Trailing the Shepherd

Friday, April 27, 2012

By Jika González

(via)

"Are things still good there?” a man asks. “At least they are better than here,” Eraldo responds as he prepares for his third venture to the United States. Eraldo Pacheco, a Chilean shepherd, is starting a contract to work as a sheepherder in the plains of Idaho for the next three years.

Filmmakers Andres Caballero and Sofian Khan have been following Eraldo, from Chile to the Unites States, and from the dessert to the mountains of Idaho, with the mission to tell a very unique story of an immigrant life.

“We are trying to tell a story of immigration through the profession of sheepherding, trying to capture the immigrant spirit, something that has been lost in the political discourse of the past few years,” says Andres. “Its simply an old fashioned story of immigration, this guy who comes for a better life, to feed his kids, I want to make this film to remind people why these guys come here.”

The idea for ‘EL Pastor,’ still in production, started three years ago when Andres found himself at an immigration services office in San Francisco. Sitting in the waiting room he met Rodrigo, a Chilean immigrant and former sheepherder. “When he told me he was a shepherd, I started asking, what do you mean a shepherd? Where? That still exists?” Andres recalls.

Rodrigo had been working in the isolation of the mountains of Idaho for months when one day he saw a bear in the distance. Luckily Rodrigo was on horseback and when the bear came towards him, he was able to grab his gun and shoot. “But after going through that period of solitude, the rough life style and almost losing his life, he was like ‘fuck it I’m going back, this is not the life for me’,” says Andres.

Sheepherding is a profession of patience and solitude. These men live a nomadic life, spending months by themselves moving through the public lands of Idaho, Utah and Colorado to graze the sheep they are looking after. “During the summer, the only human contact they have is with the guy that brings them water and food every three weeks,” says Andres. “I’ve never been alone for that long and I know we are not really designed to be alone for that long. These guys are broken by this solitude sooner or later.”

Today, most sheepherders come to the Unites States on temporary work visas granted to foreigners for seasonal agricultural labor. According to Andres, US companies started recruiting men from countries such as Chile and Peru in the 1970’s. Compared to the cattle industry, the sheepherding industry is very small but is worth an approximate 2.7 billion dollars a year.

“Immigration is such a big issue and for the past few years the media has really numbed people in the way they’ve covered it,” says Andres. “I want to tell this story in a different way, through this profession that nobody really knows about.”

These shepherds come to the United States legally to fulfill the needs of an industry, but as crackdowns on undocumented immigrants get worse, it is also getting harder and more expensive to bring workers legally with new and stricter regulations. “Who else is going to do this job? Especially for this amount of money,” asked a rancher interviewed for the film. Shepherds make approximately 800 dollars a month, working 24-hour-long days, seven days a week.

After the bear attack, Rodrigo rode back to base camp, went to his boss and asked to go back to Chile. Still at base camp, before he got the chance to go home, Rodrigo fell into the American Dream. He met his future wife, an American student researching sheep in Idaho. He did not speak English, she did not speak Spanish, but they fell in love. Months later they were sitting at the immigration office where they had met Andres, waiting for their appointment to keep Rodrigo in the country.

Rodrigo is still not part of the film but Andres and Sofian hope to include him “because he represents the so-called American Dream.” Since that day in San Francisco, Rodrigo got married, has obtained residency, and is now raising a family.

Eraldo, the main character, “is the guy that keeps coming back,” explains Andres. He is on his third contract in the US, he’s been here before, the last time he had promised himself he would never come back but after failed investments in Chile he has decided to give it another try.

The film will also follow Johnny, a Peruvian immigrant, whom the filmmakers captured at the airport in Salt Lake City landing on US soil for the very first time. Johnny will give the film the perspective and experience of “the first-timer.”

And finally they have the character of Bear, one of few American shepherds in the profession. “Bear gives a distinct perspective because that’s the life style that he chooses, he knows that the other guys do it because they have to, for necessity,” says Andres. “When I asked him, why don’t Americans want to do this job? He said ‘It’s kind of obvious, its not that Americans are lazy, its mainly the pay. Who wants to do that? No American wants to do that or wants their kids to do that’.”

“There’s a lot of ignorant fear when it comes to immigration, people don’t really understand what these guys do and how they contribute to this country,” says Andres. “In agriculture and farming there are a lot of undocumented people who should be given a solution because they are fulfilling the needs of an industry and if these industries are staying alive, it’s because of these workers.”

“We don’t talk about what this country has done to lure these people through economic policies, what have we created south of this border that is making them come here?” asks Andres. “It's something that we would all do if we were in their position.”

‘El Pastor’ is still in production but you can follow its progress at www.capitalkpictures.com

 

Follow Jika on Twitter @JikaGlez

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Jika González is a freelance journalist, photographer and multimedia producer from Mexico City. She is currently pursuing her master's degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.