Caroline Tracey 2019 Field Report
Caroline Tracey, PhD Student, Department of Geography , University of California Berkeley
Project: “The Soul Will Fly Home of its Own Accord:” Postmortem Infrastructure and the New Geography of Migrant Death
The sugar beet industry provides a case study for the way that Mexican immigrants in the United States are not only a case of “imported colonialism,” but one whose bureaucratic and enforcement mechanisms change and gain complexity over time. It also highlights immigration and its enforcement as a site in which interpretation and enforcement, rather than major changes to laws, are determinant. In my ethnographic fieldwork, my interlocutors speak frequently of the current situation of migration toward the United States and return/deportation to Mexico using ideas about levels of citizenship, the right to have a family, and the authority of the Mexican government to take care of Mexicans living in the United States. These facets of the relationship between the two countries, and the way that state power—and disempowerment—act upon individuals, are crucial to understand in their historical context. While we might say that the historical concerns are surprisingly current, I argue that the converse also holds: that our current challenges, however novel their horrors may seem, are surprisingly historical.
The CLAG field study award generously provided me a period of time in the archives of Mexico’s Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores. This primary-source research will contribute crucial historical background to my ongoing ethnographic research about migration. One of the collections with which I have spent the most time is that of the Mexican Embassy in the United States. This case study proved most interesting, equally for the geography it spans (the US plains states), its duration (from the early twentieth century through the Bracero Program), and the way it exemplifies the complexities of the US’ incorporation of immigrant workers into its economy. Two moments from documents contained in the Archivo de la Embajada de México en Estados Unidos exemplify this complexity:
In December of 1911, two hundred Mexicans were cast onto the streets of Lamar, Colorado. They had been hired by a contractor to work in the region’s sugar beet fields, which fed the American Beet Sugar factory in Rocky Ford, Colorado. When the contractor died suddenly, there was no authority to ensure the payment of the workers on time. A month later, no help had come, and town officials were getting angry. They wrote to the consulate at Denver:
“We have already supplied them with groceries and clothing to the amount of from $200 to $300 … and will say that it is high time for the Mexican government to take some action and look after its subjects.”
There are two interconnected striking aspects of this event to me: first, the complexity of the pyramid of contractors, as early as 1911, made it very difficult to understand who ought to assume the responsibility for paying the Mexican workers. Secondly, the quickness and ease with which the Prowers County clerk blames the Mexican government for not caring for its citizens reflects a pattern of externalization of responsibility that continues today.
Fast forward to the Bracero Program, which from 1942 to 1964 provided much sugar beet labor necessary in the Rocky Mountain and Plains region. The archives show the same manipulation of the levels of contracting- and sub-contracting to absolve beet companies responsibility towards workers—as well as a new recourse to the binational agreement. Starting in 1948, the Mexican consuls at Salt Lake City and Portland are inundated with complaints of violations by the Amalgamated Sugar Company. The conflicts began in June 1948, when the company deported a group of workers telling them that it was per the orders of the Mexican Consulate. The workers had begun a strike as they were making $1.50 per day, but being deducted $1.80 for room and board. What ensued is a year (plus!)-long debate turning on whether piecework can be understood to qualify for the minimum wage of the contract; whether the American company can demand that the worker (or the Mexican government) pay return passage if the company decides they are incompetent; and whether the workers have the right to curtail their contracts.
Please see the full report for more details.