Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia and Kathleen Sexsmith

Recorded June 11, 2021 Archived June 10, 2021 43:35 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddv000865


Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia (33) talks with his friend and colleague Kathleen Sexsmith (36) about his work advocating for farmers' rights and immigrant rights as it relates to human trafficking work. He talks about how he came to the work, gaps he sees in advocacy and policy, and gives advice to his former self.

Subject Log / Time Code

Gonzalo and Kathleen recall early days at Cornell when they worked at farms together.
Gonzalo talks about how he got involved with farm worker programs to advocate for farm workers rights and immigrant rights.
Gonzalo reflects on his identity as an Argentine in the US.
Gonzalo talks about the lack of support for labor trafficking in agriculture and talks about why elected officials often don't get involved in these cases.
Gonzalo discusses the consequences workers can face if they report abuses of labor.
Gonzalo reflects on some successes he's seen in the work and remembers individual cases that helped him connect with the work.
Gonzalo talks about who he looks up to in anti-trafficking work.
Gonzalo gives advice to his past self.


  • Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia
  • Kathleen Sexsmith

Recording Location

Virtual Recording


Partnership Type

Fee for Service


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00:10 Okay, so, my name is Starla Martinez. My age is 33. Today is Friday, June 11th, 2021. I am in South Paulo Brazil.

00:24 With dr. Kathy, sexsmith and I known Kathy for

00:32 Over 10 years. Probably.

00:36 And in a few capacities, but above all of his friends.

00:42 I am Kathy Sexton.

00:48 I'm 36 years old and I'm currently in State College Pennsylvania here with my good and long-standing friend. And someone, I admire.

01:02 So,

01:05 I kind of wanted to tell you cuz it's all about, you know, some of the first memories I have of you. So like when we first interacted Cornell about 10 years ago, I was a grad student and you are the undergrad. I know it's kind of felt like you knew about a million times more than I did. But all the topics we were working on Farm worker issues. And I always got to remember feeling like some of these, like, funny situations. Where, you know, I would be doing something with a group of friends, and thought I would say hi, Kathy, we have to go out to this Farm because there's someone who really needs help. Do you want to come? I feel like what I see with my friends, but let's do it because you're so committed to this, and I want you to see my commitment to, and I would go with you on these sometimes pretty Wiles road trips around.

02:05 New York 2 a.m. To have my eyes open to this world that you've really kind of need Central to who you are.

02:16 What would I remember? There are really only three roads to get you out of ISTA,, right? And then two of them. I know there's more but the main ones really that got us out to the farm, two of them or just up that really steep part of town, where you had to kind of weave your way, up the side of a lake somewhere, you know, whenever anyone signed up to go that far out. I knew they were out there where they're going to be in it for the long haul. You know, that.

02:51 But I passed the testing.

02:54 You know, yes, I thought of it the other way around it. I had a list of five, you know, so one time, my little brother when he was younger was realizing that cuz I was older than him, you know, five years older every time he would, you know, happy birthday to catch up to me a little bit but then I just be another step ahead. Next time. I know you was young and still trying to figure out this concept of people all aging start with the same time, pretty mad at me, you know, so that's how I think of our friendship and I work no matter what I do, you know, I got into the farmworker.

03:48 Topic, you are already getting your Ph.D. I spend my time abroad you'd already done that in Mexico. By the time I I got out there so as much as it's been a friendship in a way, you've been a mentor as well.

04:03 I appreciate that. It's a mutual feeling.

04:08 So, I wanted like, you know, we talked about this lot's over the years, but, like, for you at all in the trafficking World, kind of all began in Ithaca was the Cornell Farm worker program, and I wanted to ask you what happened in Ithaca that compelled you to commit to this for a love based the rest of your adult life, like what pulled you into this world from that. A new life.

04:45 It was more of the circumstance that they're just happened to be this program.

04:50 The song for some particular met Mary, Jill Dudley who's running the Cornell Farm worker program that I can going through another cycle of recruiting students, who might have availability and the right language skills to get out and do some of the programs work. And I didn't think too much of it. In the beginning. It was just another activity, really?

05:16 I think I actually caught up to it my freshman year. So it really was from the start. But when Mary Jo, let me sort of start to learn about in the, in the upstate New York, a huge impact on how I ended up orienting my my myself and what I was studying and ultimately what I did for work, I got the pig out of our little bubble, you know, and and get to know the experiences of other immigrants that you and I could probably talk about her own immigration experiences in the US and what would be 100% certain about that is that they were extremely different from the average experience of a low-wage worker in the United States. Sometimes through a guest worker visa or without documentation.

06:10 And over the years, some of what I learned started to feel like, you know, to really cause anger that that I was

06:23 Building my my life in this country where I've been welcomed in so many ways and really have a lot to be grateful for often. Really, if you think about it. Can you buy when we were in celebrated for being immigrant for having the background that I did for bringing the perspective that I did? And that's the same.

06:46 The same country could also have an Avenue for immigrants where they were primarily only value for the work that they could really understand that in every other way that they could aging Society, or have a broader, or have some Civic engagement. They were systemically blocked from from that, you know, you could argue by Design if there's an entire Avenue of integration where where people are not in crates that integrates to have a voice lesson in political systems and the more clear that became to me, the more I found it to be outrageous. I thought about my family, I thought about the different people in my family and and what day

07:40 Like the Dew in the world, their work and I started to wonder if, you know some of them were in the United States, would they be put into that happened? Because they were in a certain profession are or how do you know? And so I started to look around more to the activist community at that time, not just within the farmworker world more broadly, the worker rights in the garage swirled. You wouldn't remember from that time. There was a lot there and it's the gun for secular, but that's where I found a place to start to think about the bigger picture.

08:16 So how so I mean we should give contacts right? So I came to do, my PhD in the US from Canada on a student visa and you know, obviously you moved as a child over the years. But like how do you think your identity as Arjun time shapes the way you do your work and also the way that the trafficking victims you work with interact with you, some programs.

09:01 Including you know, University programs and such that. They try to kind of put everyone into categories and I've always been in the umbrella, you know.

09:19 Cider help people count up there. No answer employees or whatever. It might be. But of course, it has so many people know. Some people are more aware than others are. Such a diversity within that world and specific as an Argentine. There's usually not too many of us anywhere in the US. You can come across you, don't celebrate a side of people all over the world, but get to the level of having, you know, that our Students Association something like, for, for many reasons to erase that a little bit.

10:08 I could assume what I did used to assume that programs would hire me because I can speak Spanish and you know, small talk about soccer with workers and that that would make me a better Outreach worker. And that would make you connect with people better and

10:26 Part of that is true, but workers, aren't expecting an argentines. Come knocking, on their door, any any given day, and when I speak in my, in my real start of the accent that I grew up with it. So I use the words that we were using what a sight, it it's pouring. It's a different kind of boring someone from the beginning. This is something that I get through, but I will try to leave my my accent to sort of hide it. And then speaking in the way, maybe people talk on CNN espanol, you know, it's kind of like the generic could be from anywhere Spanish.

11:12 And I I realized that that I was doing that, just not to stand out not to distract, you know, but that in the end, it was, it was not giving people an opportunity to make up their own minds about what it meant to chat with, in Arkansas, you know, people have to friend.

11:34 Different experiences with different people from all over the world and soccer and rec center. Let myself be more transparent about that. And that's how, you know, I'm not from Mexico, not from Central America, but that I still had, you know, a conversation to have it works a lot better, you know, people would just sort of take it for what it was and over the years. You know, I've had to lock up the being able to go to Mexico, to get to know different parts of where people are coming from to working on, farms in the US.

12:18 So I have more of a context and I have more of an ability to climb and you don't talk about what is going on in Mexico, and understand some of the, some of the slang. But I've never gone back to the two wanted to hide that, you know, that I'm very smart one for the door.

12:41 I have to say like cuz my Spanish is, you know, I was being pretty critical Spanish. What is variable is by Mexico because of my family ties.

12:50 A lot of times you use words that I'm like in my Spanish awful have a lot of Swag, you know, it just happened. Sounds

13:17 I'm in, I'm in, I'm in Brazil now and even their like just going between what a side of him and our flight and obviously refers to start there.

13:32 So, you know, I just have to make my, my annual trip home to really be fully in my world.

13:43 I wanted to talk maybe a little bit like more specifically about the work that you do. So how do most people in the general public conceptualize been trafficking victim and and how does the population that you work with differ from that kind of means dreams of assumptions that the trafficking topics?

14:10 As it's defined, you know, where the 20 years of the pdpa right now. That was a very

14:17 Encompassing definition of different forms of exploitation. The common theme is for fraud and Corruption, but it applies to people who are exploited, do those mean things in a very wide set of of cervix higher-risk, sectors, and read these things happen in any context. But when we talk about, the case has turned up in the court system. We're really dealing with one big category of cases, pending that, that involve commercial sex in some way and then situations that come up in domestic. Work forms restaurants, Hospitality. Most low-wage jobs that are immigrant labor for many years out of court, cases, that involved

15:08 Exploitation and labor trafficking. So I would say, I think it's fair to say most people who find their way into that bigger tent of what we could call the anti-trafficking sealed in the United States. Arrived there through experience for interest in in the commercial, sex site is awesome and things that are happening. There. There are agencies with very long.

15:40 Histories of focusing on labor issues within the track and field, but they are my mind in my experience the minority. So I wasn't there for almost 20 years of the history of the TV PA or how the field has developed. But as I understand that, we've come a long way in terms of really

16:03 You're making sure that funding and resources that goes into human trafficking. Generally, actually go towards the full spectrum of trafficking and don't just fixate on one floor, but you can only do so much to do to account for that at a design level or a funding level. Would also end up mattering are people's hearts and minds and the individuals who work within law enforcement or equipment service agencies. And what they bring to the work, many people are given that umbrella job of serving all tax incentives or prosecutor. Noah liaison in the federal Prosecutors Office, might have that trafficing hat and many of them end up by orienting towards the commercial sex out of the equation, but it does mean that those of us who would focus more,

17:03 Example of cultural sector where there is plenty of going on. We always have that helped build battle in terms of getting people to really stop and think about how we should be approaching this work differently when they when they look at farms and what's going on there.

17:23 So what's that like why?

17:27 Is it so hard to get sufficient and proceed from you? No law enforcement officials and the public for labor trafficking, victims, protection early and agriculture. Like why is it such a problem? Why is it overlooked research? Specifically looking at some Factory fuel? People are Prime with different trafficking scenario, in one of them. For example, it might be an american-born teenager who is who is being exploited for commercial sex, and another case. It might be an undocumented adult male from Mexico who is being exploited for their labor and you can measure the sympathy gap between those scenarios. So unfortunately, there's just simply that it's the victim.

18:17 Profile. It's it's who is involved the perpetrator profiles matter. Quite a bit as well. But even taking a step back from the individuals involved. I think about the systems within, which would within which these scenarios take place, right? In one of them. In one of these scenarios. You have imagined, you know, what, scenarios of the commercial sexual exploitation of Children online. There really isn't a Lobby that's ever going to end up for any of that, right? Is a truly bipartisan issue and it's it's one that when it comes to specially,

19:02 Teenagers.

19:05 You know, people feel extremely motivated all their resources into solving it as they should and worthy projects in a full-time job for many people to look at that really difficult picture and see what they can do. However, when you get into recurring forced labor cases in our cultural supply chain, there are a whole, another reason other constellation of interest that are excellent swimmers to buy where you have a politician to O'Neill public servants, right? Who have to mostly be accountable to land owned a US citizen rural voters and not as much to migrant workers, who will never be able to go in that in that rule election, right? So would anyone come out and say that they are in favor of force.

20:05 Labor, right number. But there are a hundred Shades of Grey in between the two sides. Let's call it. Where people begin to head and say, well, you know, that's not an increased liability here. You know, these Farmers don't really know what's going on. What if there is a bad middleman and and, you know, something happens and then, you know, someone gets in trouble who shouldn't, right. There's a lot more heads up that happens, unfortunately. And that's an apology. That's when we talked about, you know, increasing penalties. Going back to hearts and Minds idea. Put yourself in the shoes of the local elected. Sheriff. In a rural County, anywhere in the US, right?

20:52 Would like to do you know, who's who is Quizlet space in your county. If you go to certain parts of the of the country, the meat packing plant, might be the only game in town, right? So they not only create the jobs that are available. They also are paying salaries for the people that are paying rent in all the properties in some way there. There's a part of that account. So are you as an elected? Local official. Eager to run into that. Workplace. Start rocking the boat in the best case scenario? You might hear someone who's truly committed to that mission, say it shouldn't matter. If there are victims of crime. I want to meet them. I want, I want to, you know, get them the resources, they need.

21:41 The reality in my experience is another, it's that people find themselves in really difficult conflicts of interest. Where,

21:51 They did say they'd rather go after, you know.

21:57 Check cashing places on the internet and then have to not.

22:10 So now that we're kind of starting to go down a darker road. I was wondering if there are any cases that on to you people you come across or situations that you want to share. Yeah, what what's hard is. So many of these agencies. We were I was just mentioning service providers law enforcement, the task forces, generally.

22:35 We have the ability to.

22:39 Kum & Go, we can drive to a location. Get get to know people. Sometimes for years, we get on the news, we can go to court, we can a company people. But ultimately, we we retain our ability to leave to move on to another project. As I have many times to remove States country.

23:07 Many of the people that I work with who are living 360, Aransas.

23:15 Are uniquely not able to do that. Meaning they found their way. Let's say to a potato farm in Texas and that was their big break. They they won the lottery. They got that h2air cultural guest worker visa.

23:33 A relative.

23:35 Who introduced them to Elmer to charge them $5,000 for a job, right? And they know that their ability to stay on that list of people who will be invited back to the farm is in economically Lifeline for them and their families. It hides their financial future, son, that happening. And when when push comes to shove end, and some people start blowing the whistle on an abusive managers on abusive employer. Thanksgiving to the new insight into the court system.

24:12 A lot of a lot of these delicate situations, get shaken up. And what that specifically can mean for a worker is they get informally blacklisted, sometimes lose their ability to make that paycheck every two weeks. And I don't think as much as we talk about it in the track and field. I don't think we think about that. Enough about people who end up dislodge from their from their place in the in in the labor Dino World. You do get it. People who end up back in their Source community.

24:49 Direct consequence of stepping up in and Reporting situation.

24:57 And not at all the scenarios as if the track and field actually able to connect with that person, get them another job or bring them back to you sometime. Yes, you know, those are the stories I hear about someone getting the TV sets and then be able to build a life outside of that equation that work, but for every one of those stories in my experience, there are two or three others of people who just have to pay the price.

25:26 And it's quite a sacrifice, people making it. I think about it, I think about it. Remember.

25:35 That's such a fascinating answer cuz I was thinking, more a little bit about, like, individual cases, like things that are deeply disturbing, but you're basically saying that sometimes you still haunted by, how your advocacy work ends up getting sent back to Mexico. We have the most work to do. There are situations in the world that feel like they're just digs into the risk profile of the economy. Meaning go to the domestic Work World. You going to the Garment sector, are you going to agriculture? There will always be that Minority of managers employer statues to use fraud and coercion or against the war in Iraq as part of a much broader spectrum of exploitation.

26:35 A lot of different stakeholders that each have a big responsibility and primarily by the company, sent the purchasers of goods that had a lot of work to do on the Garmin Farm sectors for a sample. So we constantly work to remedy the situation, but I think

26:54 On our way to do that service agencies in law enforcement have so much work to do to make sure that we're not adding damage to that equation.

27:05 And, and there are so many examples of places where

27:11 Unfortunately damage has been done on its way to help if you know what I mean, so taste of what I seen out there, but it's it's the one where I feel like I have the most to do.

27:31 So now, maybe thinking of that more optimistically when was it time when you were really successful when you made a positive impact?

27:49 You know, it depends on how you look at impacted. I've worked with enough that many teens that I know. Learn different ways to count these things and then I'll come up. I think they're going to eat more.

28:04 You know, quantifiable when, when I think about working with systems, specifically doing policy work. Sometimes the impact is is

28:15 It's great. If you were able to change your entire system will put a new mechanism in place for an entire supply chain. Let's say you build the grievance mechanism that's going to affect hundreds of thousands of workers.

28:28 And actually provide access to the remedies for sexual harassment and exploitation health and safety issues on a job. In my mind, that that's what many smart people are working on. The reason, why didn't you my direct connection to a change? There was a situation in in one town in New York. That I want name that I got very involved in to the degree that I just ended up meeting many of the people on the exploitation side of the picture and affected by it. The section labor trafficking situation. And it goes with the situations that are trending screen, the developments for individual people.

29:23 And I specifically had the privilege of walking through the the justice system, and the service provision system with just a couple of people in that in that town over now many many years.

29:37 And one of them who had started, unfortunately fell into that picture when he was still very young is now finally seeing some results out of all of the

29:55 All the times you took to talk with law enforcement to link up with the legal aid, CPR, and a TV set, which is such a rare scheme of things that you reset for victims of crime in the much more mainstream remedy for people involved. Yahoo. Cut all kinds of experiences. Every one of them is hard one. I sent a lot of really hard working agencies. And in this case, in particular, for many reasons, for him to give it their best effort. And I had my small part in it.

30:37 And we found out just a little while ago that that the government finally made a decision on that and that she will have an ability to regular Isis immigration status in the US.

30:49 Possibly move to another part of the country, get into another profession and not have to run into his trackers.

30:59 It's been a journey, you know many many years on that one, and then over that time. I just had a lot of chances to chat with him on the phone or meet in person.

31:09 When there really wasn't anything to talk about where they weren't developments, where we didn't have any different to you working for headed, but it felt like I had more of that support role of the tearing it out, and learning about what was going wrong with him. So, it's just so

31:26 I'm so happy for him that she got that positive outcome. And I'm really looking forward to seeing what the next 10 years bring for him, right next to move away from from the from that situation.

31:41 Manipulate cover the whole thing that I've always admired about how you do your work. Is that you literally working, every imaginable level. So the individual relationship building and providing emotional support, to people who need and then like sitting in the office and saying you need to do XYZ thing to protect the rights of victims, but that's like what's so impressive about your career? As you know that you're not even that far into it and think of all the levels of power of the individual lives that you you know in case with and positively, you know, the number of different disciplines that kind of cross through from policy to

32:35 More of a traditional Grassroots worker rights approach to the legal aid and all the foundation are looking for even other ways to help investigative journalism. Nothing funnier than space. I've been lucky to have many people kind of let me into their into their world, social workers and blurred strained.

33:02 Psychiatrist. You do you name it? I mean, people who are really specialize in their fields. Let me sort of sit in and listen in and out and see what they bring to the table. One consequence. Is that is that it does allow for some people like me to end up floating between those faces without becoming too specialized. And I'm not law enforcement, but I feel like

33:32 I took so many years been able to just listen to the individual needs of those spaces and I can I can summarize sort of their General on certain issues and I've been able to advocate for changes that that people within each of us, the sequence of look for in the space. So that's always been interesting. But I always feel so it felt like a guest in this case including any in the DC policy will

34:06 Was thinking I can just talked about social workers and people, you admire, who are some of the individuals who have influenced the people that I've looked up to the most when I think about where I'm headed.

34:25 Where I'd like to be in the next round. Snow in the next 10 years. 20 years are the ones who do the heavy lifting.

34:39 Actually designing. And then getting programs funded than looking after just the basic steps that have to happen to keep those programs healthy and operating, I think about all the towns of people that come out of programs like like the one where you teach that better ready to do something in the world. There's such an interest, you would notice better than me as a professor. It's so many students are looking for Meaningful work.

35:18 There is a mismatch between that demand and the supply of jobs full time, jobs. That'll pay off. Somebody student at 4 and still have right? As always open for business, always hiring, you know, if she wants to go into

35:38 Is that more traditional approach. If you want to go to work for companies, in the HR department, or become a farm, labor contractor? You know, it's a hot economy. There's a lot out there for people who are. So, what do we have to do? On the nonprofit side on the government side, to really open not just jobs to Career paths for people that so that we get to talk to Alan Young, people who are going to make more than back then, then then I would be able to switch sample.

36:11 I think about Luke happened to sit there were just as someone who didn't get his name in the news.

36:19 As much he really kept his head down and just trains running on time. Of course, you know, the day-to-day of nonprofit is always a little bit of chaos. Your people could come up with stories of things, you know, getting turned in late, or not, going the right way, but, but I always remember,

36:38 The rare few times that I do know, rolled out of bed before I had to, and maybe had something to work on in the office that I, I get up there to pull over to where the office is, in Rochester, on an, on a winter day, and he keeps before people were in the office yet, a shovel in his hand and he beat the shoveling the driveway, right? Getting getting the driveway in this office, ready for the staff to come in and park their cars and get to work. Never asked anyone else to come in. They weren't insurance.

37:16 You know what, you might see in some places, the executive director. He had to look after grants yet to maintain relationships with everyone on the board stuff like that. And I think she still found the time to do that Basics order.

37:34 Background work that has to happen in and I I came to really admire that over the years when I had asked to work for him.

37:41 Justice Center.

37:49 Another book called,

38:00 So, maybe to wrap it up?

38:05 What advice was your guy has a 3333 year-old Gonzalo. Give to you know, who graduated from Cornell and years ago, and he was starting out his career. Let me try to think that's what I was thinking back then.

38:26 You know.

38:32 I am.

38:34 And when I look back at the 10 years of the wearing different hats,

38:39 Half of the time I was thrown into a meeting. Someone one on Parental leave.

38:44 And needed someone to go with me, the passports, or beat with a worker. Like in that town that I mentioned for temper end up canceling ball.

38:54 I never felt prepared for the biggest opportunities that I had.

39:01 Objectively just was under train.

39:05 And there were people out there in the broader field that were in a more qualified to do. What I what I was doing. Some of that was really at the age, some of the training right to having the right background to do a specific task. And for a while. We'll talk about Foster syndrome. That kind of thing that

39:39 Dunedin space so great. And they're the people that have been funded to be able to do this work. A few privileged programs have had the opportunity. Please hire teens to get up with you are so few that that's always going to be there. It's inevitable, no matter how much we scale. You always will have a new round of people coming in to it. Who could have had that could have been more prepared. For could have sat through more webinars on what they were about to do, and just have it yet. And I would have, I think if I could have given myself device to let myself off the hook a little bit more about that.

40:20 No, knowing when to ask for help knowing when to stop and check in with the expert of course matters, but

40:28 As I think about the new people that are going to come out to the farm, to start to learn about Force labor and glass supply chains. I'd advise them not to be too worried about being know. We could take God and I see people we have right now and still need more. So,

40:50 Get rid of that.

40:54 I like to believe in yourself.

40:57 Yeah, I always pretended, I did right when I get to Albany and then share task force when I was 22. 23, 24 years old.

41:05 I die put on the best tire that I had and and and facilitate the meeting, but I think people would laugh and Albany like people that I know I've no no no for you. You're some of the more, they would know what I was feeling like in the morning. I'm driving. I remember driving on, on I-87. So he's meeting and just feeling the adrenaline feeling like I just wasn't

41:34 You know, I couldn't possibly be the person to try to facilitate a meeting between federal law enforcement and social worker and policymakers.

41:46 An over over time. I got over that to you. I had to work over again, but

41:53 But yeah, there's always some.

41:57 This always going to be a little bit of that. I think for everyone along the way, right?

42:01 Maybe that brings us as a good place to end, it brings us right back where we started. When I was a grad student and I was up in the north country of New York doing research here. You coming to say hey Kathy, I put together a meeting of over 20 federal law enforcement at the even. I like the FBI. They're a public service providers. Like 24 years old. I would never forget that I was blown away at how you've not, only brought all those people to the table but facilitated a meaningful conversation about traffic. Something that really has stuck with me. Yeah, they stuff with me. I made some friends from that time that I, you know, they're probably doing right now and

42:46 Talking about how one time is 24 year olds trying to listen to them. But in the end we're all going somewhere and you will never specifically in the traffic anyway, but you were in the broader Universe. A farm worker rights and whenever I needed that extra perspective.

43:09 You were there and eat you. That's that's part of your advice. Maybe people should have a friend and a mentor to kind of. Let them take a step back and think about this. Thank you for being there for me.

43:23 My prayers is always has been one of the most meaningful friendship.