Once-Wealthy Volunteer Ministering to Migrant Workers

The Angels, a local family of musicians, assisted by St. Charles Catholic Church volunteers, at an outdoor Mass for migrant workers and their families.

Hector Amortegui coordinates the migrant ministry at St. Charles Catholic Church in Cape Charles.

Cape Charles Wave

July 12, 2012

Hector Amortegui and his wealthy family fled their home in Bogota, Colombia, after they were threatened by guerilla fighters. Now he’s on the Eastern Shore for a third summer, ministering to migrant farmworkers and encouraging local people to have compassion on them.

“The people have been the ones that made me love this place,” Amortegui said about the Eastern Shore, and parishioners at St. Charles Catholic Church. “They are so transparent, loyal and loving.”

Amortegui didn’t speak a word of English in 2008 when he arrived at St. John Vianney Seminary in Miami. Now he translates the Mass into Spanish during the priest’s visits to Northampton County migrant camps. He organizes the collection and distribution of donated items, keeps an eye open for trouble, transports people to healthcare, and coordinates the local volunteers.

“It would be hard to do it without him,” said Chris Bannon, one of the St. Charles volunteers. “We come in with the fluff but don’t have the ability to touch the people. Our ministry would limp without him.”

The Eastern Shore has the highest density of migrant farmworkers in Virginia. Sixteen years ago, there were five tomato-growing companies and 120 camps accommodating 5,000-6,000 workers and family members.

Last year, there were only three growers and 50 camps.

This year, only two agribusinesses have planted tomatoes — Kuzzens/6Ls, and Pacific Tomato Growers — with 1,800 farmworkers in 25 camps. Pacific Tomato Growers does not house children, forcing workers to either look for housing in the community, or leave their families behind.

Jim Albright, coordinator of migrant ministries for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, says the situation is unjust. “If we need their sweat so badly, and we rely on foreign labor, then we ought to welcome them into our society and let them bring their families,” he said. “Otherwise they become just a tool.”

Albright recruited Amortegui at the Miami seminary in 2010. By then, he was studying English five hours a day. He said he learned easily because, having studied as a youth in a Jesuit school, he had a good background in Spanish, French, and Latin grammar. His father is a judge and his mother a professor of philosophy.

While in the Bogota seminary, he was assigned to minister in violent neighbor-hoods. “I saw many times people in the hospital, people dying, gangs,” Amortegui said. His mother worked to help the children of former guerillas, who wanted her to stop because they were losing future fighters.

“Of course they started threatening my family,” Amortegui said.

Fr. Michael Breslin and Hector Amortegui at the Yaros camp near Butler’s Bluff.

His mother and sister fled to Canada, and Colombia’s Cardinal Pedro Rubiano had him placed in the Miami seminary.

“So I cried for two weeks,” he said. “But it stuck in my mind, what Bishop Robert Ospina said, that celibacy doesn’t only mean to keep away from sex. It’s the capacity to be detached from people, places and things. That was a good sentence. I started to appreciate the value of celibacy. I realized how rich this term is.”




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