish in Sherwood, about 30 minutes from Portland.
A native of Germany, Dauenhauer, 69, hasn't had much trouble during the past 13 years communicating in her blend of basic Spanish and gestures. She speaks with camp residents a few times a week. She determines what they most need, since many come to the camp with only a small knapsack.
Dauenhauer requests that the camp's exact location and workers’ names not appear in print, to prevent any possible immigration difficulties. And while Carlos and Elaine are not the real names of the parents she visits, their story is real. It sounds much like the stories of several others who step out from the rows of cabins to chat. They say there is no work back home, and at least they can bring money back to build a better life.
Dauenhauer bristles when hearing about how some workers say they are stuck in the fields, “They can go to school; they can improve themselves.”
She's also adamant that immigrants are part of life and the history of this nation.
“It's very hard for some people to accept that this Spanish-speaking population is here to stay to make a life for themselves,” Dauenhauer says. “I feel people should accept them, give them a chance … they'll find there are many, many good people.”
Dauenhauer is one woman who walks her talk. Her life and that of Nick, her husband of 55 years, revolve around meeting the needs of workers who follow the crops. Their caring natures and commitment have made them into a link for food, clothing, immigration counseling, health care, and education of the itinerant workers.
Dauenhauer began assisting the migrant workers in 1986, when the restaurant she was working in started donating leftover brunch food to the camps. She realized there was much more to be done and began bringing workers home to share evening meals.
“I feel it helps them to be self-sufficient if I don't do everything for them,” she says. “We started to cook at the house and they always volunteered to come and help.”
St. Alexander's Parish in Cornelius is located in the area of the approximately 40 migrant camps near the Dauenhauer's home. The pastor there, Father Martin Senko, said the camps are divided into three groups and volunteers help keep food and other supplies available.
“Martha is a good example of what one individual can do if they want to serve these people,” said Father Senko. “She's present and knows their situation, she is close to the people. As Catholic teaching tells us, we serve because we've been served.”
Supporting that idea is Frank Fromherz, director of the Portland Archdiocesan Office of Peace and Justice. Fromherz said it is important to think about service as relationship building.
“People with real names and real lives have gotten to know Martha and Nick,” he said. “Martha and Nick don't see them as ‘needy,’ but as real human beings.”
Fromherz believes the Dauenhauer's approach to service as justice is something we can all duplicate.
“As it says in both the Old and New Testament, justice is a call to right relationship with God, with each other, as human beings and with all around us,” Fromherz said. “We can think about the people we know, family, friends, and neighbors — there's all sorts of already existing relationships, opportunities to enrich a sense of justice. People don't have to go out and find an exotic location.”
Fromherz said it's helpful to keep in mind the spirit of Evangelium Vitae (92.5), which says life is a gift and we must be at the service of life and all its needs. He said the Dauenhauers appear to embody this idea and the message of Evangelium Vitae (79.3): “We have been sent as a people. Everyone has an obligation to be at the service of life. This is a properly ‘ecclesial’ responsibility, which requires concerted and generous action by all the members and by all sectors of the Christian community. This community commitment does not however eliminate or lessen the responsibility of each individual, called by the Lord to ‘become the neighbor’ of everyone: ‘Go and do likewise’ (Lk 10:37).”
The Dauenhauers’ affection for each other shines with nicknames such as “honey” or “schatzie.” Nick, retired from the post office, recalls when Martha first started filling the family station wagon with a dozen or so workers.
“When I'd come home, I'd just know that Martha was at it again,” Nick says grinning. Gonzalo Plancarte, 38, remembers meeting Martha for the first time several years ago.
“I had been here for two months without any work,” Plancarte says. “She went there and said, ‘Who can go with me and work for food?’”
He has developed a strong friendship with the Dauenhauers and returns each year both to work and to share meals with the couple. Plancarte has a wife and seven children, ages 6-18, who stay behind in Mexico during his trips north. He has moved on from picking berries to landscaping and hopes someday to bring his family to the United States.
“I think it is the only way I can help them; there is not enough work,” Plancarte says.
Martha encourages him to go to school, and he is currently studying English at night. Already, he doesn't need a translator for most conversations.
“I always say the most important thing is send your kids to school,” Martha says. “Those kids are the future. Those kids can help the parents.”
A story about the Dauenhauers isn't complete without mention of José, their adopted eight-year-old from Guatemala. They met José when he was just four months old and required surgery because of his spina bifida. José's birth parents were struggling to make a living in the fields while caring for their other children as well, and they couldn't provide the extensive care he needs.
Today José walks with the help of special braces and a walker. He takes Tai Kwon Do — and gladly demonstrates a defensive arm block move — along with attending therapy weekly at Shriners Hospital. He stays in touch with his birth mom and dad and his siblings.
Sounding like a typical eight-yearold, he quips, “The best thing about school is recess,” before adding that he likes to read.
José says he also likes visiting the camps with Nick and Martha because he can play with the children. But his presence can prompt more than just fun. While standing outside some cabins a woman came out and draped a brightly colored beaded necklace, with a cross in its center, around José. She said her son is just like him: “He can't walk, either.”
That gift prompted a discussion about her child, who is two and had just seen a doctor because of his pneumonia. Martha then realized that although she'd helped this family obtain government food aid, they had been too embarrassed to mention they have a special needs child. She immediately began encouraging them to seek help.
“Martha has an incredible amount of energy,” said Holy Name Sister Brigid Baumann, who has known her since 1992. “She shows us how much good one person, who is consistent and passionate, can do. Her passion is to see that people's needs are met.… I can't say enough about her; she's an amazing woman. But it's both Nick and Martha. He provides the stability for her to do what she does.”
The Dauenhauers attend St. Alexander Parish in Cornelius and say it is important to remember that God is all around us.
Martha says, “There is only one God, and he looks out for all of us. I never ask people what they are. I look at the people themselves.” She and Nick have received numerous awards and thank-yous for their involvement. A 1996 plaque made by a family they helped is among their most prized possessions. It reads: “Everyone that knows you has found the only hope to survive in this country. Thank you. God bless you.”
Hazel Whitman writes from Portland, Oregon.
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