The huge grins and wide, sparkling eyes of 42 Mexican men and women on Queen Street Sunday evening were as heart-warming as the community tree-lighting celebration itself, which is expected to become an annual event.
Along with a good crowd of residents, the group of farmworkers enjoyed the St. Michael Catholic School choir singing Christmas songs on the Court House steps, the hot apple cider and cookies, the lighting of the tree beside the Cenotaph, and the welcoming, friendly spirit of the community gathering.
For some of the farmworkers, it was their first trip to the Old Town, and unlike anything they have experienced, although they are part of the NOTL community for up to eight months of the year.
Their presence at the event was arranged by Julia Buxton Cox, who befriended a group of Mexican women following the death of their co-worker, Zenaida, who was hit by a truck while walking on Concession 7 this summer.
Buxton Cox had attended the vigil held for Zenaida, and drew on her limited Spanish to tell the devastated women who had worked side by side packing peaches with her how sad and sorry she was for them in their loss, “and how grateful we are for the work they do. It was so moving and emotional. We all started to cry.”
The vigil and the conversation afterwards, she says, “really struck a chord with me. I realized how little we know about their community.”
She was inspired by Jane Andres, who has put a lot of effort into educating residents about the farmworkers who spend so much time in our town, to learn more, she says.
Since then, she has reached out to the women with offers of help, and in doing so, has come to consider them friends.
Some of them were working at Tregunno’s Farms with Zenaida when she was killed, but they have now moved on to St. Davids Hydroponics to finish out their season.
Her friendships with them have developed over trips to the bank, to transfer money home, and to go shopping. There is a bus that will take them to St. Catharines, but with Buxton Cox offering to drive them, they can go where they like to shop. “They know their way around,” she says.
Although they enjoy shopping, they are very frugal, always sending some money home for their children first, before they shop. “They all have kids at home. They send money for school, heat, water and food.”
At Thanksgiving, Buxton Cox asked 24 women working at St. Davids Hydroponics if they were going to cook a traditional dinner, and they said no, it was too expensive. So she took them dinner, cooking two turkeys and all the fixings for them. “They were so amazed, and so grateful.”
The women were also treated to a picnic by the gazebo this summer, with fine china and white linen, and the opportunity to see the Old Town for the first time, and realize how beautiful it is, she says.
Although Buxton Cox helped to arrange the picnic, she was unwell and couldn’t go along. Her friends Betty Knight and Fran Boot looked after the women, who were amazed to see how close NOTL is to the U.S. They were also thrilled to be taken in the side door for a quick visit to the Prince of Wales Hotel. “They were in awe — they couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. It was a very special day for them,” says Buxton Cox.
She decided recently she wanted to offer them something that felt like a Christmas gift, before they return home, and the tree-lighting event proved to be serendipitous — the timing allowed them to take part in a community event.
Her neighbour, Barry Wilding, a school bus driver, offered his services for free, as did DanNel Transportation with the bus. Father Antonio Illas, with the local Anglican Diocese, helped out as a translator.
Before heading to the Cenotaph, Buxton Cox, this time with a group of men and women, took them to the gazebo, again giving them the opportunity to see the U.S. and understand how close it is.
“We waved and said ‘hola Estados Unidos,’ and looked at the Toronto skyline,” she says, before making a quick stop at the Prince of Wales to see the Christmas tree.
“It was so beautiful. Everywhere we take them, they are so grateful for the experience.”
Once on Queen Street, their presence was recognized by Lord Mayor Betty Disero in her address to the crowd. “We’re hearing a lot of Spanish on the street,” she said, thanking the workers for all they do for the community.
Disero also thanked all the volunteers who had made many of the decorations, and who had helped to make Queen Street beautiful for the holidays.
Buxton Cox, referring to the relationship she has developed with the Mexican women, and the assistance she is offering, says, “this is not charity in any way. They are part of this community. One woman has been coming here for 20 years. They are our neighbours, and I am grateful for their friendship.”