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Scratching Out a Living"Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South"$

Angela Stuesse

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780520287204

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520287204.001.0001

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To Get to the Other Side

To Get to the Other Side

The Hispanic Project and the Rise of the Nuevo South

(p.68) 4 To Get to the Other Side
Scratching Out a Living

Angela Stuesse

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter centers on the B.C. Rogers Poultry recruitment of migrants as poultry workers amid claims that there are no jobs available in Mississippi due to technological innovations in the poultry industry from 1970 to 1990. B.C. Rogers Poultry employed between 3,000 and 4,000 Mexican workers to process fifty-four million pounds of chicken, which would be annually exported to Russia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. By the 1990, the business expanded and began the Hispanic project, which employed around five thousand Cubans, Central Americans (Nicaraguan, and Honduran), and Caribbeans (Dominican, and Puerto Rican). The program made B. C. Rogers a leader in immigrant recruitment, as well as a model for other employers nationwide.

Keywords:   B.C. Rogers Poultry, Cubans, Central Americans, Caribbeans, Hispanic project, poultry workers, Mexican workers, immigrant recruitment

“It’s amazing,” booms the director of production into his microphone. “You’ve just got to see it to believe it! Very soon, our birds will have never been touched by human hands. The chicken business is high-tech, folks. It’s not the mom-and-pop operation it used to be. And it needs you!” An expansive hotel dining room in Laurel, Mississippi, brims with eager young people considering professional careers with Sanderson Farms, the only remaining major poultry processor headquartered in Mississippi. He’s right to emphasize that poultry is no longer a “mom-and-pop operation.” When I first came to Mississippi, 55 percent of the state’s twenty-two plants were locally owned; a decade later this figure had fallen to just 37 percent—and in central Mississippi to zero percent—thanks to buyouts that have reorganized the industry into the hands of a few major producers. “Well, I am a student,” I reasoned when I came across an e-mail inviting college students to the Super Chicken Road Show, a two-day event through which Sanderson Farms sought to recruit graduating seniors into its ranks. Fortunately for this ethnographer, the registration process required minimal information. Tonight we dine on chicken (of course) atop linen tablecloths as the corporation’s highest executives talk up the exciting world of poultry production. The promise of a prototypical automated chicken-catching machine to (p.69) crate birds for transport to slaughter, which would eliminate the need for human chicken-catching crews altogether, is hyped as the latest and greatest advancement.

But here at the Super Chicken Road Show, it is just one of several technological innovations Sanderson Farms has touted as proof that it is on the cutting edge of profit and growth. We also learn that the company’s chicks are vaccinated in-egg and that once they hatch (averaging three hundred thousand a day per hatchery), an automated “chick separator” removes their shells and neatly packs the hatchlings one hundred to a box for shipment to the farm. Its broilers take only seven weeks to grow to full capacity, and in the 1990s Sanderson Farms began producing a bigger bird, resulting in more valuable pounds of flesh per animal.1 “ ‘Growth’ became the word for the 1990s,” the speaker proudly announces, “and our company tripled in size in the decade between 1994 and 2004.” Indeed, with 5.5 million birds a week literally untouched by humans until their untimely demise, processing facilities that never close, and management with fewer and fewer connections to the communities and workforces it exploits, Sanderson Farms—and the industry as a whole—barely resembles its earlier years. Today it is one of the most highly specialized and integrated agricultural sectors in the world.

But what caused these remarkable changes? Scholars point to Americans’ skyrocketing consumption of chicken in the 1980s as it became more affordable, cholesterol became a national health issue, and the industry funneled top dollar into marketing. During this decade consumer preference shifted from mostly whole birds to boneless, skinless, “further processed” chicken products. For example, Striffler notes that in the early 1970s industry giant Tyson Foods sold seven different cuts of chicken. By 1980 it produced two dozen, and by the 1990s it marketed thousands of different products. Accelerated by the literal and proverbial chicken McNugget, today only 20 percent of chicken consumed by Americans resembles its original form.2

Another factor fueling the industry’s transformation is that profit margins on chicken sold in its most basic form are slim.3 There are many (p.70) financial variables in chicken production, most notably feed and labor, and even minute fluctuations in the market can cause small producers to go under. I heard this repeatedly from people involved in the industry’s early development. One explained,

You’d do good if you could make one cent a pound. One! Well, not all companies are created equal. Some of them are holding a lot of one cents. It all relates to ingredient prices and labor cost. When I was in the business, ingredients were 65 percent of the total cost and at the mercy of the market conditions. Successful companies tried to minimize labor costs by buying equipment to replace workers. Many of the small, family-owned companies, like ours, never had the economic strength to buy this equipment due, in part, to lack of profitability. We just couldn’t compete.

Another Scott Countian whose family spent many years in the business concurred:

This is a volatile industry; the profit margin is very small. You only make a couple three cents a pound off a bird. If you have a bad year and you don’t have resources to carry you through, you can’t make it. So a lot of small plants spring up and just fade away. Tyson bought our company out. They’re big and fairly diversified, which has lowered their risk and increased their profit margin. But a lot of companies in Scott County were family-owned businesses, and when the competition got really hard they just couldn’t keep up.

As a result, the number of producers has shrunk, allowing larger operations to monopolize a disproportionate share of production. Those that have survived turned to a neoliberal business model to minimize variables in the cost of production to the greatest extent possible and have worked continually to acquire new plants and increase their market share. Champions of this reorganization tout that its efficiency made the industry what it is today, but critics argue that it effectively “placed a ninety million dollar industry in the hands of only five companies.”4 A former plant administrator confirmed the local reaches of this shift, saying that in the 1970s there were at least fifteen poultry companies “just in this area.” Today central Mississippi is home to only four. Charting changes in the ownership of Mississippi’s poultry plants over time illustrates this dramatic shift away from local ownership. (p.71)

To Get to the Other SideThe Hispanic Project and the Rise of the Nuevo South

Figure 8. Changes in poultry plant ownership over time.

Chart by Austin Kocher.

Consumer demand and the drive for profit have led agricultural scientists and industry leaders to innovate previously unfathomable technological advances, “domesticat[ing] the chicken into a completely industrial animal, bearing little genetic similarity to the chickens of only a century ago.”5 A commercial bird in the 1990s, for example, “grew to almost twice the weight in less than half the time and on less than half the feed” than did a broiler in the 1930s.6

But with escalating demand for greater quantities and more specialized processing, profit as the ultimate goal, and many production expenses out of their hands, in addition to genetic modification and developments in animal husbandry, poultry producers have focused on cutting costs in the area over which they have most control—labor. They have done this through developments such as the automated chicken-catching machine, along with thousands of other implementations that have decreased the (p.72) industry’s reliance on humans and increased workers’ efficiency and speed.7 They have also reduced costs by aggressively suppressing worker organizing and identifying untapped pools of cheaper and more exploitable workers, as illustrated in chapter 3. Thus, by the 1970s, right when many of Mississippi’s poultry workers began to organize for higher pay and better working conditions, the industry’s massive transformation was afoot. It was the confluence of these factors that led central Mississippi’s poultry producers to seek out the Latin American immigrant workers that would forever change the landscape of the rural South.8

Using the case of B. C. Rogers Poultry in Scott County as a primary example, this chapter illustrates how these changes taking shape in the seventies, eighties, and nineties gave rise to the industry’s recruitment of migrant laborers. In turn, through their evolving strategies to control labor to maximize profit, Mississippi’s poultry processors became agents of the neoliberal globalization that would transform the state’s poultry region. Here I trace the local history of migrant recruitment, exploring the mechanics, logics, and shifts in approaches over time, to illustrate how and why Mississippi’s poultry region became home to immigrants from across the Americas and to highlight the poultry industry’s role in catalyzing this shift.

Central Mississippi’s First Latin American?

The story of Latin American migration into Mississippi poultry takes us back to the early 1960s, when Tito Echiburu, Chile’s top junior tennis player, arrived in South Florida to compete in a tournament. Foreshadowing the path he would later lay for many others, Echiburu was recruited to Mississippi, where he would study and compete at the all-white Mississippi State University. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in accounting, and after returning to Chile for a couple of years, he found himself again in Mississippi working as a tennis pro at a country club in Jackson.

It was during these years that he met John Rogers, the son of local poultry tycoon B. C. Rogers, whose company of the same name, founded in Morton in 1932, was the second-oldest poultry business in the country. John Rogers was a tennis fanatic. By the time the family business started (p.73) producing an employee newsletter in the 1980s, it reported industry news, recognized employees of the month, documented the county’s annual chicken festival, and periodically celebrated the Rogers family’s tennis achievements.9 Sharing a bond over their favorite sport, as young men John Rogers and Tito Echiburu became fast friends.

Echiburu went back to Chile and worked for some years in international business, but as political unrest grew there in the early seventies, he began to consider the possibility of returning to the United States. Soon after, in 1973, John Rogers called. His father had passed away, and he was now leading the family poultry business. Rogers asked Echiburu to come work for him, taking responsibility for the company’s finances. Echiburu and his family moved to Scott County, where he became chief financial officer of B. C. Rogers Poultry, and probably the first Latin American in the area.

Migrant Labor Recruitment in the 1970s

As with the industry as a whole, throughout the 1970s B. C. Rogers Poultry grew, and with the death of its founder, Black workers quickly became a majority on the processing lines. One would expect this growing employment opportunity in Morton to attract Black workers from across the county, as had occurred in neighboring towns. After all, with the decline of sharecropping and the mechanization of cotton, chicken plant work was the job opportunity for African Americans, to whom other factory work was still largely unavailable.

So it is surprising that, in 1977, B. C. Rogers Poultry began to recruit Mexican migrants from El Paso amid claims that “there was no labor available to us” in Mississippi.10 An interview with a former manager offered further explanation: “People didn’t want to work,” he reasoned. There was a lot of “absenteeism and welfare,” and there “just wasn’t enough people.”11 This response, which reflects emergent rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s about the Black “underclass,” surfaces as an industry justification for migrant recruitment in later periods as well.12

B. C. Rogers had trouble retaining the migrant workers it recruited in the 1970s and stopped after a few years. Echiburu, who did not play a role (p.74) in recruitment at that time, suggests management “didn’t understand the changes for workers they brought to Mississippi. They were left on their own when they came and weren’t accustomed to this culture and society, so most left. It was very hard for them.” He estimates that only four or five families stayed in the area over time.

Furthermore, the defeat of a union organizing attempt at B. C. Rogers in 1980 meant that the company managed to maintain enough power over its local workforce to continue reaping profits without the added expense of immigrant recruitment, at least for the time being. Helton found a former manager credited welfare reform, however, not tighter labor control, with the industry’s success. He claimed the company stopped recruiting migrant workers because “the labor got better; the government done a lot of things to make people work.” Though B. C. Rogers’ experiment with migrant labor in the 1970s was short-lived, this episode, now forty years in the past, represents an early attempt at leveraging the new opportunities for labor control just as neoliberal globalization began to take hold. It helps contextualize the contemporary moment by showing that today’s talk of work ethic, workplace divisions, labor shortages, and welfare is embedded in local history.13

Growth and a Labor Shortage as Neoliberalism Takes Hold

By the late 1970s the pace of expansion among the area’s poultry integrators picked up speed. For example, R&R owners Curtis T. Ramzy and M. D. Reagan in Leake County had started a second company, Choctaw Maid Farms, and acquired the feed mill, hatchery, and processing plant facilities of smaller companies in the area. By 1984 Choctaw Maid employed over 1,200 local people, had more than five hundred contract growers, and slaughtered close to a million birds each week.14

With John Rogers at the helm, during the eighties B. C. Rogers Poultry acquired three new processing plants. Each slaughtered chickens for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, and by the early nineties they employed between 3,000 and 4,000 workers. The company’s participation in American Poultry International, formed in 1978 to increase producers’ (p.75) capacities for cultivating an international market, was producing extraordinary results, and B. C. Rogers was exporting fifty-four million pounds of chicken annually to Russia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.15 But amid this intense growth, the plant struggled to fill vacancies on the line. It was bussing in around 450 workers a day from surrounding counties and even as far away as Alabama.

At the same time, throughout the 1980s the conservative Right led a rising tide calling for the rollback of state supports for the working class. In earlier moments the state had seen as its responsibility the maintenance of citizens during times of unemployment, sickness, and old age, even if these provisions were unequal and often failed to protect more marginalized groups, including many Black southerners. Such policies had supplemented the growth of industry, as state initiatives to help people make ends meet had effectively sustained the practice of paying unlivable wages. But as neoliberal logic began to take hold, the state assumed less and less responsibility for social welfare, and citizens were increasingly expected to fend for themselves.16

By the early 1990s the local newspaper ran a series of stories about Scott County’s low unemployment rate and reported that “it has become difficult for local poultry producers to staff late shifts because of labor shortages.”17 When remembering that time, company executives cite 90 percent turnover rates, 50 percent absences on the night shift, and three hundred employment vacancies. One former manager assessed the difficulties simply: “The night shift started at three in the afternoon and ended at midnight. Nobody likes working at night, including me.”

The objective cause of any perceived labor shortage is debatable. In other industries, the neoliberal “race to the bottom” of many employers led workers to look elsewhere for better opportunities, creating a void that needed to be filled.18 But in central Mississippi, poor Black workers had few alternatives to chicken plant work. Rather, it appears that as America’s appetite for chicken expanded, the industry’s remarkably low pay for backbreaking work was not sufficient incentive to ensure labor demands were met. As Helton and I have argued, the term “labor shortage” merits careful examination because it is often employed to justify racialized strategies of labor control.19 For example, I asked Echiburu why B. C. Rogers had so many problems filling the night shift. He explained, “Well, I can tell (p.76) you theories, but I really don’t know. You hear that Blacks don’t want to work. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Poultry work is difficult. I’m not minimizing that, but Hispanics do it.”

Rationalizations of a labor shortage, then, offered palatable ways to talk about racist perceptions of Black laziness, a discourse promoted heavily by the neoliberal Right in the early 1990s.20 Public discourse of the time suggested that the country’s economic problems were caused by “big government” and that poverty was worsened by individuals’ dependency on the welfare state. The media demonized individual welfare recipients, particularly African Americans. Black men were depicted as shiftless and irresponsible, and the term “welfare queen,” referring to single Black mothers who relied on the welfare system, circulated widely.21 These racialized discourses of poverty and deservingness were finally cemented in the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The legislation denied aid to children born to women on welfare, instituted a five-year lifetime limit on welfare eligibility, and instituted the “workfare” program, which requires welfare recipients to work off their benefit in public-or private-sector jobs.22 It also denied welfare benefits to immigrants and banned state and local governments from providing all but emergency services to undocumented individuals. In these ways, welfare “reform” served to further shift the burdens and risks of capitalism from states and corporations to individuals, a majority of them minorities and women, virtually forcing them into low-paying and unsafe industries such as poultry processing.

In this context, explanations of a labor shortage fail to recognize that most people receiving welfare in the early nineties carefully weighed the option of public benefits against their other life and work opportunities.23 And while the southern economy was growing, wages and opportunities on poultry-processing lines remained stagnant. At $6.00 per hour, workers were earning less than $250 a week, not even reaching the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Plant work no longer promised African Americans the opportunity for upward mobility it had represented twenty years prior. The notion that African Americans opted for state support out of blind laziness fails to consider both the valid reasons Black Mississippians had for contemplating options other than poultry and the myriad concerns that rational individuals take into account when making choices for their families.

(p.77) In Mississippi today the labor shortage discourse is still widely used, and it revolves around questions of “hard work,” the “immigrant work ethic,” and the perceived “laziness” of local Black residents. As one woman told Helton, “If they were paying ten or twelve [dollars] an hour, people would be coming from all over the county for those jobs.” A Black elected official echoed this sentiment: “[Immigrants] were brought in for cheap labor, not a shortage…. The labor’s here but the jobs don’t want to pay.”24 For many residents, then, “labor shortage” is not merely a race-neutral term for a period of low unemployment, but is instead a pejorative way to talk about the available (and mostly Black) labor pool. It delegitimizes individuals’ reasons for avoiding dangerous conditions and below-poverty wages in the plants while disregarding the industry’s violations of federal labor law, health and safety regulations, and human rights. Despite these critiques, Scott County’s labor shortage led B. C. Rogers Poultry to South Texas in search of workers.25

South Texas, 1993

Echiburu’s career at B. C. Rogers was successful, and in time he helped family members secure management positions. One was his brother-in-law, Luis Cartagena, who, in 1993, was charged with recruiting workers from South Texas. He recounts, “I would go by plane to Brownsville. I would arrive on a Tuesday. I would go to the Employment Commission and on Wednesday I would interview a lot of people. And right then and there, I decided who to hire. I would tell them, ‘Tomorrow the bus leaves for Mississippi, Thursday.’ Then I would fly back, and on Friday I was here waiting for them with money, housing, everything.” Cartagena says he brought between seven hundred and eight hundred workers—mostly men without their families—from South Texas over a period of six months, but few stayed. He reasons that the deal was too sweet, as the company initially offered two weeks of rent-free housing plus a ten-dollar daily allowance for meals. People came but would leave after two weeks, or they would stay a few months and find a better job. Turnover remained high, and management couldn’t figure out how to get it down.

(p.78) The Hispanic Project, 1994–1998

After B. C. Rogers’ six months of intense recruitment, the Texas Employment Commission continued to send workers from the Rio Grande Valley, though on their own and at a slower pace. Cartagena reimbursed people for their transportation costs upon hire. Meanwhile, B. C. Rogers refocused its recruitment efforts in South Florida. Echiburu remembers that a television program gave John Rogers the idea that would forever change the landscape of Mississippi poultry: “John saw a program about immigrants in Miami who didn’t have enough work, so he asked me what I could do to bring them. That’s what started it! We had a Cuban friend there, so I set up an office in his company and advertised in the local paper. It worked great—after only one week there, we brought a Greyhound bus full of Hispanics. And we’d bring them every week, fifty-something a week. This was the beginning of what we called our Hispanic Project.” Fidel Briceño, a Venezuelan who today drives trucks for the chicken plant, remembers seeing that advertisement in the paper in Miami. His cousin encouraged him to go to Mississippi, but he had doubts, so he went to the recruitment office to inquire:

I talked to this Cuban guy and he told me that the next group was leaving that weekend, on a bus, and they would pay my way. In that office they put on a video that showed the plant, the workers with their white smocks, and the chickens going by on the line. It showed the city, the bank, the police station, the grocery store. And it said this was a good place to live and work, a tranquil place that didn’t sell beer, with a school for children and all the comforts one could hope for.

So, like so many others, Briceño’s family came to Mississippi on the next bus. They were taken straight to the chicken plant, where they started work that very night. Most who made this journey say they began work the same day, or within just a few days, of their arrival.

Basic Needs and Cost of Living

Providing jobs was not a problem, but providing for workers’ basic needs was, starting with housing. Cartagena was in charge of ensuring a place to stay for all new recruits. With rental properties in short supply, in the early (p.79) nineties most landlords did not want to house B. C. Rogers’ Latino employees. Sometimes Cartagena was able to change their minds by offering higher rent. More often, he was not. He began working closely with a couple of local businessmen: “I told them, ‘Hey, do you want to make money? I need houses. Buy as many as you can get your hands on near the chicken plant, and I will rent them all. Okay?’ They agreed, and that’s how we did it.”

Workers who remember this time recall regularly sharing a one-bathroom home or trailer with up to a dozen people. These memories are cause for resentment to this day, and their vivid recollections best speak for themselves:

When we arrived we were in a house with ten people, and everyone worked nights and wanted to sleep during the day. But my kids were on summer vacation, and they made noise. And one woman who lived with us kicked them out of the house one day and locked the door so they couldn’t get back in. Imagine that! What were they supposed to do?

Immigrants recall never knowing when they would come home from work to find a stranger in the kitchen—their newest housemate:

One day we arrived home and there was a man there in our house. We were like, “Who is this guy?” But we couldn’t do anything because the house wasn’t ours.

You would leave for work and come home and find people in your house. You just never knew. There was a time where there were three people sleeping in the living room and seven of us in a little house meant for four.

Advocates, too, were dealing with immigrants’ housing problems. “They were just cramming as many people as they could into a trailer and charging ’em by the head,” recalls Mary Townsend, an ESOL teacher and Catholic outreach volunteer. “And it would take ages for repairs to be made. Holes in the floor, heaters that didn’t work, I mean, really big things.” Stories abound about the barely livable condition of many of B. C. Rogers’ residences: “The houses were in deplorable conditions when we moved in, and filthy. There were people who came and as soon as they saw where they would be living, they turned around and never went to work, not even for a day.”

(p.80) But others say they were grateful despite the conditions. “We were lucky. We arrived to a house that was deteriorated and dirty, and we had to sleep on the floor the first night. But it had a refrigerator and stove, and one fine day we decided to clean and paint it, and it turned out beautifully.”

In Echiburu’s opinion, organizing the Hispanic Project was a thankless job, and not enough workers were appreciative of B. C. Rogers’ efforts. “We did a really good job of taking care of them, but there is certain Hispanics that take things for granted. I hate to say it. I’m not trying to be prejudiced, but, my goodness, ‘Why this?’ ‘What that?’ And we were the only company that I knew of that was doing all this outside work.”

By the mid-1990s B. C. Rogers rented or owned 166 houses in the areas around its plants in Morton and Forest. Cartagena managed a team of nineteen people working on the Hispanic Project. They gave orientations, assigned and maintained housing, collected rent, and arranged social activities. They coordinated a soccer team, provided transportation to and from work, and even offered an optional weekend transportation service that taxied people to the supermarket, Laundromat, and church. Cartagena recalls, “I would take them to Mass in Jackson, to the Saint Peter’s Cathedral by bus, and after Mass we would take them to the mall.” When I joked that there were probably a lot of non-Catholics attending Mass so they could go shopping in the city on Sunday afternoons, Cartagena playfully conceded that it was most certainly the case.

The services were not free of charge. Most accounts suggest B. C. Rogers charged $25 a week for housing, $20 for transportation to and from work, and $12 for the weekend services. Earning wages of approximately $6.50 an hour, workers’ take-home pay after these deductions was typically under $200 a week.26 A union organizer remembers, “The workers would make they money, but when they’d get they check sometime they didn’t have nothing left.” Meanwhile, the Hispanic Project was grossing up to $1,000 per month from each rental property.

The Hispanic Project Closes Its Doors

Though business appeared to be booming, in 1998 John Rogers sold the family business and the doors of the Hispanic Project were closed.27 In its roughly five years of operation, the Hispanic Project recruited nearly five (p.81) thousand workers to Morton and Forest, towns with a combined population of under ten thousand. The program made B. C. Rogers a leader in immigrant recruitment, as well as a model for other employers nationwide. “One time I went to make a presentation somewhere close to Miami,” Echiburu reminisced. “It was a huge meeting of people from all over the U.S. working in the area of migrant worker employment, and I spoke to about sixty or seventy people there. None of them had the program that we had. At the time there was nobody bringing them, giving them houses, taking them shopping…. We were front-runners, far ahead of anybody else.”

Roughly 80 percent of workers brought under the project were Cuban. The other 20 percent were mostly Central American (Nicaraguan, Honduran) and Caribbean (Dominican, Puerto Rican). As with B. C. Rogers’ recruitment efforts in the 1970s, most did not stay over the long term. “I’ve noticed a trend that a lot of people are unhappy with the situation here,” reflected ESOL teacher Townsend. “They haven’t gotten what they were promised, and the working conditions are much, much harder than they anticipated. After they’ve been here a while and meet some other folks and find their way around, a lot of them leave the area. It just takes one or two to get there and say, ‘It’s better here,’ and they all follow.”

Poultry worker Briceño concurs but notes the role of immigration status in enabling people to leave. “Many people didn’t stay precisely because of how they were treated, the poor supervision, the abuse. You know that when a Cuban lands on American soil, he immediately has rights, and he knows it. So Cubans came here from Florida and when they felt bad they asked, ‘Why are we here? We can go somewhere else and find work where they treat us better.’ And little by little, they left.” In fact, many—though certainly not all—workers brought by the Hispanic Project were able to legalize their status. Due to the United States’ policy toward Cuba, since 1966 its refugees have been eligible for legal residency. Similarly, migrants fleeing hurricane-devastated Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras in the 1990s were often able to attain Temporary Protected Status, allowing them to live and work legally in the United States. With “papers,” immigrants’ work and life prospects broadened substantially, and few opted to continue enduring the conditions and poverty-level wages of chicken processing.

(p.82) A Return to South Texas

While there are few recruits from the mid-1990s still in the area, new migrants kept coming. At the end of the decade, a new human resources manager at B. C. Rogers from Mexico reinitiated a scaled-down recruitment program in South Texas. “The following year, more Mexicans started to come,” remembers Townsend. “And they would let the people back home know that this was a good place to be and there was work, and then more would come. But I’m not sure what the pipeline was or what the network was because people were coming from all over Mexico.”

Mexican migrants to Mississippi have been particularly mobile, coming from Texas, Florida, and elsewhere and spreading out throughout the state’s poultry region, but some general demographic trends are discernable. The majority come from the newer sending states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas of southeastern Mexico. By 2005 Forest was home to a large population from Veracruz and a smaller group from Chiapas. These are mostly men, many with families back home. Many Chiapanecos come from indigenous communities near Guatemala and speak languages other than Spanish. The Jarochos tend to be monolingual Spanish speakers hailing from rural communities in central Veracruz. An indigenous Oaxacan community is budding to the south, in Laurel. Though smaller in number, there are also men and women throughout Mississippi’s poultry region from more traditional migrant sending states like Guanajuato, Michoacán, and San Luis Potosí. This diversity makes it a challenge to trace the particular paths that have led Mexican migrants to Mississippi poultry.

South Florida Transit

B. C. Rogers set an example, and it didn’t take long for other poultry operations and ancillary industries to catch on. After only a year of the Hispanic Project’s activities, a handful of other processors in the area were also recruiting from Florida, Texas, and beyond. One paid its own Spanish-speaking line workers to drive vans to Miami and bring them back full of fresh laborers. Another sent recruiters to Texas and perhaps even Mexico to recruit migrant workers during a union organizing drive in the mid-1990s. (p.83)

To Get to the Other SideThe Hispanic Project and the Rise of the Nuevo South

Figure 9. Immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, in his Forest, Mississippi, kitchen, 2004.

Photo by John Fiege. Courtesy of FiegeFilms.com.

By 2000 most chicken plants in the area were operating around the clock. A number of informal and more formalized recruitment and transportation ventures flourished, and migrant workers continued to arrive in record-breaking numbers. It was around this time that South Florida Transit—remembered by local immigrant rights advocates as the most (p.84) notorious of recruitment agencies—began bringing immigrants to Scott County from South Florida. The vast majority were no longer Cubans; they were Argentines, Uruguayans, and other South Americans. Fleeing economic decline and political unrest, the lack of steady work in Miami led these visa-overstayers to piece-rate work in chicken processing.

The economic crisis of Argentina, beginning in 1999, put pressure on people of all social classes.28 Those that eventually found their way to Mississippi were mostly working-and middle-class families. Back home they had earned a living as bus drivers, bank tellers, real estate brokers, and salespeople. They arrived in Miami as “tourists” but knew they would be seeking work and would likely stay beyond the six months their visas allotted. In many cases Argentine men came first and, upon securing jobs in Miami, sent for their families.

Generally, it didn’t take long for them to realize they couldn’t keep up with the cost of living in Miami. Those who found work struggled to make ends meet on their meager construction, restaurant, or gas station salaries. Many overstayed their welcome on the couches of friends while they looked unsuccessfully for employment. Some worked briefly in agriculture, grumbling that the growing presence of Guatemalans had driven wages even lower. One entrepreneurial couple put their business experience to work and began selling roses in stopped traffic. They maintain that together they earned $250 per day, but when the city cracked down on street vendors, the income stopped. Soon after, with only $40 in their pockets and desperation mounting, they learned about the possibility of work in Mississippi’s chicken plants.

Like many other South Americans, they came across advertisements for South Florida Transit through Spanish-language newspapers, Hispanic stores, or by word of mouth. Vicente Suárez, from Córdoba, Argentina, remembers, “an acquaintance told me there was work in Mississippi. I had just recently arrived in the U.S., and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had always thought Mississippi was a river. ‘What do you mean Mississippi?’ ‘It’s a job in chicken production, cutting something like breasts, I’m not sure exactly,’ he said. ‘But it’s a new department that they’re opening, and nobody works there yet. They will pay you thirteen cents a pound, and the more you cut, the more you will make.’ ”

In exchange for $125 per person, South Florida Transit promised a secure job, respectable pay, and decent housing. Suárez came with thirty (p.85) others packed into two vans on the outfit’s pilot journey to Mississippi in 2001. At least half of the passengers were Argentine. Mariana Paz was far from pleased by the prospect of chicken plant work, but relieved to quit her job serving drinks to men in a seedy Miami nightclub, she was willing to give it a shot. She and her husband, Adrian Vera, along with their two elementary school-age children, made the journey to Mississippi a few weeks after Suárez. Four years later, in the home they had purchased with their wages in the plant’s “debone” department, they recounted their harrowing trip with much animation. Vera began,

It was July 22, 2001. We left Miami at 4:30 in the afternoon and had no idea where we were going. We only knew the name, Mississippi. We knew we were going to work in a chicken plant, but we had no idea what that really meant. We had our own car, but the company wanted to make money, so they still charged us the usual rate, and on top of that we had to pay for our gasoline. We traveled through the night—

Paz jumped in to continue the story:

Adrian drove the car, and I rode in the van with our children. But the company didn’t save seats for the kids, so we were packed in like canned sardines. You have no idea what it was like to travel that distance with my daughter in my arms. The other passengers were so good to us and let her lie across their laps while she slept. I will never forget that night. The driver was falling asleep. He ran off the road. He hit the cones. I was terrified. When we stopped for gas, I begged Adrian to take us with him in the car, but it was full of our belongings.

Luis Cartagena remembers fondly that during this era “families started to arrive.” For him this meant not only that they might stay for longer periods but also that his life would get easier. Though his title had changed to out-of-state employment department supervisor, he was still overseeing newcomers’ housing and serving as a community liaison for the company. During his tenure with the Hispanic Project, he had often received calls from the police to interpret for migrants who had been arrested for public intoxication, DUIs, and disturbing the peace. More families, he hoped, meant fewer single men, fewer calls, and more sleep at night.

Laborers brought by South Florida Transit went to work cutting “tenders” in a new production area of the plant, where they soon numbered (p.86) sixty. New hires were drawn to this work because of the piece-rate pay, which rewarded them for dexterity and dedication. Suárez recalls getting so good at his job that he could cut a hundred pounds of tenders each hour. His weekly paycheck was typically over $450, and he proudly recalls his most productive week ever, when he cut 4,079 pounds of tenders and took home $530. Pay by the pound offered the opportunity for higher wages, and reward for hard work resonated with many immigrants entering Mississippi. The remuneration was short-lived, however.

With most positions full, the plant no longer needed new workers at such a rapid pace. This did not deter the recruiters of South Florida Transit. They continued to bring at least a van of workers per week, with the same promises as before, charging their recruits by the head. “They promised one thing and gave you something else,” one worker recollected. “Even the plant management got mad at them. In our trip from Miami, they brought twice as many workers as the plant had positions for. The housing wasn’t ready for us, either. We didn’t even have beds!”

Within eighteen months South Florida Transit was run out of town. A local immigrant rights advocate remembered, “they were dropping people off and charging ’em and then not going back to get ’em because there was no work. We complained to the plants, the police department, and the mayor, and we managed to get them shut down. We called the Miami newspapers to tell ’em what they were doing up here and not to run their ads anymore. We were very aggressive with them.”

By 2001 B. C. Rogers’ new management couldn’t make ends meet and declared bankruptcy.29 With the industry still expanding and cheap labor in abundant supply, they had taken a gamble and bought new equipment (on credit), ultimately sinking the company deep into debt under a heavy load of loans and interest payments. And the city of Morton still had over ten years to pay on the substantial loans it had taken out to renovate the city’s water treatment facilities expressly for the chicken plant. In analyzing the closing of a poultry processor elsewhere, Cedric Chatterley and Alicia Rouverol assert that bankruptcies are not always due to failed business, stating that “92% result from disinvestments, restructurings, ‘runaway plants,’ and the like.”30 This appears to have been the case with B. C. Rogers, as Chicago-based Koch Foods agreed to acquire the company on the condition that it first file for bankruptcy. The move (p.87) would decrease the liability to creditors that Koch Foods would inherit in the acquisition.

Echiburu was hired to negotiate and administer the details of the bankruptcy in exchange for a percentage of the proceedings. The arrangement worked out especially well for him, he says, and he went on to serve as the chief financial officer of the Bank of Morton and chair of the Morton Chamber of Commerce: “I got twenty million dollars for them, and I got a percentage of that,” he relates. “So financially, it was very rewarding to me, even though it was bad for the company. That was like my retirement.”

By the end of 2001 Koch Foods had bought B. C. Rogers Poultry.31 Within a few months Koch Foods had divested itself of the residential properties it had inherited from B. C. Rogers, selling its houses and trailers to one of Cartagena’s old business collaborators for $1 million dollars, or just over $6,000, per property. Koch Foods also brought new management to Mississippi, getting rid of the old administrators. They soon eliminated the factory’s “tender” operations altogether.

Workers formerly cutting tenders were transferred to other areas of the plant, and most new migrants learned to debone chicken thighs. Piece-rate pay was reduced from thirteen to eleven cents a pound. With this disincentive, numerous Argentine workers moved to Jackson, where they found work in restaurants, housekeeping, and retail. Others relate that they had a comparative advantage over other Latin Americans and African Americans, enabling them to secure work as servers at the casinos on the nearby Choctaw reservation. Meanwhile, in early 2002 the U.S. State Department realized that a disproportionate percentage of Argentine tourists were not returning home, and it revoked Argentina’s (and soon after, Uruguay’s) participation in the Visa Waiver Program.32 By the end of that year South American migration from Miami to Mississippi—and the operations of South Florida Transit—had come to a screeching halt.

Recruitment Incentives and Family Networks

During roughly the same time as South Florida Transit’s operations, Choctaw Maid in Carthage began paying its employees $600 for each new worker they recruited who stayed a minimum of three months. This (p.88) enabled one entrepreneurial Peruvian to bank tens of thousands of dollars. He advertised in a newspaper in his hometown of Arequipa, Peru—for those who had a tourist visa to enter the United States, could afford a plane ticket, and desired to work in poultry processing, he would bring them to Miami, then to Mississippi, and guarantee a job. In Mississippi I met agronomists, engineers, doctors, librarians, and psychologists from Arequipa, now taking English classes, deboning chicken, and learning how to file workers’ compensation claims.33

Similarly, Baldomero Félix, an indigenous Guatemalan worker at the same plant, claims he more than doubled his annual income through the plant’s recruitment incentives:

They put up announcements inside the plant that if you recruited someone they would pay you money. Well, I never did it in self-interest, but I thought, “They’re going to have to give this money to someone, so as long as they’re giving it out, I’m not just going to let it sit there.” One time about twenty Mexicans arrived. I don’t know how they got my name, but they called me. They wanted to know if anyone could help them get a job. So I took them to work, and the plant ended up paying me $12,000. They had that incentive for many years. And yes, I recruited a lot of people.

Such employee recruitment bonuses are not new, as similar schemes were documented among poultry producers in North Carolina and Georgia some years prior.34

Félix has been instrumental in further transforming the demographics of Mississippi’s poultry towns. The majority of new immigration into the plants in the first decade of the new millennium came from the villages surrounding Comitancillo, which Félix calls home, in the indigenous Mam-speaking highlands of San Marcos, Guatemala. In 1995 Félix was among the first group from Comitancillo to arrive in Mississippi. A decade later he was considered by many to be the patriarch of a community of approximately one thousand Comitecos in Carthage. Even coyotes in Comitancillo have used his name to recruit migrants.35 “They would say, ‘If you come with me, we have contact with Baldomero Félix, and when you get there, he will get you work.’ ” Félix says new arrivals would visit him, saying that their coyote told them that he could get them a job. “I don’t mind if I’ve gotten a little bit of fame for this over the years,” he chuckles.

(p.89) When they came to the United States, Félix and his brothers were escaping Guatemala’s armed conflict that had lasted over thirty years—their entire lives. While San Marcos was not one of the areas worst affected by state violence, when Félix spoke at his labor union’s regional conference in 2004, he vividly recounted his memories of childhood terror and his painful work as a young man in the Guatemalan army before making the journey to the United States.

Félix and his brothers arrived first in Arizona but didn’t know where they were headed. Félix imagined going somewhere that sounded familiar—California, maybe New York. Instead, at their coyote’s insistence, they found themselves in North Carolina. “There was no particular place we had to go. Not like now that everyone knows they are coming to Mississippi. I simply wanted to be in the United States; it didn’t matter where. They put us out on a little old ranch at the edge of a river. The house didn’t even have a floor; it was made of dirt. We stayed for about a month picking cucumbers.” They then picked tomatoes in Kentucky for five months before heading to Florida, where they harvested oranges for another six. In each location they were out of a job when the harvest season ended.

They eventually crossed paths with a Cuban woman who told them about the opportunities in Mississippi, so they left farmwork for the relative stability and indoor-nature of chicken processing. “What motivated me was that farmwork was very hard,” Félix explains. I was in North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, and the jobs were very difficult. Cutting oranges is tough. What I lived through in Guatemala was tough. So for me the work that we’re doing here is okay. Many people who come now say that the work here is really hard. I think maybe that’s because they haven’t been through so many things in their lifetimes. They are much younger, and they don’t really know what suffering is.”

The Comitecos in Mississippi are indeed young, and were even more so when I lived among them a decade ago. Many do not remember Guatemala’s armed conflict, instead identifying as refugees of the global economy. Most arrived before they were twenty years old, often as young as fifteen or sixteen. The majority are young men, though newcomers are increasingly women. Like other undocumented immigrants, they have to purchase papers to get hired, and their new identities typically place them in their early twenties, thus making them old enough to work in chicken (p.90) plants. Though Mississippi law would permit these young people to attend public high school, most do not enroll; economic necessity typically requires that they work full-time.36 Comitecos attend ESOL classes at higher rates than do immigrants from other places, and they tend to pick up English quickly, perhaps due to their bilingual upbringing as Mam and Spanish speakers. This has enabled a handful of Comitecos to move into “lead person” and even supervisory positions on the processing lines. Others, typically girls and women, are monolingual Mam speakers, which isolates them not only from broader Mississippian society, but also from most other (non-Mam) immigrants.

Efrain López, who was fifteen when he migrated from Comitancillo to Mississippi in 2000, says that migrating at such a young age had a profound impact on his life: “When I came I was very young. I didn’t know much. I’ve learned so much here. Most of my life experiences have happened here.” López barely survived his journey across Mexico, let alone his swim across the Rio Grande and his subsequent travels on foot in shoes two sizes too small. Though reluctant, he brought two brothers to Mississippi after him, but he hopes that together they can send enough money home to keep their five youngest siblings in school in Guatemala. López’s brothers and sisters notwithstanding, when I visited their village in 2006, I noticed that young people—particularly young men between the ages of fifteen and thirty—are conspicuously absent. Their presence is felt in the DVDs and video games occupying their younger siblings in adobe and dirt-floor homes, in the numerous new cement block homes being built in the municipal capital of Comitancillo, and in the long line of patient family members waiting outside the local co-op to pick up remittances on market day.

Félix, López, and hundreds of others in their footsteps saved the money they earned slaughtering chickens and sent it home for family members to make the journey across Mexico, through the desert, and into the United States. Once receiving word that their loved one had arrived in Houston or Phoenix, they would send more money for the coyote to release him or her and arrange for transportation to Mississippi. As Félix recalls, “I brought my brothers and sisters, then my cousins. Then my cousins brought their brothers. Then they brought their families, like a chain.” By 2004 up to fifty Comitecos would arrive in Carthage in any given month.

(p.91) Anthropologists have long been interested in social networks and have noted the crucial role they play in shaping immigration patterns in the neoliberal era.37 And many labor migration scholars note the roles that social networks have played in the creation of job opportunities and the concentration of new immigrants in the lowest rung of segmented labor markets.38 Certainly, for both Choctaw Maid and the many people from Arequipa, Comitancillo, and parts of southeastern Mexico who have spent time in Mississippi, immigrants’ abilities to leverage social ties in the creation of transnational work opportunities have been vital to their economic survival. As a result, by the first years of the twenty-first century, Mississippi’s chicken plants no longer had to leave the state to recruit foreign workers. In the words of the Hispanic Project architect, Tito Echiburu, “They were right here.”

How Did These People Get Here?

So it is in this way that today Mississippi’s poultry workers are Americans from nearly every part of the continent. They are Black, Brown, and occasionally white; men and women; rural peasants and former blue-and even white-collar workers; speakers of English, Spanish, and a handful of indigenous languages. Their histories, cultures, and experiences have been vastly different, creating both tensions and alliances within and between groups that will be explored in greater detail in subsequent chapters.

Tracking the logics and mechanics that brought Latin Americans to Mississippi demonstrates that none of the various waves of migration into Mississippi poultry have happened accidentally, nor were they random. To the contrary, they were produced; they were patterned.39 History teaches us that they were propelled by elaborate neoliberal corporate projects and calculated recruitment, with the goal of constructing an expendable and infinite pool of disempowered low-wage workers. “Indeed,” writes David Griffith, who has extensively studied the use of immigrant labor in industrial agriculture, “one of the hallmarks of advanced capitalism has been its success at the continued reliance on ‘marginal’ workers.” Moreover, he argues,

(p.92) low wage labor forces in the U.S. do not just emerge, naturally, as responses to market conditions. Instead, they are constructed, reorganized, and maintained by means of a few common practices…. Each of these practices also depends on the development and use of myths about specific kinds of workers as compared to others, particularly myths about “the work ethic.” By looking at these processes of constructing labor forces, we can more fully understand how low-wage industries come to use new immigrants, minorities, and other workers considered “marginal.”40

Understanding how immigrants have leveraged social networks to journey and find work in the area’s chicken plants further demonstrates that it is insufficient to explain migration to new destinations by pointing to the “pulls” of economic expansion and industrial restructuring.41 Looking further back in time demonstrates that poultry’s immigrant-recruitment strategies do not exist merely to decrease costs and maximize profits. They also serve to weaken both immigrant and local workers’ prospects for collective bargaining by cultivating divisions along lines of race, nationality, language, gender, and legal status, as we will explore further in subsequent chapters.

Finally, deeply examining the histories of immigration in Mississippi poultry reminds us that the circumstances that give way to the movement of people, into new spaces, by new actors, are unique to every locale. It teaches us that local knowledges and experiences do matter, in bigger ways than we might imagine. Toward the end of my time living in Mississippi I asked Tito Echiburu if he realized, when he and John Rogers first initiated recruitment of Latin Americans, the potential it had for changing the Mississippi landscape and the contours of the poultry industry. He says they never predicted the impact of their Hispanic Project, and he is amazed by how rural areas like Scott County have changed.

It’s funny you’re asking this, because something strange happened about three months ago. John is getting older, and he’s beginning to forget things. He came to the bank with his wife, and I was in the lobby talking to him. It was a Friday, and a lot of people come to the bank on Fridays. And, of course, I’m Hispanic, so, you know, I say, “Hola, ¿Cómo estás?” to about five or six people. John was beside me and he looked at me and said, “Tito, how did these people get here?” And I looked at his wife and she looked at me, and we both died laughing. And I said, “That was you, John. That was you!”


(1.) Robert Schoenberger, 2000, “Chicken Catching Goes High-Tech,” Clarion-Ledger, January 28, 1C.

(6.) More specifically, “between 1935 in 1995 the average market weight of commercial broilers increased by roughly 65 percent while the time required to reach market weight declined by more than 60 percent and the amount of feed required to produce a pound of broiler meat declined by 57 percent” (Boyd 2001, 637–38).

(9.) “Rogers Wins Title” (1989); “Rogers Wins Tennis Tournament” (1989); “Broiler Festival’s a Fun Day” (1992).

(10.) “Morton Plant Gets Workers from El Paso,” 1977, Scott County Times, September 21, 3A.

(14.) Ramzy (1984); Susie Spear, 1989, “Obituary: Curtis ‘Tal’ Ramzy, Poultry Manufacturer,” Clarion-Ledger, June 28, 28.

(17.) “Workers Come” (1995); Sid Salter, 1994, “Getting Along: Importation of Labor Is a Sign of the Times,” Scott County Times, April 20, 4A; Chris Shaw, 1997, “Poultry Workers Hard-Found,” Clarion-Ledger, October 19, 1C.

(18.) See, for example, Milkman (2006); and Parrado and Kandel (2011).

(20.) See also Waldinger and Lichter (2003) on the ethnic and racial stereotypes involved in employers’ preference for workers with a “good” attitude over those with a “bad” attitude.

(21.) For more critiques of welfare reform and its racialization, see, for example, Bauer (2006); Gilmore (2002); Neubeck and Cazenave (2001); Persaud and Lusane (2000); Reagan (1987); and Vargas (2006).

(22.) For more analysis of PRWORA see, for example, Chang (2000); Morales and Bonilla (1993); and Painter (2002).

(p.262) (26.) Such deductions violate the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by reducing workers’ earnings to below minimum wage. Not surprisingly, these unlawful deductions generally went unchallenged by workers thankful to have a steady job and place to live and unaware of FLSA protections.

(27.) After researching various options and potential buyers, Rogers sold the company as an Employee Stock Ownership Plan to decrease the amount of taxes owed on the sale (“Employees Buy Rogers,” 2000, Scott County Times, January 12; “B. C. Rogers Becomes 100% Employee Owned,” 2000, Spirit of Morton, January 12, 1). For the next two years, B. C. Rogers was technically owned by its employees. In reality, the employees had nothing to do with the purchase, though on paper they had the potential to earn generous stock options and retirement benefits.

(28.) During the crisis Argentina defaulted on over $100 billion in debt, its GDP fell rapidly, unemployment rates were as high as 20 percent, and approximately half of its population was in poverty. Over a quarter million people left the country between 2001 and 2003, and the majority came to the United States through Miami (Marrow 2007, 600–601).

(29.) Arnold Lindsay, 2001, “Rogers Poultry Files Chapter 11,” Clarion-Ledger, November 21, 1C, 6C.

(31.) Arnold Lindsay, 2001, “Rogers Seeks OK to Sell Plant for $42M,” Clarion-Ledger, December 20, 1C; Lindsay, 2001, “B. C. Rogers Poultry Sale OK’d,” Clarion-Ledger, December 21, 1C, 6C.

(32.) U.S. Department of Justice (2002). The Visa Waiver Program allows nationals from select countries to enter the United States without applying for a visa. They simply fill out entry paperwork on the airplane and present it to immigration authorities upon arrival, and they typically have permission to visit the United States as a tourist for up to six months.

(33.) Peruvian migration to the United States around the turn of the twenty-first century was both economic and political in nature. During the 1990s the income of the average Peruvian dropped by 30 percent, and nearly two-thirds of the country lived in poverty. Furthermore, hopes that the country had surmounted its political crisis of the 1980s were dashed in 2000, when the government’s highest officials were implicated in a web of corruption and fled Peru. That year 183,000 Peruvians left the country in record-breaking numbers (Marrow 2007, 599).

(35.) The term coyotes refers to the guides or smugglers of undocumented migrants.

(36.) In 2004 two young Comitecos left year-round work in the chicken plants to attend high school in Mississippi. With financial support from their older siblings, and by working full-time in the chicken plants every summer, these remarkable individuals pursued education despite the difficulties of being among only a handful of Latino students at Carthage High School and struggling (p.263) to identify with the life experiences of their classmates. Others, after mastering English, continued to work full time in the plants while studying in a GED program offered by a local community college. I had the privilege of teaching many of these individuals when they were still perfecting their English, and some shared with me their dreams of attending college. Thanks to the Obama administration’s announcement in 2012 of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offered legal status to qualifying young people who entered the United States before the age of sixteen, it finally became possible.