Organizing Latino Immigrants for Social Justice

Organizing Latino Immigrants for Social Justice — By Angela Stuesse on May 8, 2010 at 15:24

From Special Guest Race-Talk Editor, Angela Stuesse

This week the film Mississippi Chicken makes its Ohio premier:

Questions of race, workers’ rights and exploitation form the crux of this intriguing documentary about Latin American immigrants living in rural Mississippi, where poultry plants promise jobs but little else.

In the 1990s, poultry companies in Mississippi and throughout the American South began to heavily recruit Latin American immigrants, most of them undocumented, to work in the poultry plants. A decade later, there are now large immigrant communities in poultry towns all over the South, and the immigrants find themselves in an extremely vulnerable situation, where they are frequent victims of abuse by employers, police officers, landlords, neighbors and even other immigrants.

Mississippi Chicken reveals this perilous, fragile, and yet amazingly hopeful world of Latin American immigrants in a Mississippi trailer park that sits next to a poultry plant.

Guillermina is a Mexican immigrant who hears the stories of the other trailer park residents on a daily basis as she serves them traditional Mexican meals out of her trailer. Anita is a workers’ rights advocate working with poultry workers in Mississippi, and she learns about many of the community’s struggles from Guillermina. Together, they guide us through the beauty and the terror of this world, as their friendship grows more intimate.

Mississippi Chicken is shot almost entirely on Super 8mm film, which both beautifully captures the light, texture and feel of summer in the Deep South and elicits a connection between the current immigrants’ rights struggle and the Civil Rights Era, when Super 8 was popular.

In 2004 I moved to this part of Mississippi’s poultry region and spent the next four years working with, learning from, and contributing to the struggles of Black and Latino chicken plant workers and their allies.  As part of a coalition of religious leaders, union organizers, immigrant and civil rights advocates, employment justice attorneys, poultry workers of diverse backgrounds, and other individuals who recognized their stake in building a more just community, industry, and world, we founded a poultry workers’ center, MPOWER (Mississippi Poultry Workers for Equality and Respect), which worked to build healthy communities by promoting economic and social justice in the state’s poultry producing region and workplaces.

The early work of building MPOWER and the injustices that motivated us in our work are chronicled in Mississippi Chicken, making it a deeply personal film for me.  At times I find it hard to watch—I feel alternately hurt, nostalgic, critical, and frustrated, but also validated, inspired, and hopeful.  The film is moving, with a narrative style that illuminates the social problems it tackles while humanizing its subject, inviting the audience to connect with the stories of people struggling not only for survival, but for righteousness and dignity too.

Though the film is set in the South, the issues it raises—exploitation and resistance, insecurity and hope, alienation and belonging—resonate in communities in Ohio, across the country, and beyond.

With the film as our catalyst, I am guest-editing this special edition of Race-Talk, Organizing Latino Immigrants for Social Justice, which will be featured on the blog throughout the week.  The entries in this series will address a broad array of issues related to Latinos, immigrants, and organizing, from Arizona’s new anti-immigrant legislation to worker health and safety to our country’s legacy of immigration and what it means for us today.

I invited contributors to consider the following questions:

What are the issues around which folks in your community are mobilizing?

What strategies have been effective?

What have been the major challenges?

In what ways is globalization complicating or offering new opportunities for organizing efforts?

What policies do we hope our organizing efforts will affect on a local, national, or international level?

How might academics, advocates, or others support movements for immigrant, worker, and racial justice?

I want to thank those who have contributed so far and invite all of you to join the conversation with your own submissions or by commenting on the posts that speak to you.  I also want to thank Race-Talk’s Executive Editor, Jamaal Bell, for his talent, enthusiasm, and patience as we worked to make this special edition a reality.

Finally, for those of you in Ohio, please join us on Wednesday in Columbus and on Thursday in Cincinnati for a screening of Mississippi Chicken and a conversation with the filmmakers, John Fiege and Anita Grabowski, and worker organizers from the Immigrant Worker Project and the Cincinnati Interfaith Worker Center.  You can learn more about the film, view sample clips, or order your own copy here.

And to you all, I hope you’ll continue to come back to check out the new posts in Organizing Latino Immigrants for Social Justice over the course of the week!

Authors who will be contributing this week are:

Josiah Heyman, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at El Paso

Steve Striffler, the Doris Zemurray Stone Chair in Latin American Studies and Professor of Anthropology and Geography,  University of New Orleans

Theresa Delgadillo, Assistant Professor of Comparative Ethnic and American Studies, Ohio State University

Jeffrey Cohen, associate professor, Ohio State University

Christine Kovic, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Houston-Clear Lake

Raúl Ernesto Márquez, marketing and design consultant in Florida

Heide Castañeda, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida

Cheryl Staats, Research Assistant,  Kirwan Institute


Photo by John Fiege

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Author: Angela Stuesse (4 Articles)

Angela Stuesse

Angela C. Stuesse is an activist anthropologist and holds a Postdoctoral Research fellowship at the Kirwan Institute. She studies issues of race, globalization, immigration, identity, and power in the U.S., Latin America, and Central West Africa. Angela received her PhD in anthropology and her MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and her BA in anthropology from the University of Florida. Her forthcoming book, Globalization “Southern Style”, tells the story of new Latino immigrants working and organizing alongside African Americans in rural Mississippi’s chicken processing plants. While conducting this politically engaged research, she was a co-founding collaborator of the worker center MPOWER (Mississippi Poultry Workers for Equality and Respect) and developed its program for cross-racial relationship building.

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