What Barry Mitling did made no logical sense. At age 46, he quit his job as a Midwestern farm manager, loaded up his pick-up truck and drove 1700 miles south to milk goats.
“I put my ship out in the bay and lit it on fire. I don’t have a house to go back to in Wisconsin. I don’t have a bank account or a job,” said Mitling.
There’s one other detail you should know about Mitling’s midlife Mexico adventure: He doesn’t speak Spanish.
Mitling settled in the central Mexican state of Querétaro. He leased a small piece of land, bought some goats, and set up a bed in a small office on the farm. Then he called his fiancée Marilyn Vaupel in Wisconsin and told her their new home was ready.
“Oh I don’t stay in the office,” Vaupel said with a laugh. “That was one stipulation I told him, I would not live in the office.”
When she visits from Wisconsin, Vaupel stays in a rented cottage next to the farm. And she helps tend the 300 goats.
There’s a big market for goat milk in Mexico. Candies made from goat milk, called cajeta, are very popular.
Mitling’s dramatic life shift was prompted by a few things: a divorce, his Christian faith, and a Mexican man named Bernardo who worked for Mitling in the U.S.
“Here’s Bernardo for one to two years at a time in the United States and his children are growing up. And it just appeared that they really needed their dad around, their dad to throw the ball to them, their dad to tell them stories, their dad to love on them, their dad to discipline them. And it just seemed that he’s missed out so much on that,” said Mitling.
Mitling decided he’d start employing Mexicans in Mexico. He didn’t want to separate more fathers and mothers from their families. It’s estimated that about half of the agricultural workforce in the United States works without documentation.
Mitling isn’t just hiring workers in Mexico though. He’s training them to become co-owners.
“When you give incentives, it creates something in people,” said Mitling. “Coming out in the middle of the night to take care of that sick goat or that doe that’s having kids… because if that’s part of their income, there’s a good reason to go take care of it correctly.”
Claudia Felipe Romero is one of the people that Mitling is grooming for a potential ownership role. She milks goats alongside Milting. She doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t speak Spanish. The two communicate using hand signals. And laughter.
Romero said milking cows, and potentially becoming a co-owner, was a good opportunity. But moments later, she said she’d prefer to work in the United States.
She said people say there are better opportunities to make more money in the U.S. She says she’d go there to give her children a better education and future.
So despite Mitling’s best intentions to help transform individual lives, he can’t transform Mexican society.
Gaspar Rivera Salgado at UCLA says to keep Mexicans in Mexico, there has to be more than a paycheck.
“It’s not just about a job,” said Salgado. “I think in order to retain these workers in their communities (in Mexico), they have to not only find a job, good jobs, but also a sense they are able to accomplish their dreams in their home communities.”
Mitling knows what he’s up against. But he says he has to try. He talks about times when he worked alongside his now-adult son in the United States. He says he’d like to give Mexican fathers that chance too.
“Maybe that’s what it’s about is, here, helping some families become profitable, have a dream, work together as a family,” said Mitling. “And for them to see that there is potential here in Mexico and not just across the border.” Download MP3