Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Scratching Out a Living
Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South
By Angela Stuesse
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
GLOBALIZATION AND IMMIGRANT TRANSFORMATIONS
"Her husband used to run whisky as a bootlegger," my acquaintance divulged in a low voice. It was December 2003 and I was visiting Forest, Mississippi, to secure a place to live in advance of my move there the following month. Among the many dead-end leads I pursued, someone suggested I call a widowed white woman who had some land outside of town where she rented a handful of trailers. I wasn't sure I wanted to live even farther out in the country — Forest, with its population of six thousand and hour's drive from the nearest city, seemed rural enough — but I was quickly learning that my housing options in the area were few and, thanks to the poultry industry's booming business in immigrant labor, mostly overpriced and poorly maintained. I spoke to the owner briefly by phone and then drove out along a narrow country road until I met her at the old trailer for rent. She opened the door, and I quickly looked around the dimly lit space. My eyes fixated on the threadbare, olive-colored carpeting in the cramped living area. The trailer did cover the absolute basics, but I hoped it wouldn't come to this.
As we stepped back out into the light of day, I looked around me and asked who else was renting on her property. "What can you tell me about who my neighbors would be?" Her response was surprisingly, painfully candid:
"Well, I don't rent to Mexicans. But I do have a Mexican family that is very good and helps me keep up my properties." A lump began to form in the pit of my stomach. She proceeded.
"Now, the one who lives down there," gesturing toward the end of the road about three trailers beyond where we stood, "He's a Black man. But he won't hurt you." The lump grew. While I had doubted this place's suitability when I was inside, I now found myself silently plotting my escape. Ultimately, the condition and hue of the wearied rug were insignificant; what made me queasy were my potential landlord's disgraceful views and the ease with which she had interpreted the shade of my white skin as an indication that I would share them.
As I drove away in dismay, wondering if I could ever feel at home here, the ethnographer in me found consolation — admittedly conflicted, but consolation nonetheless — in the realization that I had found fertile ground for my research on how new Latin American immigration was transforming the U.S. South. But I wasn't merely studying this phenomenon; my encounter had made clear that I was also living the very changes I was seeking to understand. I hoped that my work would speak to — indeed, have a transformative impact on — the experiences of everyday people.
* * *
Two years later I'm reminded of this moment as I sit at dusk on the makeshift porch of a different trailer with Pablo Armenta, a father of four from Veracruz, Mexico. An occasional car passes quietly down the winding country road as darkness falls — headlights approach first, engine rumbling, and soon the red glow of taillights trails behind. Several hundred-foot pine trees stretch up, stoic, from the patch of lawn before us. Three pairs of yellow rubber work boots stand neatly at attention on the ground below the porch, accompanied by three purple plastic aprons that drape over the stairs' crude wooden railing, drying out after a long day's work at the chicken plant. Tonight the warm air is still, but we can't escape the familiar, pervasive odor of Forest — that stout, mealy, putrid aroma of chickens heading to and from slaughter. Around here they say it "smells like money," or so goes the timeworn joke.
I faintly hear the sound of the TV through the closed door behind us. I've asked Pablo to recount his story of how he came to Mississippi. "Mississippi ..." He pauses for several breaths in a moment of reflection before continuing:
I think God put it in my path. I was in Florida picking oranges. One afternoon I went to a Cuban store, and when I was walking home a van pulled over, and this guy says to me, "Hey, do you want to work in Mississippi?" And I told him, "Well, that depends." So he explained what it was about, a chicken plant, a factory where they process chicken, the work is like this, they pay this much. They were offering housing and everything, so yeah, it sounded good to me.
I am incredulous. "So they just stopped you on the side of the road, and you said yes?" Pablo chuckles at my astonishment. Perhaps even he's a little surprised at the events that unfolded in its wake:
Yes! So then they said, "Tomorrow we'll come get you around this time." So I told them where I lived, and I talked with my two brothers, and we decided to do it. They said, "You go ahead, and if it all checks out, we'll follow." The next day I left. We went in a van, all piled up on top of one another; you know, in one of those vans that you can rent to move furniture. It was so full! I arrived, worked one week, received my first paycheck, it seemed good to me, and I brought them all here to join me.
Despite considerable challenges, ten years later Pablo and his brothers have made Mississippi home. The migration he describes, which began in the mid-1990s, has changed the landscape of both the chicken-processing industry and rural southern communities. Such changes have taken place amid social landscapes with previously established categories, as my ill-fated interaction with a prospective landlord made abundantly clear. How these transformations came about, and their impacts on poultry workers, their communities, and their possibilities for workplace justice, are the focus of this book.
For hundreds of years, the political, economic, and social fabric of the U.S. South has been spun from profound structural inequalities between Black and white. A Latin American migration of unprecedented scope has begun to bring this foundational feature of the region into question. The Hispanic population is growing faster here than in any other part of the country. With the exception of Louisiana, during the 1990s every southern state boasted a greater-than 100 percent increase, with several registering growth rates of more than 300 percent. Over half a million Hispanics moved to the region in this period, and the trend has continued in the new millennium. It is home to seven out of ten states with the largest increase in undocumented migrants between 1990 and 2010. The majority are young, single Mexican men, though the incidence of women as well as migrants from other places in Latin America is on the rise. They have scattered across the region in a patchwork of rural, suburban, and metropolitan areas, following the job opportunities of a global economy. So while immigration is not new to the South, the intensity and breadth of this growing trend is novel. The phenomenon has become so incisive and widespread that some scholars have dubbed the region the "Nuevo New South," and white, Black, and new Latino communities find themselves grappling to make sense of the cultural changes and shifting social hierarchies sparked by these dramatic transformations.
Mississippi is the most recent southern state to experience these changes. It has long been considered the "deepest" part of the South, holding a place of "symbolic importance ... in the national imagination." For many Americans the state conjures up images of the Mississippi Delta, the land along the floodplains of the Mississippi River that has, since the mid-1800s, been home to some of the largest cotton plantations and the most concentrated population of African Americans in the country. Mississippi reminds others of pivotal periods in our nation's history, such as the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement. For younger people the state may have entered their consciousness following 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast before decimating New Orleans.
When they hear the word "Mississippi," few people think of the poultry region at the center of the state. Yet this is precisely the area to which Latinos began arriving in the mid-1990s. Because the phenomenon is so recent — at least ten years behind other states in the region with more established immigrant populations — Mississippi's communities have limited infrastructure to support the integration of newcomers, and most residents know little about their backgrounds or reasons for coming. Similarly, new immigrants are generally unaware of the social and political histories of the United States or the South. Moreover, Mississippi's Latino population is extraordinarily diverse, with people from over a dozen countries across Latin America. These realities add to the complexity of social relations in communities and workplaces.
Mississippi is an important place to examine new Latino immigration to the South precisely because of these characteristics. Whereas in other parts of the country immigrants often replace a majority-white workforce, in Mississippi's poultry region they work alongside African Americans in some of the lowest-paid and most dangerous jobs in the country. While the state's high percentage of working-class Black residents and entrenched racial hierarchies have long contributed to the public perception of Mississippi as "the most southern place on Earth," these extremes also enable us to more acutely observe the effects that these new arrivals are having on the deeply engrained social order. I am not suggesting that Mississippi or the Deep South are qualitatively different from other parts of the country. While their legacies of slavery and segregation produced particular social processes and relationships that continue to hold meaning today, the transformations taking place are emblematic of a larger shift throughout the United States, in which new Latino immigrants bring into question long-standing racial hierarchies and ways Americans relate to one another. Rather than seeing the Deep South as exceptional, then, let us consider what it can teach us about broader changes taking place across the country in the realms of social relations, racial identification, and the global economy.
SLAUGHTERING AMERICA'S CHICKENS
America loves chicken. So much, in fact, that we eat almost ninety pounds of it per person, per year. That's nearly double what we ate when I was young (forty-eight pounds annually in 1980) and over ten times what our parents and grandparents consumed in 1950 (eight pounds per capita). Our voracious appetite for this bird has fueled the transformation of poultry production from a backyard endeavor that supplemented families' dinner plates and incomes into one of the most highly specialized and labor-intensive forms of industrial agriculture in the world.
But chicken processing is one of the worst jobs in America. Work on the processing lines is loud and fast. Communication is brusque and kept to a minimum. Pervasive fats and fluids ensure everything stays damp and slippery. Temperatures are extreme, knives often dull, and protective equipment in short supply. Supervisors regularly push bodies and patience past their limits and compensate it all with poverty-level pay. U.S.-born and immigrant workers alike complain of a litany of unjust practices, including wage theft, denial of bathroom breaks, unnecessarily hazardous working conditions resulting in high rates of injury, deceptive use of labor contractors, and abuse by supervisors and higher-level management, including discrimination and sexual harassment.
While corporate earnings continue to rise, poultry workers' real wages have declined steadily since 1970. A national study found violations of minimum wage laws in 100 percent of poultry plants surveyed. Jobs have been "deskilled" and production sped up through remarkable technological advances, and workers now repeat the same monotonous — and often hazardous — movement throughout their entire shift. As a result, repetitive motion injuries plague the workforce. Plants are often out of compliance with federal safety and health regulations, and the government agency charged with oversight of these laws, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is appallingly underresourced and, consequently, largely ineffective. All workers are expendable; injured or disabled ones are typically disposed of. The annual turnover of workers is as high as 100 percent in some locations.
Workers who try to organize to change these conditions are often met with stiff resistance. "There is no industry harder to organize than the poultry industry," said an international leader of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union at a gathering of poultry worker leaders from across the South in 2005. "I had heard stories and rumors about what went on in the plants, but I didn't really know till I got to visit a couple plants last year in Mississippi. There is no other place in this country where organizing is harder than in the South. There is no place else in the country where workers are facing such horrific working conditions. Poultry workers represent some of the most exploited workers in this world."
Aside from their claim to being the only major employer in many rural towns, poultry processors are giving their workers virtually no incentive to stay. As this ethnography shows, however, such incentives are unnecessary at the dawn of the twenty-first century, when workers, effortlessly recruited from across the world, are literally expendable and infinitely replaceable.
IMMIGRANT WORKERS IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
The dismal working conditions, poverty-level wages, and corporate resistance to collective bargaining that poultry workers endure are not new. Many of these problems were brought to the public's attention more than a century ago, when Upton Sinclair famously detailed the dangerous and unjust practices of Chicago's meatpacking industry in his acclaimed book, The Jungle. Even the employment of immigrant laborers and other marginalized groups to weaken worker power is a legacy that extends back to (and before) Sinclair's lifetime. Indeed, industrial capitalism has existed as the principal mode of production in the global economy since at least the nineteenth century, and this system has always reached beyond national boundaries. Given these continuities, what has changed?
Anthropologists and others argue that we are in a unique historical moment in which the local and the global intersect in ways qualitatively distinct from the past. Whether it is conceptualized as a "speeding up" or a "stretching out," globalization theory understands time and space as having been reconfigured through the development of new communication and transportation technologies — what some scholars have termed the "conditions of postmodernity." Developments such as high-speed air travel, global telephone infrastructure, and the Internet have intensified human interaction on a global scale, fundamentally disembedding social and cultural relations from traditional spatially bounded contexts and linking distant places so that "local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away."
Theories of globalization have been used to explain fluxes and flows ranging from money, commodities, and industries to people, ideologies, and ideas. Yet while these discussions recognize that transnational capital plays an important role in the globalizations they analyze, they fail to explain the economic, political, and cultural logic that fuels processes of globalization. In other words, while globalization theories help us understand how, they generally leave unanswered the question of why people, money, and goods are moving across international boundaries at such unprecedented rates. The answer lies in understanding what drives today's global economy.
Beginning in the 1970s neoliberal economic theory suggested that governments, or "the state," should interfere as little as possible with the market, instead allowing its "invisible hand" to guide economic, political, and social relationships. But in practice, governments do regulate the market in all sorts of ways. In recent decades they have implemented policies to deregulate industry, divest the state of social responsibility for the poor, criminalize immigrants, weaken worker protections, invest public funds into private endeavors, and liberalize finance, among other interventions. Rather than shrinking away, states have become the principal enforcers of neoliberalism, wielding regulatory powers in ways that ensure that capitalist logic can govern society. As a result, over the past thirty years global inequalities have grown significantly as wealth has consolidated around the globe.
Excerpted from Scratching Out a Living by Angela Stuesse. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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