Karalyn Dorn is known as “the mother of all the farm workers,” in the small western Colorado town of Palisade, just east of Grand Junction. The former Peace Corps volunteer and Spanish-speaking executive director of Child and Migrant Services (CMS) tends to the needs of seasonal farm workers who are far from home and family.
The nonprofit organization was founded around a kitchen table in 1954 by the wives of three Palisade farmers. These wives sought to provide basic services like food and clothing for their farm workers at a time when treatment of migrant farm workers in the United States was often dismal.
Housed in an old Victorian at 721 Peach Avenue – called the Hospitality Center – CMS has expanded its services over the years and changed its mission somewhat, as more men without their families come than in the past. These days, the center offers English language tutoring, helps farm workers access medical and dental services, and connects workers to other community resources. Dorn accomplishes all this on a shoestring budget with part-time employees – community health worker Richard Maestas and kitchen manager and cook Maria Lopez – plus 80 volunteers annually.
“We like to think of Child and Migrant Services as a home away from home,” says Dorn. “We speak the language of food. The most important thing we offer now is home-style food – like what they’d get at home – and a warm welcome. We’re getting to know them by offering food and being here to respond to their needs.” Three times a week, authentic Mexican-style meals are served to farm workers in the center’s front room dining area.
Typically, 60 to 70 men – and occasionally women and children – come for the free meals after harvesting or packing fruit for 10 hours. If someone wanders in at closing time, Maria Lopez, who has cooked for CMS for the past seven years, finds a way to feed that person, says longtime volunteer Nancy Angle. “We have to take care of each other in this world and feeding people is one of the most fundamental things we can do,” she says.
Angle, 79, arrives at noon and begins peeling and scooping out the seeds of six cantaloupes. She places the chunks of fruit in a blender with water and a little sugar. The fruit water, or another cold drink like lemonade or ice water, awaits workers when they arrive.
Familiar foods like chicken mole, or tostados with hamburger and potatoes, soups and stews, along with always some kind of salad, are made from scratch using local Food Bank and other community food donations. Meals always include homemade salsa, refried beans and tortillas. “Maria wants to treat the workers as great as possible. It’s important to her that the food be hearty, filling and like their mom’s food,” Dorn says.
Peach grower Bruce Talbott, whose grandmother Margaret was one of the founders, says CMS is “very unique” and strives to create a community where workers want to return. CMS serves more than 300 individuals, plus some families, with funding from local businesses, United Way of Mesa County, Colorado foundations, an annual outdoor Latin jazz concert held in Palisade each summer, and the Tamale Project.
Maria Frausto, “the other Maria” essential to CMS, volunteers during the summer making tamales for the Tamale Project (proceeds go back to CMS) in between her fruit-packing and housecleaning jobs. It’s a two-day process that begins with buying cornhusks at the “Mexican store” because you get more for less money, then proceeding to the grocery store where she purchases the other ingredients: masa, chili, garlic, chicken, pork, tomatillos, cilantro, jalapenos, mushrooms, carrots, potatoes and zucchinis.
At 7:00 the following morning, Frausto begins cooking the meat and preparing the vegetables and salsa. By 11 am, the shredded meat, prepped veggies, and pre-soaked cornhusks are placed on the dining room’s long metal tables, where about 10 volunteers help fill and wrap the cornhusks into 400-plus tamales. Frausto then steams the tamales for two hours. When cooled, they’re bagged and placed in the freezer, ready to be sold.
When CMS shuts down its meal program at the end of harvest season, Maria Lopez returns to Mexico for the winter. Maria Frausto, a 32-year-old permanent resident, takes over in the kitchen as a part-time employee making tamales and cooking for occasional special events.
She emigrated from Mexico 13 years ago “for a better future, better pay, more work.” Her parents, an aunt and uncle, four sisters, her husband, and a teenage son have all worked in the Palisade orchards at various times. “I know how the workers feel at the end of the day of hard work and what it’s like to get a hot meal,” says Frausto. “That’s why I like to come here. I know how they feel.”