BROCKPORT — With the strong scent of incense filling the air, four Aztec dancers adorned with feathered crowns of yellow, green, red, blue and purple raised their arms in unison to the four points of the compass.
“It’s a dance in honor of mother earth,” said Sandra Rojas, the Diocese of Rochester’s director of migrant ministry for the Brockport area.
The dance on June 25 kicked off Brockport’s bienvenida celebration, which has been presented each year since 1989 to welcome the migrant workers who travel to the towns of Brockport, Hamlin, Sweden and Clarkson to work the fields and harvest the produce for the tables of area residents, Rojas said.
Dancers preceded the Mass held at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. Folkloric dancers performed on Main Street after the Mass — which about 300 people attended — and a dinner followed at First Baptist Church.
Jose Lopez, a migrant worker who has lived in Brockport for two years, said he is grateful for the respect the community shows through this annual gathering.
“The community can come together with the workers,” Lopez said.
“We give thanks to those who invite us to be together with them,” added Hector Alvarado, a Mexican native who had been in Brockport only a week.
The Aztec dance was a new addition to the ecumenical event, Rojas said.
“As we honor the earth, we give thanks for God for giving us the earth that provides us with our food,” Rojas said.
As a resident of Brockport for more than a decade, Sue Campbell said it is important to acknowledge the contribution migrant workers make, especially since they often remain invisible to many in the community. More than 4,000 workers arrive in Brockport and the Ontario, Yates and Seneca county regions every summer, according to Rojas and Palacios.
“We should give them the dignity and respect, and show we value them,” said Campbell, a member of the Brockport Ecumenical Outreach Committee, which helped organize that area’s bienvenida celebration.
Father Jesus Flores, the diocese’s coordinator of migrant ministry, believes the Catholic migrant community should be acknowledged for its efforts to establish itself as part of the church but with its own cultural identity and traditions.
“This community needs to know that it is fully part of the Dioceses of Rochester,” he added.
Although the day was a festive one, participants did not forget the current debate in Congress over the fate of migrants who live and work in this country without citizenship or employment documents. Rojas mentioned at the beginning of Mass that those present who lacked such documents should travel in groups.
The issue should be at the forefront of those who support the migrant community, Father Flores believes.
“As members of the Catholic Church, we should be sending the message that the bishops have been presenting: Urging comprehensive reform that offers dignity to the immigrants,” he said. “Such legislation should not criminalize the migrant population already here regardless of its legal status.”
According to a recent Cornell University poll conducted on behalf of the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign, a majority of New York state residents support workplace rights for farm workers. The campaign is led by several organizations including Centro Independiente Trabajadores Agricolas (Independent Farmworker Center), Rural and Migrant Ministry, the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and various representatives from unions and faith communities throughout western New York.
The bienvenida event helps put a real face to this issue, said Debbie Restivo from the Orleans County Health Department who works with the Oak Orchard Community Health Center in Brockport that serves the migrant workers.
“It demonstrates the humanity of these workers,” she said. “They are real families and it helps them feel supported by local groups.”
Patricia Pe√±a, a Brockport resident and member of Nativity’s migrant community, said the bienvenida does help the migrants feel more comfortable about their new temporary homes.
“The most important thing is for the Anglo community to know that these (migrants) are here to work, not to rob them,” Pe√±a said. “They’re here to help.”