One of the ironies of teaching students to read on their own initiative outside of school is that the heavy work load of teaching can make it hard for teachers to do just that themselves. This is something I try and resist as much as possible, and it gets easier when I have some time off. On a recent break, I read one of the best books I’ve read in awhile, The Right To Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration by David Bacon.
I knew the book would be relevant to my teaching practice because many of my students have family roots in Mexico or countries to the south such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. What I didn’t know is that North Carolina would be one of the main locations that the text focuses on as it examines recent developments in debates around advocacy and organizing among these communities. I’ve been living in Durham NC for 2 and 1/2 years and knew that the Latino community is a strong presence here. I’ve taught lessons about how the growth of the Latino population in Durham is linked to the passage of NAFTA in 1994, as a local example of a national phenomenon that has seen the number of Mexican born people in the US jump from 4.5m in 1990 to 9.75m in 2000 and then a peak of 12.67m in 2008. (5.7m of those have some kind of visa, but 7m do not.) Most of the families I work with work in industries like construction, food service, and house cleaning services that are more common in urban areas. But I rarely venture outside of Durham county and did not know about the larger context across the state, which has to do with the reliance of the state’s large agricultural sector on workers from Central America.
The first chapter, From Perote to Tar Heel, focuses on how the state of North Carolina became the number one US destination for displaced farmers from the state of Veracruz following the passage of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994. Bacon writes that an astonishing 90% of the 100,000 farmworkers in North Carolina are undocumented, citing Oxfam’s 2011 study A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry. Among the abuses the report details are: illegally low wages, (1 in 4 are paid less than minimum wage,) unsafe working conditions, (the majority of workers suffer from GTS, green tobacco sickness, and 1/3rd suffer from pesticide-related illnesses, while heatstroke is the leading cause of death among NC farmworkers despite state laws requiring that workers have access to fresh, cold water,) inadequate company-owned housing, (lack of heat, ventilation, functioning plumbing, etc.) the use of threats of deportation and incarceration to silence worker complaints, and the use of undocumented workers to circumvent collectively bargained agreements between the FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee) and the NCGA (North Carolina Growers Association) that cover farmworkers who have temporary H-2A visas.
Bacon criticizes the Oxfam report for attributing the relatively better conditions for those with H-2A visas to the visa program itself, rather than to the union that those workers are able to join once they have visas, which is not available to undocumented workers. He also cites a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center that finds that workers under the H-2 program still work in conditions that their report’s title calls Close to Slavery, (after former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel’s statement that “This guestworker program’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”)
Unlike U.S. citizens, guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market — the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who “import” them (and seize their documents). If guestworkers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.
Sometimes the consequences can be mortal. Quoting now from The Right to Stay Home:
When the recruiters who profit from the system are challenged, their response can be murderous. In early 2006 Santiago Rafael Cruz, an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, was tortured and killed when the union set up an office in Mexico to monitor hiring by Manpower and the North Carolina Growers’ Association, in an effort to end the corruption among the contractors who recruit guest workers.
Bacon’s focus is not limited to NC’s tobacco industry. It also shows how one company, Virginia based meatpacker Smithfield Foods, moved to take advantage of the passage of NAFTA to set up exploitative business practices in both Mexico and North Carolina that work together synergistically. The largest pork processing plant in the world was established in Tar Heel, NC in 1992, and really gained steam when cheap labor became increasingly available in 1994 after the passage of NAFTA. 1994 also saw a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods establish a huge pig farm called Granges Carroll de Mexico in the city of Perote in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The farm arrived in Perote promising jobs but also drove local pork producers out of business and used animal waste run off practices that Smithfield had been banned from using in the US by the Federal Government and the state of North Carolina. The resulting environmental destruction lowered the cost overhead of their pork production in both Mexico and North Carolina. In Mexico, Smithfield saved money by not having to spend on contamination prevention, while in NC, it saved money by employing cheap undocumented workers who were brought to North Carolina from Veracruz on recruiting buses that filled as families struggled to save their families from unemployment and a variety of illnesses. The book opens with a powerful account of what one of these families went through:
“On some warm nights, Fausto Limon’s children wake up and vomit from the smell.. He puts his wife, two sons, and daughter into his beat-up pickup, and they drive away from his farm until they can breathe the air without getting sick. Then he parks, and they sleep in the truck for the rest of the night.
Until the beginning of 2011, his mother went with them. Then her kidneys failed, and she went to the hospital, where she died. Simon and his family all had kidney ailments for three years before that…until finally a doctor told them to stop drinking water from the farm’s well. After his mother died, they began hauling in bottled water. Once they stopped drinking from the well, the infections stopped too.
Less than a half mile from his is one of the many pig farms built by Granges Carroll de Mexico in the Perote Valley.”
The second chapter, Cursed By Gold or Blessed By Corn, recounts how a similar phenomenon has unfolded in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, (a term I was taught to pronounce correctly by a student from Oaxaca, after I initially mangled it.) 75% of 3.4m people who live there qualify for the government’s “extreme poverty” statistical category. 20% of Mexico’s indigenous population lives in Oaxaca, nearly a third of the state’s population, and they are hardest hit by these conditions. Mining companies operate there free of taxation and regulation and have poisoned lands they wrested from farmers with chemicals like cyanide, an essential ingredient in gold mining. A shocking 26% of the national territory of Mexico was given to mining companies by the PAN administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon. The resulting benefits do not accrue to working people in Oaxaca, where 41% of the people make their living from agriculture while only 0.28% work in mining.
What I really appreciated about this book is how it gives equal attention to conditions on both ends of the journey that migrant workers make, rather than just focusing on conditions here in the US. This allows Bacon to disrupt the mainstream narrative that people leave Mexico and other countries “for a better life” in the United States, as if the gap in the quality of life between Mexico and the United States was a naturally occurring fact. Bacon stresses that it is instead a direct and intentional result of US foreign and economic policies that are “Geared to produce displaced people.” (My emphasis.) He goes so far as to compare the exodus of workers from Central America to the US in the last two decades to the middle passage that stole Africans and brought them to Americas to labor on plantations as slaves. (“Today, displacement and inequality are as deeply ingrained in the free market economy as they were during the slave trade.”) The mechanism for kidnapping the labor is no longer the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic from the 16th through 19th centuries – they have now been replaced by trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA that force workers to make the journey on their own. Like the Middle Passage, we know that not everyone who undertakes that journey survives it.
I hesitate to share stories I have heard from students because to tell them makes me feel I am reducing the full spectrum of their lives to the adversities their families have faced, which feels like a form of racism. But the issue becomes less abstract to me when I hear stories about students’ parents hiding under boxcars from ICE agents at the border, or making the journey from Honduras to Durham on foot, or when I hear about siblings who have been deported, incarcerated, or left behind in Mexico. One of the best pieces of writing I have ever read by a student was about immigration. It was written in a narrative style suited for television that moved back and forth between action centered on Presidents Obama and Pena Nieto at the top of the social pyramid and demonstrations outside and inside prisons at the base as they pushed back and forth against each other.
It was a great example of the inadequacies of the current testing system, which is currently being used to label 21 of the 53 schools in our school district as “failing” so that the state of NC can attempt to privatize them as it prepares to try and pass a law that would remove these schools from local oversight and put them in a state wide “achievement district” which would push to privatize them. The child who wrote that story was 8 or 9 and reading at a J level, which is in the “far behind grade level” range. He had been speaking English for one year. His formal grasp of the language reflected that reality, but his conceptual ability to map out the structure of a narrative that showed the connection between Presidents and prisoners, demonstrations and legislation reminded me of a show like The Wire. It blew away much of the writing I’ve read by students who test at much higher levels because they are native English speakers. One teacher at the school said, “I feel for him because if English was his first language he would be right at the top of the class instead of struggling.” He left the district after that year and I often wonder how he’s doing.
While visiting family over the winter break, my mom suggested I watch East of Salinas, a film PBS produced about a 3rd grade teacher named Oscar Ramos who works with the children of farmworkers in California. The film shows the parents of Jose Ansaldo, one of the teacher’s students, struggling to put enough food on the table even as they labor all day in some of the most bountiful fields in the world. It celebrates the educator’s efforts to foster the ambitions of their talented son to attend the University of California and pursue a career in engineering. But it never questions the social structure that forces the people who perform the manual labor that the economy is based on to suffer malnutrition and pesticide contamination as the boy’s parents do. What’s missing from the film is any investigation into what steps might be taken to organize and advocate for improvements of the conditions farmworkers in Salinas labor in. (If you consider whose PBS’s corporate sponsors are, or have watched their Newshour recently, this may not surprise you. Every video I’ve ever used from the PBS website in my classroom is prefaced by a commercial for Goldman Sachs. I always mute them.)
Fortunately, there are many progressives who do take up that subject. But, as the title The Right to Stay Home suggests, Bacon’s book announces a larger project that goes beyond the task of improving working conditions of workers from Central America in the US to advocating for a movement to eradicate the push factors that force people to leave home in the first place. One of the strongest movements in the conclusion is to show how the era of NAFTA / CAFTA and perhaps now the TPP offers the possibility of mutual support and action by unions across the borders of nations linked by neoliberal trade agreements based on common interests and experience:
Migration policy, which includes the right to not migrate as well as political and social rights for migrants, is an integral part of a broad agenda for change both in sending and receiving countries. The needs of people in each are really not so different. They include jobs, better wages and housing, a national health care system, and the right to organize without fear of retaliation and repression. To end job competition in the United States, workers need the four million jobs promised by the Obama administration, paid for by an economy reordered away from military spending. In Mexico, people need a national development policy instead of a policy of expulsion and remittances.
Such an alliance will have to face governments that unfortunately are currently bonded in their own mutual interest of a different sort:
Today, countries like Mexico that send migrants to the United States, Canada and the developed world depend on remittances to finance social services and keep the lid on social discontent over poverty and joblessness. Meanwhile, government resources are used to make huge debt repayments. This creates a common interest between conservative governments in migrant-sending countries and the corporations using displaced labor. Both have an interest in regulating the system that supplies the labor. Increasingly, the mechanisms for regulating the flow of people are contract labor programs – whether called “guest worker” or “temporary worker” programs in the United States of “managed migration” in Canada or the EU. As communities assert their right to not migrate, they are challenging the way this international system functions.
I highly recommend reading Bacon’s book because of the detailed examination it gives to movements on both sides of the border that are mounting this challenge. It’s also graced by 11 powerful first person narratives that arrive at the conclusion of each successive chapter. It’s a structure that should be widely imitated to counter the power dynamic of who gets to speak in books written about social justice issues. The following comes from Terry Slaughter, who works at the Smithfield Plant in Tar Heel:
One morning it was about a hundred degrees outside. Keith and a couple of others went to get water from the cooler, but it was hot and had ants in it. We said, “We’re not going to work if we don’t have clean and cold water.” So twenty-five of us got some chairs and we sat in the middle of the barn. We crossed our arms and said, “We’re not going to do anything until we get what we deserve.” For eight hours we did nothing.
The supervisors started to go crazy. When livestock stops, the rest of the plant does, too, since it doesn’t have any more hogs in the line. The hog trucks were lined up at the gate, and the animals were dying from the heat in the trucks. When they started losing money and realized we weren’t going back to work, supervisors tried to run the hogs themselves. They’d never done that work before.
I thought for sure we were going to get fired. But they realized they weren’t going to be able to produce if we weren’t working. The very next day we got clean and cold water. That’s when I knew we had a chance. From there it snowballed.