SAVERY, Wyo. — It was the first shootout of the day, and Chuco the goalkeeper eyed the ball with an intense stare, bent in a half-crouch and ready to leap in front of the ball.
Kenyu Martinez Chuco is a 21-year-old from Peru who works as a ranch hand near Meeker, Colorado. On this day, he was tending goal for the Cobb Cattle Co. soccer team, trying to stop a stout Nicaraguan lumber mill worker named Efren Sanchez from scoring.
Sanchez stood back from the ball, then surged forward with a powerful left-footed kick that sent the ball straight to Chuco — who deflected it over the goal post and into the pasture behind as bystanders cheered.
On one Sunday each fall, 150 Peruvian soccer players converge on Savery, Wyoming, briefly transforming the pastoral town of 25 people into the busiest place in the Little Snake River Valley. The day-long tournament is one of the largest foreign worker soccer tournaments in two states. This year the games were held on Sept. 13, and dozens of ranch trucks and cars crammed along the highway that ran by the old Savery Mercantile.
Off the north shoulder of the road were two soccer fields where 150 players wearing bright-colored jerseys cheered, sprinted and sparred for the ball through the morning and afternoon. The 11 teams were made up mostly of Peruvians, joined by dozens of Mexicans and Nicaraguans and at least one Honduran. Most were foreign agricultural workers with H-2A visas that allow temporary residence in the United States.
“I like the tournament because I get to see my friends,” Chuco said in Spanish. “In Peru everyone plays soccer. For me, it makes me happy, and I’m looking for more practice.”
During the week, these men labor at ranches, lumber mills and oilfields along the Wyoming-Colorado-Utah border, a high elevation region of arid valleys and deserts bisected by various ranges of the Rocky Mountains. A few of the men are sheepherders, while others are irrigators and cowboys. Most live within 100 miles of Savery, in towns like Saratoga, Wyoming; Walden, Colorado and Vernal, Utah.
But wherever they live, on Sundays, they play pickup soccer games, some on their home ranches, others in an informal league centered in the Colorado towns of Craig and Meeker.
“It’s a diversion, and to get exercise, lower stress, burn calories, and lose weight,” Gregorio Melchor said in Spanish. He works on a ranch near Encampment, Wyoming, and comes from Huancayo, Trujillo, Peru.
One of the referees for the day was Javier Quezada, a tall man who wore a cowboy hat along with his yellow jersey and soccer shorts. He’s originally from Jalisco, Mexico, but has lived in Craig, Colorado for decades with his wife Bertha Ayala and son Diego, a student at Moffat County High School. He’s now a U.S. resident and speaks fluent English.
“I like this tournament,” he said. “It’s one of the best in the region. They play 12-minute halves, but that’s a lot of soccer. I’ve never seen a red card or discipline on the teams, so that’s what’s brought me back.”
Quezada works at a tire repair shop where he changes truck tires for many of the players on the soccer teams.
“This region here, all the ranchers they treat their workers pretty good,” he said. “I think they pay them good, $1,200 a month, plus housing, food, medicine — all they need. I live in town and have to pay all my own bills.”
“The only thing is they live by themselves alone for a long time,” he said. “They’ll be out away from their families a long time. Most of them have a wife and kids, so it’s kind of hard. [Soccer] helps get the stress out.”
Workers on H-2A visas can bring their spouse and children to live with them during the period of their visa, but in practice only a few actually do. Instead, most have male cousins, brothers, or fathers who they work alongside.
Efren Sanchez, the 24-year-old from Chinandega, Nicaragua, said six cousins and his brother were playing at the tournament with him. Many of them work at a lumber mill in Saratoga.
For Carlos Alvarez, also of Chinandega, being away from home is all about economics. Before coming to the U.S. he worked in a gold mine. Now he works at the mill in Saratoga.
“Here, I earn $13.50 an hour, and work 10-hour shifts each day,” Alvarez said in Spanish. “I couldn’t earn that in 15 days in Nicaragua.” That’s partly because of the exchange rate, with $100 U.S. worth C$2,800 Cordobas, the Nicaraguan currency.
The teams came to the tournament at the invitation of the Cobb family, which employs five Peruvians on their ranch in Savery. Six years ago the three Cobb siblings Christy, Jack, and Cindy hosted the first invitational soccer tournament, with teams sponsored by local ranches.
“This is kind of a tribute to the Peruvians,” Cindy Cobb said. “They work hard, and they leave their families to come here and work for us.”
Over time, word of the tournament spread as the Peruvian players contacted friends and family in their personal networks, rallying more teams to compete for cash prizes. Each player on the winning team goes home with $40, an ample prize for such a tournament.
The Cobbs have ranched here on the western slope of the Sierra Madre Mountains since the 1880s. It’s a remote pocket of far-southern Wyoming, where the Little Snake River winds back and forth along the Colorado border, a narrow green valley among dry rolling hills of juniper and sage.
Tom Cobb, the 79-year-old family patriarch, arrived at the tournament on a dirt bike, full of stories about how the valley has changed, including the Savery Mercantile.
“That store, you could buy anything there, anything — from a condom to a hay rake to pair of Levi’s, a chisel, a punch, salt — anything, I guarantee you, when I as a kid,” Cobb said. “Now it’s closed. But there’s no little ranches left. You either get big or you get out.”
As small family ranches have consolidated and local workers left agriculture in droves, the H-2A guest workers from Latin America provided crucial labor.
“These workers are needed, definitely needed,” Cobb said. “Nobody wants to get calluses, nobody, and they’ll do it yet. Mexicans or Peruvians or whatever.”
“One of [Malone’s] foremen told me, ‘There is no way we could operate without Peruvians,’” Cobb said.
The number of foreign workers grew in the Savery area in the 1960s, when many workers were Mexican. They were often undocumented, Cobb said. That was despite the fact that workers could come legally under the H-2 visa starting in 1953, or the Bracero program until it ended in 1964. The federal government reorganized the H-2 program into the H-2A seasonal visa and the H-2B non-agricultural visa in 1986.
Today most of the foreign sheepherders and cowboys who work on area ranches are here on H-2A visas. During Wyoming’s post-2000 oil boom, many of the Mexican workers moved into oilfields, and Peruvians took their place.
While the visas are nominally for “temporary” seasonal workers, Cobb said one of his Peruvian ranch hands had been coming for 16 years. Workers can stay a maximum of three years at a stretch working on seasonal jobs. After that they must return for three months to their home country before reapplying for a visa. Many can’t wait to come back, according to Cobb’s son Jack who now runs the ranch.
A program under fire
Today the H-2A program faces numerous challenges. One recent investigation by the media outlet Buzzfeed called the program “The New American Slavery” citing a litany of abuses by employers. The Government Accountability Office recently released a report saying more worker protections are needed.
There is also pressure to raise wages. The federal Department of Labor proposed a rule to triple minimum wages of $750 per month, which Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) opposed. Two former herders filed a lawsuit in August accusing Casper-based Mountain Plains Agricultural Service and another firm of allowing ranchers to collude to keep sheepherder wages low.
For Tom Cobb, the most frustrating challenge is a new requirement that H-2A worker housing be at least 500 feet from a livestock corral. “Someone in D.C. come up with that,” Cobb said.
Such a rule may be more useful at an industrial feedlot or hog farm in the Midwest, where the spread of disease may be an issue, than it is at a ranch in the Rocky Mountains, where animals are kept far from the house on summer pasture. Instead, it’s a one-size-fits-all rule for all ranchers and farmers across the nation, Cobb said.
“It’s getting tougher all the time,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, I really don’t, because there are more rules and regulations. I’m old and just about out of it. I couldn’t keep up with it.”
While standing on the sideline watching the championship soccer game, his son Jack said the H-2A program is vital to ranches in the Little Snake River Valley. He estimates nine out of 10 small family ranches here employ Peruvian workers.
“We as an industry depend greatly on this H-2A program — it is the lifeblood for us,” Jack said. “We’re just trying to keep it for the next generation to stay in business, and right now we don’t have [an American] labor force.”
From one perspective, the H-2A program could be seen as a subsidy for the agriculture industry, helping everyone from Wyoming ranchers, to wheat farmers in Kansas, dairy farmers in Vermont and produce growers in the Central Valley of California. The workers also help keep food costs low for consumers, and Jack says they are vital for ranchers like him who are not in it for the money and are happy just to break even.
“If we lose this program, we probably lose our small family ranches,” he said. “You’d see a lot more million-dollar homes, second homes, and it would change the whole complexion of the community.”
Paying higher wages, which might attract American workers, would ultimately force many ranches out of business, Jack said. Even if ranches did pay workers more, few Americans would want to work the long hours required.
“People don’t understand that it is a long hours difficult job, but that’s what it takes to put food on America’s table,” Jack said.
Soccer, and a picnic
When the Cobbs started the soccer tournament it was partly to bring the Peruvians together with the rest of the Little Snake River community. “We just wanted them to show the people what they do every Sunday,” Jack said.
For that reason the Cobbs scheduled the tournament on the same day as the annual community picnic. The barbeque has been held off-and-on for more than 30 years at the Little Snake River Museum, a collection of historic buildings immediately north of the soccer fields.
Even so, most valley residents skipped the soccer tournament, perhaps because they don’t enjoy the game, or because of a cultural divide. The fans were mostly the foreign workers themselves, and a few of their employer-sponsors.
The championship game ended in a shootout between the Lazy CZ Bar Ranch and Rio Blanco. Dozens of workers gathered around, cheering on the players as a goalie blocked penalty kicks or let the ball fly past.
Rio Blanco won the shootout 4-1. The three Cobb siblings presented them with medals, cash prizes, and a trophy, which the team will take home with them until the tournament next year.
After the game the players hopped a rail fence to the picnic at the museum, where they were allowed to cut to the front of the line and to get a plate of barbeque beef, lamb and pork and sweet corn.
Some of the Peruvians had put up the tent where kids from the local Future Farmers of America club served about 300 plates of food. The soccer players sat on the grass and at picnic tables among the restored pioneer cabins. They ate side-by-side with residents, many of whom had roots in the valley going back generations.
One of these was Pat Sheehan, a picnic organizer and sponsor of the Sheehan Ranch soccer team. During a lull in the picnic he stepped to a microphone to thank everyone who made the event possible. Many people had worked together to set up the tent, prepare and serve food, bring in musicians, write grants, and sponsor the $6,000 beef purchased from the county fair, Sheehan said.
“We’ve got the best valley anyone can ask for, so give a hand for our valley and the people in it.”