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EL CAMPO: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps



In this essay, I examine interlocking political, economic, and cultural processes involved in the continuous reproduction of the structural violence that affects migrant farmworkers in the United States. Excluded from rights and protections afforded other workers, migrant and seasonal farm labor—a social class comprising mainly undocumented Mexican and Latino persons—endures endemic poverty, poor health outcomes, and squalor living conditions. This structural violence is sustained by government neglect and illegal hiring practices and liberalized production regimes that benefit multinational corporations and large-scale agricultural producers, putting migrant workers in harm's way. Emphasizing the importance of the phenomenology of perception to the anthropology of structural violence, I argue that this system is also underpinned by a mode of perception built on specific understandings of alterity and community. The setting for this article is rural North Carolina, where I have conducted 16 months (2004–07) of ethnographic field study on tobacco farms and in farm labor camps. Among growers and other locals, I find that the faces of migrants do not compel infinite responsibility, as in the face-to-face interaction idealized by Levinas. Instead, an essentializing discourse of culture portrays migrants as “other” and “outside,” equates them with trash, and makes them available for various kinds of blame. I develop the concept of “faciality” to take account of how social power overlaps with perception to legitimize patterns of social subordination, economic exploitation, and spatial segregation. I also examine everyday tactics of resistance among migrants, who take command of the stigmatizing quality of vision to morally indict manifestations of structural violence. In this study, I enhance our understanding of the dialectics of domination and subordination in U.S. agriculture, which provides fruitful ground for theorizing the dangerous constitution of structural violence in the context of transnational labor migration and international agricultural restructuring.