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Keywords:

  • tobacco;
  • agriculture;
  • migration;
  • Levinas;
  • the Face;
  • defacement

ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

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.


PAYDAY

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

Friday is payday on the farm. At noon, before heading to the labor camp for lunch, the crew gets paid. Bartolo, the crew's foreman, handles a manila envelope that Craig Tester, the owner-operator, gave him that morning.1 It contains a dozen paychecks, each in a sealed envelope. From Bartolo's hand, Diego, who is also from central Mexico, although older, part of the late 1970s wave of Mexican immigration, a frail man who has worked in various regions and sectors of the U.S. economy, recently settling in North Carolina, receives his check. His checkered shirt is unbuttoned and hairless chest grimy and sweaty after a morning of heaving thousands of pounds of cured tobacco leaf into hydraulic baling machines on Craig's industrial farm. Diego tears into the envelope with his index finger, which is caked with gooey bits of tobacco. He scans the check's surface, his finger circling as if avoiding the bottom line. Once located, he says scowling, “The pay is muy campo.”

“Muy campo?” I ask, not exactly sure what he means.

“It's nothing, this paycheck,” he bitterly comments. Diego walks with the crew to a rundown white van, which Craig owns and calls the “Mexican van.” Bartolo will drive a half-mile stretch of country road to “el campo,” the squalid labor camp where the crew will eat lunch—today beans, eggs, tortillas, and pickled carrots, onions, and chili peppers—and relax before returning to the afternoon's tobacco grind.2

The term campo is used commonly among migrant farmworkers in North Carolina to characterize various aspects of their life and work. Campo means rural, having essentially to do with the countryside and farm work. Campo is also a field where crops are cultivated and the housing facility, the labor camp, where workers reside. In North Carolina's coastal plain, the country's largest and most active tobacco-producing region, where I have conducted 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork since 2004, it is as if campo were not just this or that thing, but the social condition of farm labor itself, characterized by interlocking forms of subordination and marginalization. When migrants find a job in construction, a restaurant, or an office, anything not farm labor, they say it is “outside of the campo” and regard it as a socioeconomic advance, not just because of higher wages but because it extricates them from a situation largely experienced as embarrassing and dispossessing. The difficulty of manual tobacco work, the neglected condition of labor camps, and the meagerness of agricultural wages—each is stingingly indicted as campo. Something like a paycheck becomes a synecdoche, an illuminative fragment of the mean face of depravity and structural violence.

FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

Through useful concepts such as “social suffering” (Bourdieu, Accardo, et al. 2000; Bourgois 2003; Kleinman et al. 1997), “structural violence” (Farmer 2004; Farmer et al. 2006; Singer 2006), “everyday violence” (Scheper-Hughes 1992), and the “social course” of suffering (Benson 2008; Kleinman et al. 1995) medical anthropologists have emphasized the systemic constitution of inequality and suffering. Whereas violence is typically conceived in terms of physical harm, and although responses often seek to pin praise or blame on individual actors, a tendency Paul Farmer calls “the erosion of social awareness” or “desocialization” (2004:308), this literature emphasizes societal, institutional, and structural dimensions of suffering, including the role of corporations, markets, and governments in fostering various kinds of harm in populations (see also Benson and Kirsch n.d.). Farmer defines structural violence as social arrangements that systematically bring subordinated and disadvantaged groups into harm's way and put them at risk for various forms of suffering (2004:307–308). Anthropologists have sought to “resocialize” suffering by tracing its origins to political-economic processes, social structures, and cultural ideologies (Benson et al. 2008).

Apart from important exposés, such as John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939), James Agee and Walker Evan'sLet Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), and Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly'sHarvest of Shame (1960), farm labor conditions have remained hidden from the public eye (Bletzer 2004:532). Romantic cultural representations of plighted family farmers have covered over menacing living and working conditions endured by laborers (Thompson 2002b). Farmworkers in the United States endure conditions of structural violence, including deplorable wages and endemic poverty, forms of stigma and racism, occupational health and safety hazards, poor health and limited access to services, and the constant threat of deportation (Arcury and Quandt 2007; Griffith and Kissam 1994; Oxfam America 2004; Smith-Nonini 1999; Thompson and Wiggins 2002; Villarejo 2003).3 In this article, I analyze interlocking political, economic, and cultural processes involved in the continuous reproduction of the particular system of structural violence (what Farmer calls “the social machinery of oppression”[2004:308]) that affects farm labor. I analyze how inequities of political and social power, differences in living conditions, and the unequal distribution of citizenship and belonging become embedded in long-standing social structures, normalized in institutions, and naturalized in everyday experience in rural North Carolina.

FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

In the pre-1950s U.S. South, a predominantly insular regional labor market confined African Americans to manual agricultural labor, tenancy, and low wages, conditions rooted in plantation slavery (Daniel 1972). There was also a less visible system of seasonal and geographically mobile labor. As early as the 1890s, black and European immigrant workers followed the harvest from truck farms in the Northeast to produce operations in Florida (Hahamovitch 1997). As with the crop-lien system, this mobile workforce was built on well-organized strategies of social control, including vagrancy laws, forced labor, and physical brutality. Migrant crews were often segregated into dilapidated labor camps, company towns, and ghettoized enclaves placed outside city limits (Rothenberg 1998:33–34).

A tradition of legal exceptionalism has historically regarded farm labor as distinct from other kinds of work (Schell 2002). The New Deal excluded farmworkers and domestics from rights and protections guaranteed workers in other industries, including the right to organize, minimum wage standards, overtime provisions, child labor laws, pension plans, unemployment insurance, and workers' compensation (Rothenberg 1998:36). These exceptions disproportionately denied minority groups, the bulk of farm laborers, aspects of citizenship afforded white workers in other sectors (Lipsitz 1995:372). Indeed, the federal government has generally backed the social power and economic interests of growers. In the wartime labor shortage of the 1940s, Florida growers maintained depressed wages and a controllable workforce by importing foreign-born workers from the Caribbean through a formal government “guest worker” program (Hollander 2006). The trend to rescale the labor pool to an international level to maintain a supply of unskilled labor willing to work for minimum wages and live in squalid conditions would drive dramatic changes in the regional workforce for the rest of the century.

Farm mechanization and market globalization intensified the postwar need for flexible and inexpensive labor arrangements (Winters 1998). The crew leader system, rooted in the 1950s when Mexican American farmworkers migrated to Florida and established themselves as labor contractors, filled this niche. The regional workforce has since undergone a “steady process of Latinization” (Rothenberg 1998:44). Rural dislocation and poverty in Mexico, exacerbated by international economic liberalization (e.g., the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]) have driven northward migration (Delgado-Wise and Covarrubias 2006; Kingsolver 2001; Massey et al. 1987). North Carolina's Hispanic population has increased tenfold since 1970, which is triple the national rate (Kasarda and Johnson 2006:1).

There is no precise count of migrant farmworkers in the United States, but roughly half of all agricultural workers are migrants according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Although 95 percent of migrant farmworkers are of Mexican decent, others come from Central America (especially Guatemala and El Salvador) and the Caribbean (especially Haiti and Jamaica). More than half of all agricultural workers are undocumented (Oxfam America 2004:7–8). Nonpermanent guest workers are legally hired through the federal H-2A program, which issues temporary, nonimmigrant work visas. In North Carolina, H-2A hiring expanded from 168 to 10,500 employees during the 1990s, making the state the country's largest user of guest workers (Oxfam America 2004:19). Since then, H-2A hiring has slipped to about 3,000 workers, a sliver of the state's roughly 100,000 total farmworkers, owing to escalating wages, transportation costs, and labor organizing activities associated with the program (Smith-Nonini 1999, 2005). While most Latinos in North Carolina have settled in metropolitan areas, over 40 percent of the rural economic impact of the state's Hispanic labor force is concentrated in a handful of counties with specialized farm industries like poultry or tobacco (Kasarda and Johnson 2006:4–8; see also Larson 2000; North Carolina Farmworker Institute 2007).

Important farm labor reforms came out of the cultural and political struggles of the Civil Rights era. New legislation required labor contractors to register with the government, maintain wage records, disclose working conditions, and ensure workplace protections. But not until 1983 were federal standards for labor camps established (Griffith and Kissam 1995:17–21). Even then, implementation was slow. Only in 1990 did North Carolina establish uniform inspection standards, ending a long-standing rule that excluded growers housing fewer than twelve workers from regulation (Wilson Daily Times 1989). State law stipulates specific standards for the housing site and the structure itself, which must be kept clean and free from debris and garbage, rodents and insects (North Carolina Department of Labor 2008). But because labor camps house people who belong to a marginalized social class, government neglect and noncompliance in the private sector are the norm. Farmers are rarely penalized for housing code violations. Workers often lack command of English and knowledge of their rights and they fear deportation and unemployment, such that compliance issues are underreported (Smith-Nonini 1999).

North Carolina law defines “migrant housing” as “any facility … that is established, operated, or used as living quarters for migrants” (North Carolina Department of Labor 2008:7). Mobile homes, single-family homes, duplexes, apartments, tenant houses, converted barns, and large barrack-style structures that house hundreds of people—any of these can legally be registered as migrant housing. Camps thus belong to that category of power-saturated spaces created not by architecture but by the status of the inhabitants (Low 2003:144–146). Camps come in all shapes and sizes, but they are almost always overcrowded and rundown. “Farmworkers are among the worst-housed groups in the United States,” writes one observer (Holden 2002:169; Early et al. 2006; Gentry et al. 2007). One study of farm labor camps conducted in the Eastern U.S. found that 10 percent of units lack toilet facilities, have broken toilets or dysfunctional stoves, and have structural problems, such as damaged windows and sagging roofs, as well as interior problems, such as water leakage, broken plaster, and peeling paint. 38 percent of units are classifiable as “severely inadequate,” with serious plumbing problems, damaged heating elements and electrical systems, and extensive structural damage. This compares to the 2 percent of all housing (including non-farm labor housing) that is severely inadequate on a national level (Holden 2002:169–193). About two-thirds of North Carolina's thousands of labor camps are unregistered, one-quarter get inspected, and a measly one percent comply with standards (Holden 2002:180; Wilson Daily Times 1989).

Farmer suggests structural violence is often perpetuated on the basis of visibility. Certain factors are seen as “causes” of suffering (and/or disease) while others are overlooked, as when government policies and programs focus on individual behaviors, ignoring underlying systemic conditions. He encourages anthropologists to scrutinize dominant frames of perception that remove historical and societal forces from an account of how structural violence, attendant inequalities, and responses are constituted. For example, Farmer (1992) emphasizes the enduring impact of the slave trade and an uneven geography of capitalist accumulation in shaping the HIV epidemic in Haiti, as well as pernicious stereotypes that inaccurately blame Haiti as the source of the epidemic. His aim is to open a “field of vision” to include historical, material, and symbolic conditions or phenomena that might fall outside of what is “ethnographically visible” to researchers and observers and what is culturally visible to participants in a given system (Farmer 2004:305–308).

Given this emphasis on visibility, a field such as the phenomenology of perception would seem indispensable to the anthropology of structural violence.4 However, the strategies Farmer outlines for opening new fields of vision are premised on a positivism that involves the integration of more bodies of scientific or objective knowledge. He writes, “[the] anthropology of violence necessarily draws on history and biology, just as it necessarily draws on political economy. To tally body counts correctly requires epidemiology, forensic and clinical medicine, and demography. The erasure of these broad bodies of knowledge may be seen as the central problematic of a robust anthropology of structural violence” (Farmer 2004:308). But an adequate understanding of how visibility sustains or challenges structural violence must involve ethnographic and phenomenological accounts of the frames of perception through which people interpret relations of inequality, experience familiarity and alterity, and respond to suffering. It is not only scientific knowledge that influences the visibility or invisibility of suffering and harm but also subjective acts of meaning making, patterns of moral reasoning, and cultural logics of accountability that can encourage people to look at suffering (and each other) in particular ways. Oftentimes, the problem is not that suffering is invisible or its causes unknown. Individuals and whole groups can have something at stake in actively overlooking and taking distance from other people's suffering. “Oppression is a result of many conditions,”Farmer writes, “not the least of which reside in consciousness” (2004:307).

Among the interlocking factors that cause and maintain the structural violence that impacts farm labor are downward economic pressure on agricultural production, the power of agribusiness corporations, systemic government neglect, and mass-media stereotypes. On a local level, in North Carolina tobacco country, structural violence is also underpinned by a mode of perception built on specific understandings of alterity and community, an optical regime evidenced when tobacco growers and other “native” North Carolinians envision farmworkers as people who belong to a fundamentally different and devalued “culture,” an essentializing way of seeing that links up to national efforts to criminalize “illegal” immigration. The view of undocumented immigrants as a threat to U.S. nationalism leads to harsh policy approaches that do not acknowledge realities of societal integration and the dependence of U.S. economic growth on low wages paid to Mexicans and other immigrants (Gledhill 1998).

Negative stereotypes about immigrants and collective racist attitudes limit ethical responsiveness in the face of the suffering immigrants typically endure (Chávez 1992:16–20; Cowan et al. 1997). When some people look at a migrant farmworker they do not see a sentient face that bears witness to the vulnerability of existence and commands the self to infinite responsibility and hospitality, as in the ethics idealized by Emmanuel Levinas (1969, 1981, 1998). They see someone who, despite living down the country road in a labor camp and doing the backbreaking work of harvesting the area's tobacco crop, does not belong to the fabric of “who is here with us,” excluded from what counts as community (Joseph 2002:174). As tobacco industry declines and recent neoliberal reforms intensify farm-level economic pressures (see Benson 2008), this way of seeing allows growers to strategically distance themselves from illegal yet financially beneficial hiring practices and noncompliance with labor camp housing standards, routing blame onto people differentiated as Other, blameworthy, and threatening.

FACIALITY

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

Violence can aim only at a face.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969, p. 225

Here, Levinas means that harm is meaningless if understood as directed at an inanimate object (1969:225). One cannot harm a stone, for example (Kosky 2001:39). Violence can only target an animate and sensate existence, which, for Levinas, is signaled in the human face. The face is different than objects in that it bears the trace of the infinite alterity of the other person (i.e., the other's singularity) and thereby confounds cognition, eludes masterful powers of perception. The face cannot be “synthesized” like any old object (Levinas 1969:33). Individuals, in their singular existence, are irreducible to totalized representations, such as “culture” or “ethnicity” (Benson and O'Neill 2007; Kleinman and Benson 2006). The face's singularity also means, for Levinas, that the face is always the face of vulnerability (1969:251) because it can be materially or symbolically annihilated. According to Levinas, it is the sentient face—the singular existence of the other person—that totalizing representations, physical acts of brutality, and systemized forms of violence target, and this is why he says, “Violence can aim only at a face.”

Building on this phenomenology, Levinas idealizes the “face-to-face” encounter, the immediate interpersonal frame, as the basic scene of ethics. He imagines a self held hostage and propelled to infinite goodness in the face of the suffering of another person (Levinas 1998:93–94). For Levinas, the very possibility of annihilating the other's singularity, which shines through in the face, makes hospitality an imperative for the self. One is always already bound to the other by an ethical relationship because of the possibility of turning away or doing harm (Benson and O'Neill 2007:32–33). However, the modes of perception that guide ordinary interactions in empirical life tend to squash this esoteric principle into hard realities of faciality, people seeing each other as typified objects and, on that basis, circumscribing suffering as an event that belongs to or was even caused by the sufferer. The other's suffering dangerously and easily becomes an event in which the self is not complicit (Levinas 1988). Levinas speaks of the “transmutation of the other into the same,” the reduction of alterity into a model of what is expected or already known, and the triumph of formal legal codes, moral models, and social contracts over face-to-face ethics, the isolation and partitioning of responsibility over the impulse to unconditional goodness (1969:113). As used in this article, the concept of faciality refers to how power and perception overlap, as well as to how ethical orientations are formed and/or inhibited on the basis of what people see when they look at other people's faces. Faciality is crucial to the constitution and perpetuation of structural violence because how people see others can help legitimize patterns of social subordination, economic exploitation, and spatial segregation.

The term faciality (visagéité) comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987), whose analytic of power emphasizes the social production of faces, how faces are perceived in light of media images, social typologies, and power relations: “the face, the power of the face, engenders and explains social power” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:175). To say that faces are socially produced means they are perceived in a fundamentally different way than Levinas wishes. Deleuze and Guattari write sarcastically of “glum face-to-face encounters” between pregiven social types (1987:171). They argue that faces are seen as generic types that do not confound cognitive synthesis in their infinite alterity. Rather, the human face becomes a medium through which finite differences are established, as when the aesthetics of the face play an important role in racial schemes, class structures, and other classificatory logics (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:185–193).5

Human faces never simply signify in terms of phenotypical features and their composition does not mechanically reflect the structural or societal position of the individual. Amidst a transpersonal set of strategies operating throughout society (i.e., an abstract machine [Massumi 1992:26]), faces are actively coded as allegorical signs and invested with cultural meaning in practices of everyday life. Faces have a figurative quality. They can be perceived in terms of a stereotype, a capitalized “Face,” as Deleuze and Guattari (1987:129) put it (what Levinas [1969] might call a “totality”). Deleuze and Guattari cite the face of “a rich child in which a military calling is already discernable, that West Point chin. You don't so much have a face as slide into one” (1987:177). In this conceptualization, faces are perceived in terms of a metonymic relationship between a particular feature and the discursive coding of who a person is, what that type of person is like, where they live, and what capabilities, propensities, and other traits they have (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:168). It “is not the individuality of the face that counts but the efficacy of the ciphering it makes possible” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:175). Faciality is thus constituted in a “zone of frequency or probability” involving the coproduction of empirical features and their significance.

A child, woman, mother, man, father, boss, teacher, police officer, does not speak a general language but one whose signifying traits are indexed to specific faciality traits. Faces are basically not individual; they define zones of frequency or probability, delimit a field that neutralizes in advance any expressions or connections unamenable to the appropriate significations. … Concrete faces cannot be assumed to come ready-made. They are engendered by an abstract machine of faciality. [Deleuze and Guattari 1987:168]

Generic facial representations are detachable images that can circulate as symbols of place, icons of a group of people, and tools of power and resistance. Think of the confident face of a political leader on a campaign poster, the stenciled face of Che on an expatriate's shirt, or the destitute face of a migrant worker on the cover of a news magazine. Deleuze and Guattari note that many sociopolitical structures or movements “need face” as a fundamental component of their constitution and reproduction (1987:180), as when flags and other symbols seem to represent the face of a nation or when the faces of rulers are spatialized in monumental architecture and public spectacles. Not only human visages but also spaces and landscapes are facialized. Particular social and spatial features resonate as a “face-landscape” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:175), as when a neighborhood or gated community is said to have character or personality. Cities stand out as skylines that are recognizable faces and the great heights of skyscrapers personalize wealth and power as character traits of the city itself. Furthermore, human faces can be structured or staged by landscapes; spatial arrangements and the literal lay of the land dramatically shape how faces are configured and interact, as we will see in the case of farm labor camps.

It is precisely the detachable and allegorical quality that makes faces, especially the face of power, readily available for parody and defacement (Taussig 1999). The face of the Boss, for example, is constituted in the watchful eye, furrowed brow, and persistent scowl that resonate as the stern face of management, a cluster of features that might be parodied in a cartoon, by a mime, or by a worker who resents the constant glare over his shoulder. Migrant workers in North Carolina are not silent in the face of structural violence. In the gripes and grimaces of people like Diego we find parodic acts of resistance that take command of the stigmatizing quality of vision in rural farm regions and in national media to expose the mean face of depraved labor camps and the hostile face of a nationalist and nativist public that ironically thrives on their labor.

This is what is meant by campo—a metaphoric expression used to disparage structural violence and facialize its inhospitable and menacing character. Wages are campo not simply because they are meager, but because they are part of an unremitting slap in the face that plasters symbolic denigration into the materiality of such things as a paycheck or a labor camp. Diego calls the paycheck campo because he knows Craig condescendingly sees him as naturally belonging in a field or labor camp, in el campo. His use of the term conveys an experiential aspect of farm labor, the feeling of being “other” and on the “outside” that is produced and naturalized in relations of economic exploitation. In this article, I examine how the visages of farmers and farmworkers, as well as labor camps and other “Mexican” spaces are facialized. Drawing on Michael Taussig's (1999) concept of defacement, I also investigate how subversive practices of defacement take hold of faciality to levy a political and moral indictment against structural violence. This study enhances our understanding of the dialectics of domination and subordination in U.S. agriculture and provides fruitful ground for theorizing the dangerous constitution of structural violence and racial stereotypes in the context of transnational labor migration and international agricultural restructuring.

CULTURE OF BLAME

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

Many growers take pride in being reasonable and responsible employers. Farmers commonly say that seasonal workers are “part of the family,” having employed the same crew for several consecutive years. Good feelings and working relationships are not easily disentangled from the paternalism that has historically been a core part of white identity on southern farms and helped justify racial domination and socioeconomic inequities (Hollander 2006:269). For people who share a hegemonic commonsense about who belongs where and understand a racialized division of labor as how things ought to be, treating workers with respect and dignity, abiding by labor regulations, and even getting to know workers can seem like consequential moral acts.

Craig, a medium-scale grower (with 150 acres of tobacco), registers his camp and has it inspected by state officials every year. He ensures it is up to code (e.g., the smoke detectors and light fixtures are working, the kitchen and bathroom facilities are clean and functional) before migrants move in for the harvest season. “It is a right or wrong thing,” Craig says in an interview.

My neighbors don't comply and they don't get in trouble with the government. I think that is wrong. They furnish a rundown tenant house that is not up to code. So they have an advantage. I spend money and time to abide by the law and they don't. The workers work damn hard, hot weather, doing work that I don't do, and I understand that. I manage the farm and my work is more and more about putting a pencil to paper. So the least I can do is make sure the camp is decent, livable. The workers deserve that. But most farmers could care less. The workers are here for a few months, so why should they give a damn—that's the mentality.

In Craig's mind, part of being a responsible employer involves regularly visiting the camp to have what he describes as quality “face time” with workers:

Most growers don't know what's going on in the camps. They let the place get wrecked and then they complain when the place is wrecked. What do they expect? If you are not there, there is no contact. If there is no face time, then you don't know the workers. You are just el patrón[the boss], and that's what happens. The camp is trashed. You've got to be there. You've got to show respect to workers, and then they will respect the camp, keep it clean.

Each night, Craig visits his camp for about ten minutes. He walks around and greets workers, who nod and try their best to look innocent. He does not speak Spanish, although some growers—people Craig would regard as both “good” and “bad” actors, farmers who abide by housing laws and those who do not—have acquired language skills to facilitate workplace communication, which workers see as a mixed blessing, a potential mechanism of social control. The crew admits that Craig is “not like other bosses. He is more relaxed and kinder,” as one migrant puts it. But the crew is also aware that Craig's intentions with “face time” are partly economical. “The boss is here, but he is not really here,” one worker, Marcos, a frail young man from Veracruz, says to me. “He comes and looks at everything. But he just comes to make sure there are no problems. He wouldn't come and eat dinner in the kitchen here. He wouldn't use this bathroom.” Another worker believes Craig “does not trust us.” He discerns that Craig seems concerned with garbage and the order of things, staring at a pile of dirty laundry, rolling his eyes at beer bottles on the ground, smearing the grease caked on the rusty stove with his finger as if to point out a glaring problem, like the sergeant's bleached gloves fingering the cadet's sole. Although Craig sees himself as going above and beyond, distrust arises as the crew senses some other motive besides a genuine desire to interact. They sense the pastoral power that wants to sanitize their living space through the incitement of self-regulating behaviors and a boss's desire to maintain order and livability so as to maximize labor's productivity and minimize his own financial and legal liability.

These power dynamics and managerial strategies may not be what Craig sees in his own actions. But they are part of the crew's interpretation. The rigid division of labor and its reflection of stark differences of citizenship and wealth—and, therefore, the larger system of commodity production in which farm management and labor are situated—create subjective barriers that make workers suspicious of face time and their faces and bodies targets of a kind of monitoring that is not altogether innocent, even though it might dutifully fulfill official government regulations. From the standpoint of Levinasian ethics, what Craig idealizes as “face time” falls short of being an ethical relationship. This is not because Craig directly causes some kind of harm to workers, but rather because his engagement with them is already couched within a particular set of relations embedded in economic transactions and dependencies. In contrast, Levinas imagines ethics as a “relation without relation” (1969:79), a situation in which the other person calls the ego into question, holds the self hostage precisely because an economy of expectations or debts has yet to be established. Only in such a hypothetical setting, the unmediated face-to-face, does the face of the other defy totalizing representations and command a kind of respect that is not linked to self-interest (Derrida 1995).

Although he complies with standards, what Craig shares with other growers is a tendency to blame migrants themselves for depraved living conditions. Indeed, for Craig, compliance with standards is a strategic way to ensure his own innocence, such that when a problem does arise in the camp—perhaps the grounds are rife with garbage or the kitchen has broken fixtures—he can claim, “It was fine and good before the crew moved in. Now it's trashed. That's not my fault.” As labor organizers visit camps with greater frequency to check on compliance issues and report problems to the North Carolina Department of Labor, farmers increasingly face costly fines and many resort to a similar strategy of blame deferral. Growers say workers trash what are, in fact, adequate housing facilities. “The labor camps are nasty, yes. But it is the nastiness of the workers. The media and the labor union say it's our fault,” says a farmer who hires a dozen migrants each year. “But migrants are over here illegal to start with. We furnish good clean housing, nicer than what they had in Mexico. Then they trash it—beer bottles and garbage everywhere, a damn pigsty. It's not my fault, the workers are to blame.”

In some cases, there may be truth to this reasoning. “I refurbished a mobile home and wanted to make it look nice,” another grower tells me. “I put in brand-new appliances, windows, carpet, everything. But the crew moved in and, by the end of the season, it was ruined.” One room was filled with emptied and crushed beer cans and insects infested an unkempt kitchen. “Look, I am a fair person,” he continues. “I realize that you can't expect a bunch of guys to keep the place spotless. But they trashed it.” However, such reasoning about responsibility neglects important aspects of the context in which camps become trashed. Workers are tired after the workday and rarely feel compelled to keep the camp clean. Garbage tossed on the ground only contributes to an already squalid environment. “It's impossible,” one Mexican worker tells me, “to keep a refrigerator clean when it is shared by 20 people. It's impossible to keep a stove clean when it is shared by 50 people” (Benson 2008:361–362).

The fact that workers inhabit dispossessed space, a space that they do not own or even call home, surely limits their desire to keep the place up. Without regular inspections and strict regulation, it is difficult to simply attribute the obvious depravity of most labor camps to workers. That workers are blanketed with blame depends on forms of social stigma and cultural conceptions of alterity marshaled by nonmigrants to reassert status hierarchies, distance themselves from the trash associated with migrants, and justify squalor. Elsewhere (Benson 2008) I demonstrate how the farm workplace is soaked with interwoven forms of discrimination and stigma, including stereotypes and avoidance practices that position migrants at the bottom of a workplace hierarchy. For example, spatial relations are often clearly marked, as when some farmers do not permit workers to enter the farm office or nearby family home, or when the bed of pickup trucks is said to belong to Mexicans because migrants ride back there when transported to and from fields, the front seat de facto seen as the privileged space of farmers and white or black employees. In addition, nonmigrants usually do not enter labor camps, which are usually set off the road, tucked away in a field, because this implies a class and cultural association with devalued figures (e.g., migrants and prostitutes who frequent camps in the evenings and on weekends). Avoidance marks the camp, like the back of the pickup truck, as “Mexican” space. Even though the workforce on most farms is multiethnic, composed of Latinos of various backgrounds, locals commonly call labor camps “Little Mexico.” The term Mexican, used to refer to all migrants, is defined as someone who does a devalued, stigmatized, and odious kind of work and traffics in stigmatized spaces (Rothenberg 1998:181–184; Striffler 2004:164). These acts of separation and differentiation reflect the influence of mass-media images, popular stereotypes, and political discourses that consolidate the generalized category of the “Mexican” as a temporary, “illegal,” deportable subject who is said to be linked to a natal country and, therefore, not properly a part of the local or national society (Benson 2008:361–362; Chávez 2001; De Genova 2002, 2005). The social production of face is here a mechanism of power that does not render people faceless or invisible as much as it facializes individuals as having the Face of a culture that is alternately seen as friendly and familial, docile and hard working, threatening and not local, or morally inferior and filthy.

FACE TIME

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

“I have thought about why someone would trash the house they live in,” a farmer tells me. “I think it's because he was raised that way. I can't raise him again. It's part of his culture.” Implying that poverty and trash are inherently part of Mexican culture, farmers naturalize the nastiness of camps in terms of stereotyped ethnic pathology, masking the role of government neglect and agribusiness in helping make those conditions. “That is the way they are,” this grower continues. “The Mexicans pile up toilet paper with shit on it high as their heads. What the hell can I do about that?”

This grower refers to an incident that occurred at his rural church, where an early morning Spanish service is offered on Sundays in partnership with a separate Hispanic “sister church.” White parishioners arriving one Sunday for their regularly scheduled service found toilet paper on the bathroom floor. They blamed “Mexicans” for defiling sacred space. In their eyes, the gesture of allowing people seen as outsiders to use the facility was abused, disrespected. One church leader, Sean, who had been a missionary for decades in Mexico, tried to explain the situation to irate Southern Baptists. “In Mexico, poor plumbing demands that toilet paper not be discarded in the toilet, but rather in a wastebasket or even on the floor,” he tells me during an interview. “This is what happened, a simple misunderstanding. We have to educate both groups about cultural norms and hygienic practices. We put signs in the stalls for those who can read, and many cannot, and we've added trashcans.” This well-intentioned intervention did little to alter white parishioners' attitudes. They saw floored toilet paper as unclean and unsafe, evidence of cultural backwardness and a lack of what Sean calls “hygienic practices,” even though, as he rightly insists, for Hispanic churchgoers, this disposal method is perfectly normal, hygienic and safe, a responsible way to avoid sewage backup. If Sean wanted to “educate” parishioners, he started from the premise of a cultural clash between two “groups” that possess unwavering “norms.” In an evolutionary hierarchy—note his reference to lower literacy rates for Hispanic parishioners and inadequate sewage infrastructure in Mexico—the particular relationship to feces he frames as normal in Mexico is equated with less educational achievement and underdevelopment and seems premodern by comparison.

In the European colonial imagination, according to Dipesh Chakrabarty, phenomena such as dust, dirt, disease, and crowds were equated with the colonized population, seen as backward, threatening the colonizing population's modernity, cleanliness, order, and well-being. The colonial subject was thought to be “blind to the unwholesome aspects of their public spaces” (Chakrabarty 2002:65). The bazaar was luridly narrated in Orientalist literature in terms of “filthy drains,”“disgusting” vendors, and overcrowding, an “Indian chaos” that “was opposed [to] the immaculate order of the European quarters” (Chakrabarty 2002:67). For Chakrabarty, these views did not simply comprise a set of stereotypes passively embodied as a cognitive model. It was “evidence of a particular way of seeing” (2002:66), a regime of visibility, a lens that pleasurably examined things from afar with a keen interest in discerning and reasserting hierarchies of cultural difference and moral value. The particular spatial sensitivity to aesthetic aspects of human habitation and exchange that defined this colonial gaze was evidence of a more generalized mode of perception and technology of power that, Chakrabarty stresses, underwrites the very grammar of modernity, including visceral sensibilities about public health, a tendency to equate filth with otherness, and knee-jerk responses to disorder (2002:65–79).

This optical regime frames how many North Carolinians look at migrants. One parishioner, Trisha, left the church because of the toilet incident. “The church was trashed,” she said, “and this scares me because I am interested in my community and the neighborhood. Will it be OK, you know?” She was also dismayed by her church's plans to relocate to a larger (presumably less “Mexican” and more “modern”) building beside the current facility, desecrated space that would now be used exclusively by the Hispanic church. “Churches want to partner with Hispanic groups,” she tells me. “I understand those outreach goals. That church was my home, my community, my ties. Now they are giving it to the Mexicans, even after what they did to it.” An evangelical Christian who discerns a basis for universal hospitality in the Bible, Trisha is not seen by friends and familiars as a mean person who wishes to exclude others simply on the grounds of racial otherness and discomfort or lack of understanding about differences. Like her fellow parishioners, she values religious and social outreach to marginal and minority groups. But it is in wanting “my community” to be clean and safe that she excludes forms of life and embodiment that are different from her own, stops short of being able to understand difference or discomfort in the context of broadscale conditions and diverging norms, and grounds a narrow image of belonging in stereotypes and misunderstanding.

Levinas wants people like Trisha to see in the faces of migrants singular traces of a vulnerable existence and to be held hostage at that sight, infinitely responsible for their well-being and unconditionally hospitable, an experience Levinas calls “epiphany” (1969:213). The face-to-face he idealizes assumes that self and other are cohabitants of shared time and space: an immediate, proximate encounter with vulnerability galvanizes ethical responsiveness (Levinas 1981:139). In practice, this interpersonal dynamic is rare. The temporal and spatial coordinates of alterity are culturally shaped and politically consequential. People who reside within a geographically defined community can sometimes seem the most out of place owing to practices of exclusion, segregation, and racialized mappings of belonging (Benson 2005).

Among the many paradoxes of “community” is the fact that “it can provide a medium for the fullest expression of belonging or the ultimate suppression and exclusion from one's closest surroundings” (Greenhouse et al. 1994:175). Migrants are seen as traveling repositories of an essential culture, excluded from what counts as the here and now, “my community,” as Trisha puts it. They also seem to belong to a different time, a primitive past that makes them available targets of outreach at the same time as they are said to deserve depravity. The interpersonal event of sharing time and space is denied in cultural stereotypes and colonial optics that see others as underdeveloped and backward (Fabian 1983). Growers commonly justify labor camp squalor by saying, “The camp is nicer than what they had back home in Mexico” or “In Mexico they live in mud huts and shacks, so the camp is better than what they are used to.” The language of modernity and an evolutionary view of cultural progress—the flush toilets and vinyl siding of middle-class U.S. citizens at the zenith—underpin the “ethical variability” (Petryna 2005) of seeing different people as deserving different standards of living. Despite their integral connection to the ongoing flow of tobacco leaf off industrialized farm operations, labor camps seem to somehow exist in an earlier time, while migrants are facialized as people whose proper space and time is always elsewhere, neither proximate nor immediate.

The trace migrant faces exhibit is that of cultural difference but also economic value. The actual face time of growers interacting with workers on the job would seem to unravel a blanketed denial of coevalness. Farmers sometimes get out of their pickup trucks or tractors, leave the farm office, and work in fields alongside migrants. There is constant interaction, to be sure, despite language barriers, a mix of the camaraderie and antagonism that is common at any workplace. Folks like Craig are conscientious about the implications of being proximate to others and sincerely see their relationship to workers as a moral struggle against prevailing tendencies of employer aloofness. But face time is also about managing property: the labor camp and the labor that it houses. When Craig visits the camp and meets with workers, he is literally facing time, a commodity, labor hours, which he has purchased and which is assumed to be continuously at his disposal, available for monitoring and managing, even though the workday has ended (Taussig 1983:26). Because workers inhabit space owned by the boss they are, in effect, perpetually on the clock, although they are not paid for the face time Craig “spends” with them, which he conceives as labor, as well as a tactical investment, on his part. Workers recognize the economic basis of this relationship and rightly attribute to Craig the distrust of someone keeping watch over private interests.

Craig once told me, “I don't know what these guys do after the season, and I don't even want to know. But as long as they're in my camp and working for me, I want to make sure there are no problems.” When this contract is up, workers leave the camp and move on, to other states or economic sectors. But Craig knows that those workers or others like them, people with the same Face, will return, because he believes that “Mexico,” the imagined space and time of migrants, is inferior. Faciality becomes a mask that conceals the forces that drive labor migration in Mexico and allows growers (and workers, as we will soon see) to maintain distance between each other despite realities of having conjoined lives. The basic fact that industrialized agriculture depends on flexible arrangements with mobile workers—that face time with workers has been made possible by the international economic restructuring that puts migrant populations at the disposal of U.S. employers—is converted into a set of beliefs about cultural superiority and imagined personalities that are the stereotyped face of imagined communities.

INSOMNIA

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

When North Carolinians give directions, labor camps are not counted in a string of houses. One can say “fourth house on the left,” for example, a count that might exclude a camp, marking it as something other than a house. Nor do migrant farmworkers call the camp a “casa,” preferring campo.6 As discussed earlier, this term also refers to a field and farm labor itself, as when workers answer the question “What kind of work do you do?” by simply saying “campo” or “trabajo de campo.” Flexible word usage reflects a phenomenological sense of campo as manifold rural space, an overlapping sphere of life and labor that is owned by the boss and defined as that which is “outside” (of the social order). “Everything is el campo,” one migrant, Pancho, tells me. “I go to work and am in the field [campo]. Come back for lunch, in the camp [campo]. The grower [ranchero] has a house. But we are peasants [campesinos], always in the campo.” Note that Pancho foregrounds class affiliation as part of a peasantry in which he would include his family in Oaxaca who work in agriculture and to whom he sends monthly remittances. Although he considers his family's home a casa, his life and labor are now experienced as contained within el campo. The farmer is distinguished in terms of the place he lives, which Pancho and other workers call the “mansión,” and also his class affiliation as someone who is, Pancho tells me, neither a “campesino” nor an “agricultor”[farmer or agriculturalist], but a manager who does very little manual labor. He mostly monitors the production process from inside his pickup's cab, as compared to the work Pancho does, which is always outside in the hot sun.

In the reluctance of farmworkers to call the labor camp a casa, we are reminded of the spatial indistinction that James Agee spotlighted in his portrait of sharecroppers and tenants in Depression-era Alabama.

[The] fields are workrooms or fragrant but mainly sterile workfloors without walls and with a roof of uncontrollable chance, fear, rumination, and propriative prayer. … The fields are organic of the whole, and of their own nature, and of the work that is poured into them: the spring, the garden, the outbuildings, are organic to the house itself. … The fields [are] the spread and broken petals of a flower whose bisexual center is the house. [Agee and Evans 1941:129]

By emphasizing the spatial and experiential indistinction that defined tenant life, Agee undertook a kind of cultural critique. He sought to challenge the ostensible universality of the modern opposition between home and workplace, a split that arose as part of an emergent bourgeois imagination in the 18th and 19th centuries (Coontz 1988). Changes in domestic architecture separated living and work spaces. New practices in leisure and mass culture and moral values of gentility inflected spatial sensitivity with a politics of class differentiation (Smail 1994). The home became a metaphor of modern habitation, while practices of boundary maintenance and hygiene, such as housekeeping, were seen as microcosmic of a community-level imperative of delineating insiders from outsiders. The “deeply ambiguous character” of the colonial bazaar, for example, challenged a modern bourgeois sensibility centered on the home and a strict division between that which is “outside” and the “ritually enclosed inside” of both private life and community (Chakrabarty 2002:73). Spaces linked to trash and garbage (e.g., bazaars and labor camps) become dangerous realms of “matter out of place” (Douglas 2002) to be policed and protected from the public sphere of sociopolitical membership but never relinquished as cozy private spheres of domesticity.

The spatial and architectural composition of camps informs a phenomenology of habitation in which social ostracism and stigma seem spackled onto the facility itself. The barracks-style camp Diego and Pancho live in, for example, seems inside-out, a surface without interiority, thin metal walls apparently assembled with the minimalist aim of making enclosures that resemble bedrooms to the extent that people (try to) sleep there. The building's outside wall is wrapped with doors that each open into one of a dozen bedrooms. Metal walls soak heat and make the interior more humid and sultry than the outside. “There is no air, no movement,” Pancho says, “no relaxation here. It is not comfortable. You cannot sit in your room. You cannot sleep.” There are small vents cut into the top of the outside wall. Pancho has a fan “but it does not help because the air is hot. It moves hot air.” He sometimes props the metal door open. But this leaves the bedroom exposed at night and makes him feel as though sleeping outside. “Anyone can come into my room,” Pancho says,

I don't use a bank. I keep [guardar] my money in the camp. It is difficult to fall asleep, out of fear, with the door open. But that is the only way to remain cool. It is so fucking hot. You feel like walking around because you can't sleep. But you need sleep because of the morning [or tomorrow, la mañana]. You think about tobacco and how difficult [or mean, pesado] the work is when you are tired.

Here, insomnia is not experienced as a negation of the natural phenomenon of sleep. This sleeplessness is the experience of not being able to go home and leave work behind (Levinas 2000:207–212). “It's too hot, Pete,” Diego tells me. “I don't know what to do, every night with the air and the heat. There is nowhere to go. I don't have a car. What can I do? How long can I sit outside? El campo is burdensome [pesado].” (Note that the Spanish term for nightmare is pesadilla, something that is especially mean or heavy.) Insomnia and a felt lack of privacy are also linked to a problem of constant illumination. Powerful floodlights perched high in a tree make the camp a bright-eyed island amidst unlit winding country roads that disappear into the night. This allows the grower to survey the camp from a distance—perhaps on an evening drive home from the string of chain restaurants out near the Wal-Mart—with workers unable to catch sight of anything more than the beaming lights of a motoring vehicle. Panoptical effects push workers inside. “I stay in my room and close the door,” Roberto, a stout man in his thirties, tells me, “because screw the boss if he wants to drive and check.” Invisibility becomes a tactic of positioning within a rural optical circuitry. Still, light seeps through vents like an unavoidable spotlight the boss projects onto the camp: “The electrification of human habitats maintains the twilight and stops the oncoming of the night” (Lingis 1998:9). The bath of light and heat at labor camps is like a tepid pool in which insomnia is cultured. “How can I sleep with that light?” Roberto goes on. “It is so difficult [pesado].”

Levinas describes the home as more than an overhead shelter; it is commencement. It is the place from which one starts out and to which one returns each day, a private repose walled from the outside and a maze of hallways that warmly burrows any proper home (Levinas 1969:152; Lingis 1998:74–79). The labor camp lacks this interiority and achieves no separation from the workplace. In architectural terms, the camp is a conglomeration of cells, each bedroom an “elementary structure” with a single opening (Hillier and Hanson 1984). Variations on this kind of facility are found cross-culturally. In its simplest form, the single cell is the architectural model for the traditional shop: goods are displayed in front of the opening during the day and stored inside at night. This structure is ideal for shopkeepers because it allows a continuous flow between interior and exterior; shoppers can freely enter without feeling they have penetrated a private space, whereas thresholds established within the shop separate the vendor's backstage from the accessible space of wares on display (Hillier and Hanson 1984:176–177). In the context of a labor camp, it is difficult for workers to establish thresholds of privacy, either internally (bedrooms are cramped and often shelter more than one worker, perhaps strangers) or externally (closed doors often mean unbearable heat). More like a warehouse or a shed, it is not surprising that workers commonly refer to the camp as a “bodega” or “galera,” a generic storage facility. What workers are left with is an experience of being on display, available for surveillance.

Shopkeepers can board up their doors, freely exercising control over a space that is their own. The camp's bedrooms open directly into the rural surrounds. Because most labor camps are adjacent to work fields (Holden 2002:175), workers rise from bed and step right into their workplace. Agee described this experience as a “concentration of living and taking.” In the context of Alabama sharecropping, the perpetual debt that bound families to landlords was the material side of an existential predicament of dispossession. The fields were “the wrung breast of one human family's need,” a need to survive and make a living, “and of an owner's taking,” survival always tied to a process of extraction (Agee and Evans 1941:113). Similarly, many migrant farmworkers in North Carolina inhabit a space that is not their own: the labor camp, the farm shop, the fields, and the Mexican van. Even when they go to Wal-Mart on Sundays, their day off, to get basic necessities, they are transported in the grower-owned van. Dispossession is a constant experience for people whose bodies and energies are warehoused at night and carefully managed during the workday, never permitted the privacy of a homeplace, except to the extent that growers do not often care about, and prefer to strategically distance themselves from camps. Ultimately, the very survival of workers, their ability to make a living and send a remittance back home, depends on inhabiting a space that could never be a home.

FACE-OBJECT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

Diego walks me through the camp, a tour of impotent things that do not live up to the adequacy and fulfillment to which they gesture. “Look at this bathroom,” he begins, pointing at the splintered toilet and nonfunctional light fixture. “This is not a bathroom. There is no door. The toilet is broken. The light is not steady. A real bathroom would have these things. It's ugly, nothing but a shed.” Diego swivels, marches out of the bathroom and moves into a bedroom. “Look at this window. No air passes. What sort of bedroom is this? The beds are uncomfortable. It's not a bedroom,” he says, embarrassment in his voice. Then he takes me to the kitchen, where a bilingual list of labor and housing codes is posted. “These laws don't mean anything. The camp complies with the rules, but the rules are not good. One doesn't want to live here. Would the boss live in this camp? This is not a house. It is an edifice. It is muy campo.”

To Diego, the camp is belittling and degrading, as if his life were worth less than the owner's. Utterly demeaning is the pretense of the whole thing: laws posted on the kitchen wall seem like a seal of approval that is also a slap in the face. The legitimizing force of the law is experienced as a double negative: the poster announces that the camp is not not regulated, compounding the sense that depravity is sanctioned, even deserved. It legitimizes conditions that, Diego knows, do not fit the image of human habitation that the grower would accept for himself and his family. In fact, the camp is not better than what Diego and other workers had in Mexico, as many North Carolinians assume. Workers tell me that the camp makes them long for the homes from which they migrated, houses that may resemble the camp's minimal accommodations but resonate in an entirely different way, houses that slide into the faciality and felt interiority of home.

Diego calls out aspects of the camp as incomplete, as if the camp were masquerading as a home to conceal its shallow character. Moving back and forth between naming and negating, the camp is made into a “dialectical image” (Taussig 1987:369), containing an inherent contradiction that is simultaneously disclosed and covered, a house that is not a house, like Magritte's pipe (Deleuze 1988:66). Diego's narration opens a gap between object and subject, the thing pointed to and the caption he provides, which “reveals, as with film montage, not only another view via another frame, but released flows of energy” (Taussig 1999:3, 43; Benson 2004). The tour illuminates the camp's double negativity: growers, with the law on their side, insist that the camp is not a bad house, whereas Diego insists the camp is not a house at all, a negation of a negation. When the camp emerges, in the flow of Diego's tour, as something other than what it portends, an occasion opens in which he might rename what the camp actually is. The camp begins to take on a kind of personality. What Diego sees is failed seriousness and pretense, the campiness of the camp. Diego reveals his embarrassment at having to live in such conditions, but also refacializes the camp as itself an embarrassment and disgrace, thereby socializing his own negative feelings and identifying the locus of affect in conditions of existence themselves. The bathroom, the kitchen, and the bedroom are farcical and condescending gestures of ethically variable livability that resonate for Diego as a “face-object” (Barthes 1972:56), mean and heavy, somewhat nightmarish even. The face of structural violence is what Diego recognizes in his meager paycheck and the menacing labor camp, both of which are indicted as muy campo.

DIVISIONS OF LABOR

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

The conditions in which farmworkers live are influenced by broadscale forces of international agricultural restructuring. The “culture of blame” that exists in tobacco country is shaped by the public nature of anti-immigrant sentiment as well as interlocking economic, political, societal, and ethical forces that shape the subjective lives of tobacco growers, threaten their farm businesses, and challenge the sense of self-worth that has historically been wrapped up in successful farm management. Since the 1960s, U.S. tobacco companies have aggressively shifted to less expensive foreign leaf, dislocating thousands of U.S. farmers, as well as an aging generation of black farmworkers, and driving farm consolidation. In the 1990s alone, nearly half of all tobacco farmers went out of business (Capehart 2004; National Institute for Tobacco-Free Kids 1999). In response to the farm sector's rapid decline, Congress passed sweeping neoliberal reforms intended to end government protectionism and improve the free-market competitive advantage of domestic leaf (Kingsolver 2007).

However, the move only created new uncertainties and challenges for farmers. The government has distanced itself from leaf production, and farmers are at the mercy of cutthroat companies with flexible international sourcing mechanisms. The traditional marketing system for tobacco (public auctions) has been replaced by one-year private contracts with tobacco firms. Stringent contract demands aimed at enhancing leaf quality and creating an illusion of relative safety in cigarettes, which is strategic and profitable for tobacco companies, mean new financial and managerial pressures for growers. Contracts stipulate that tobacco must be free of what tobacco companies call “non-tobacco-related material” (e.g., paper, string, metal fragments, plastics, fiberglass insulation materials, foam materials, excessive sand or dirt, rocks, debris, and other contaminants), what farmers call “trash,” anything that can get mixed in with tobacco on the farm. Noncompliant farmers can have their contracts revoked, putting them out of business (Benson 2008). Whereas some farmers have been able to switch to alternative crops or diversify economic strategies, such options are limited by material and cultural factors and, for highly capitalized farmers, tobacco remains more profitable than other crops (see Altman et al. 1996, 1998).

Workers viscerally sense that farmers are more curious and intense managers in the new contract system because trash can be common in tobacco, with workers sometimes eating, drinking, or smoking around the baler, and because growers have so much at stake financially in keeping trash out of bales. “The boss does not trust us,” one Mexican man tells me. “He watches all the time and is always nervous, walking around telling us what to do. But I know what goes in the baler and what does not.” Chided when the boss stands over their shoulders and condescendingly offers instructions in simple English, workers sometimes respond by cussing the boss in Spanish under their breath (Benson 2008:367–368).7 Diego frequently allows himself—his face—to take on the characteristics of the boss. He mimics a diagram of nervous energy and frustration that he notices in Craig's face. The boss makes a mean face and so does Diego, grimacing just so, sarcastically, and subtly peering up at the boss from beneath his sweaty ball cap. Diego tells me, “The boss is very facial [muy cara], very much like this, …” and he scowls as a scowling Craig walks by, anxiously monitoring the baling operation, “like he is going to snap,” Diego says.

On one level, Diego's parody of the boss is a classic example of a “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985) that is meaningful in the context of a workplace division of labor. Protected beneath his brim, Diego is reversing the optics of management and its one-way street of visibility, doing what bosses and others driving by the camp can do to him, mimicking the panoptical act of “seeing without being seen” (de Certeau 1984:197). Done behind the boss's back, Diego's facework provokes other workers to smirk and mumble about how the boss is constantly bothering or nagging them. On another level, Diego is calling attention to forces that impinge on the boss himself. Diego is like a clownish street performer who pantomimes the money-driven earnestness of a businessman without time for diversion. By parodying the stiff's gait, walking behind with exaggerated gestures, straightened back and robotic striding arms, the mime achieves an allegorical effect, objectifies the Face of the on-the-go culture of capitalism as the driving force behind (or inside) the seemingly autonomous and self-motivated suit. This release of symbolic energy, unmasking of a secret, defacing of a Face, is what rouses laughter among the crowd, not just the impersonation.

For Taussig, defacement is an act of “criticism” that harnesses the power of faciality to undermine the authority and integrity that adhere in a Face. Defacement is a “cut into wholeness and holiness” that “engages internally with the object defaced, enters into its being” (Taussig 1999:3). Defacement places the Face in a new context, shedding light on webs of power and meaning that underlie its social production. Defacement alters the way a Face looks and looks at observers, linking the semblance of gestures to agencies that might not be immediately visible in the visage. Diego is not necessarily attentive “to the tenderness of face and of faces facing each other,” as in Levinasian ethics (Taussig 1999:3). Much like the work of the mime, his sarcasm is instead evidence of attentiveness to the networked forces in which the boss's face is caught up. The face here does not signal the radical neediness of the other person, but the worldliness of the face, the fact that the face bears traces of social processes and pressures, not the asocial singularity of an individual.

Taussig writes, the “face is the bubble of the public secret” (1999:229), which refers to knowledge that is generally known but not often articulated (1999:5). This is what bubbles up in the boss's nervous energy like a face “ready to snap,” as Diego says. What is this secret? As has happened in other agricultural industries, the shift to private contract production has reclassified independent growers as service providers who carry out the mandates of a contract and are at the mercy of distant corporate decisions (Benson 2008; Durrenberger and Thu 1996). Diego's parody reveals that the boss is not fully what he claims to be, his autonomy and authority unreal, a farcical pretense, just as Diego had negated the labor camp's adequacy. The boss's stern face is read as an index of local authority, which seems exaggerated and ambivalent in light of Craig's dependency on both corporate goodwill and the manual labor of migrant workers. “I have worked on other farms and everywhere I see the same thing,” Diego tells me. “The boss is nervous in the face. It's because the company can cut his contract and put him out of business.” Here, the parody does not seem to simply poke ad hominem fun at the boss. It builds an affective bridge that recognizes in the boss's earnestness and nervousness the heaviness of a system that bears down on both men and makes the boss look mean. “Why should the boss improve the camp,” Diego asks me, sitting in the camp's kitchen, eating hardened tortillas from yesterday, “when he can use that money to improve his farm?”

Much like an ethnographer, Diego sympathetically realizes that the hardships he endures as a farmworker are partially the result of systemic pressures exerted on growers and the power of tobacco companies that can cut growers on a whim. If the illicit underpinnings of industrialized agricultural production—illegal hiring practices and noncompliant labor camps—are a public secret “never appearing on food labels” (Thompson 2002a:8; see also Bletzer 2004:531), then what bubbles up in the boss's face, what Diego's parody illuminates, is the fact that growers are not a simple cause of structural violence. They become a vector of harm when networked in globalized systems of production and consumption. Growers do not furnish labor camps that they themselves would inhabit because pressures of international competition and intensified company demands are a trickle-down economics sanctioned by government neglect that keeps wages low and motivates against improvements in the farm labor infrastructure and, regrettably, because growers often see migrants as deserving less.

Growers are perceived as labor from the standpoint of the buying firm and increasingly share a sense of economic insecurity and subordination with the seasonal workers they employ. Rather than envisioning themselves as inhabiting shared time and space with workers, rather than acknowledge that when Philip Morris USA looks at a grower like Craig the company sees time and economic value, growers turn to culture to reassert power and authority in the context of a continuously racialized workplace hierarchy. They negotiate the nervous system of contract production by translating structural problems of intensified quality demands, a felt lack of control, and international competition into cultural problems having to do with Mexican backwardness. “The companies have us right where they want us with this contracting thing,” one grower tells me. “I could lose my business at any time. It's really about making sure you produce good clean tobacco, and that means I've got to look after this crew. But look at how they keep up the labor camp. I've got people who trash the house they live in baling my tobacco.” In fact, trash can end up in tobacco in many incidental and accidental ways. Farmers commonly blame migrants as the only source of trash, just as they deem them culpable for camp conditions (Benson 2008:368–371). Managerial demands and threats of farm loss galvanize a way of seeing, a way of looking at other people and talking about how they and the spaces in which they reside “look.” This regime of faciality is a strategic and dangerous coping strategy among growers, a way to save the face—the face of someone in control—associated with managerial authority. This strategy deflects attention from the role of governments and corporations in making farm businesses less stable and adversely impacting farm labor conditions. When considered in the context of the kinds of pressures farmers face, the critical force of Diego's parody seems multisided, challenging the integrity of the boss's authority while simultaneously opening an alternative field of vision in which growers and workers are seen as part of the same subordinated scene.

STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

The capacity for making growers and workers part of the same economic and ethical picture has been a driving force behind successful boycotts against several major food producers led by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a national labor union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. FLOC's widely publicized boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the country's largest independent pickle producer, headquartered in North Carolina, began in 1999 and was endorsed by more than 200 organizations (Broadway 2003). The union had initially been unsuccessful in negotiating with company management for improved wages and working conditions. In an editorial in the Raleigh News and Observer, the company strategically framed the issue as a localized antagonism between growers and workers, claiming that negotiations ought to occur on that level. “Since we do not employ farmworkers,” a company spokesperson editorialized, “it is inappropriate and unfair for us to interfere” (Bryan 1999:A10). The company sought to deflect attention away from its role in competitively sourcing cucumbers and, thereby, influencing agricultural wages and the ability of growers to improve labor camps and working conditions. The company rightly insisted that it was targeted on account of its name recognition, whereas smaller pickle manufacturers that source cucumbers from the same farms were not boycotted. FLOC countered that the large company is “an integral part of the system that contributes to and benefits from the exploitation of these workers” and that “Mt. Olive is in a position to influence and improve the conditions of farm workers who produce the cucumbers [it] uses” (Agricultural Missions Incorporated 2003).

The boycott was ultimately about making visibility a basis for social change. FLOC held direct action protests outside grocery stores and the media exposure of the boycott heightened public awareness of farm labor struggles. In 2004, FLOC achieved an agreement that benefits growers and workers alike: the company agreed to pay higher prices for cucumbers, part of which would devolve to workers (Collins 2004:1). There was also the establishment of a formal mechanism for addressing worker complaints and compliance issues between FLOC and the private for-profit company that recruits and transports H-2A guest workers for growers. “This kind of contract system benefits growers,” a FLOC organizer told me. “If they have a compliance issue they won't face an individual lawsuit. There are now formal steps for grievances.” By taking a company head on, FLOC avoided a narrow framing of structural violence as something caused on a local level. However, the boycott was limited in its capacity to alter material conditions, because the union is legally permitted to organize documented workers only, a small fraction of the workforce. Government neglect in permitting employers to hire a more vulnerable undocumented workforce continues to permit buying firms to depress commodity prices and reap the financial benefits of squalid living conditions. Besides, many growers remain hostile to the idea of partnering with labor, wary of how FLOC depicts them in their public relations. Farmers and farm labor advocates, not surprisingly, usually do not get along in North Carolina. Tobacco growers feel that FLOC portrays them as the sole culprit of farmworker suffering in media accounts, press releases, and protests staged in front of large-scale farming operations. Front-page stories link individual growers, who are identified by name, to compliance issues and vivid portraits of squalor and exploitation. In other words, growers feel FLOC facializes them as bad people and this leads growers to facialize labor organizers as mischievous and threatening. At this local level, the project of remaking farm labor conditions is not simply about making farm labor more visible to consumers but also remaking facialized strategies and responses that divide growers and labor organizers and give rise to a parochial blame game that corporations conveniently transcend.

Enrique Ortiz is a Puerto Rican man in his mid-thirties and a public health worker who makes regular visits to camps during the harvest season to do basic medical checkups. Enrique is good at establishing trust with workers. He sees them as dignified and worthy of attention and care. He talks about pop music with the younger men and always asks permission before entering any room in a camp. Enrique usually has open access to labor camps, if only because growers benefit from the free medical care he provides to employees as a migrant healthcare outreach worker and an employee of a publicly funded clinic. And, admittedly, he does not search out signs of noncompliance and otherwise make trouble (which is how growers see FLOC's activities). Even though he intentionally depoliticizes his interaction with workers to ensure access and facilitate the provision of healthcare, Enrique has a political perspective on farm labor that comes out of his work as a broker between the social service sector and the labor class. Although he realizes that growers profit from noncompliance, Enrique also regrets FLOC's tendency to blame them in ad hominem fashion and place social conflict and suffering in a vacuum. He sees the blame game as a process that ultimately detracts from an understanding of the role of macro forces and the government in creating the conditions of structural violence that FLOC seeks to rectify.

I frequently accompanied Enrique on his visits to camps. This allowed me to get to know workers in many different camps and crews. However, the following event occurred on a day when I was not with him. Enrique tells me that he was talking with a worker in confidence about chronic back pain and headaches that were keeping him from working at his usual pace, and the verbal abuse and threats of dismissal his sluggishness had garnered from the crew leader. Enrique was organizing a discreet way for this worker to obtain medical attention without further infuriating the crew leader, who is skeptical about workers frequenting migrant health clinics and strategically seeks to maintain a barrier between workers and social services, perhaps to protect his own power and limit exposure of the abuses for which crew leaders are known. Whereas FLOC tends to focus its attention and public relations on growers, Enrique sees crew leaders (who recruit, transport, pay, and supervise farmworkers) as the most dangerous part of the labor system. They frequently take advantage of worker vulnerability and the lack of opportunities that recent immigrants and undocumented persons have in the wider economy. They also sometimes use physical and verbal abuse to control workers and illegally deduct fees from paychecks for services like food and transit (Bletzer 2004).

Clinics like the one Enrique works for usually provide a shuttle service that transports workers to and from the labor camp at a date and time that fits with the worker's schedule. In the midst of trying to secretly hatch out a plan to smuggle the worker from the camp at night or on a weekend, such that the crew leader would be unaware, FLOC organizers arrived at the camp. They were visiting various camps, talking with workers, and asking about abuses. One organizer overheard part of Enrique's conversation with the worker and blew up, yelling at the crew leader for inhibiting access to services. The trust Enrique had worked to establish with the worker over a period of several weeks suddenly collapsed. The crew leader barked at Enrique, threatened him with physical abuse, and told him never to return to the camp again, while the chances of that worker getting to the health clinic evaporated. Enrique also senses that the worker probably lost trust in an ability to interact with social service providers. Furthermore, news of his back pain, which the worker tried to keep quiet, reached the crew leader, jeopardizing the worker's status as a viable part of the crew. Enrique told me that FLOC planned to approach the grower who owned this particular camp and demand that he contract with another crew leader. “But that's not easy,” Enrique says. “The grower needs those workers. He needs them tomorrow to bale tobacco. He can't just get rid of the crew.”

Enrique remains despondent about this event, even though he has had positive experiences at other camps and regards FLOC as an indispensable part of farm labor struggles in North Carolina. He sees crew leaders and growers as part of a systematic problem underwritten by government neglect and potentially compounded by interventions, even well-intentioned activities by labor organizers, which blame individuals rather than structures. Enrique tells me:

Farmers say, “The workers destroy the facilities.” The labor advocates say, “The farmers are to blame, because they have bad facilities.” But there is no enforcement. There is no incentive to be good. Why should a worker keep his room clean when it's not a decent place to live? Why should a farmer improve the facilities when there is no enforcement? The conditions destroy the facilities.

In advocating for a broad critique of the conditions themselves, Enrique sounds a lot like a critical medical anthropologist, not surprising for a social medicine practitioner concerned with delivering health care services to a marginalized population. “Structural violence,”Farmer writes, “is violence exerted systematically—that is, indirectly—by everyone who belongs to a certain social order,” which runs against “a moral economy still geared to pinning praise or blame on individual actors” (2004:307).

ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

The project of making farm labor and labor camp conditions more visible through public educational initiatives, social advocacy, and product boycotts is one practical implication of an account of faciality. These activities can put a human face on farm labor and alter what amounts to a stereotyped Face. Faciality matters on the most basic levels of public policy. Public policy debates and measures can challenge or reproduce how bodies, faces, and spaces are facialized and spatialized as alterity.

By federal law, farm employers must comply with requirements for workplace sanitation, such as providing toilet facilities in the field. Until very recently, farmers were noncompliant. In the 1990s, only about 4 percent of North Carolina's farmworkers had access to adequate drinking water, toilets, and hand-washing facilities in fields (Agricultural Missions Incorporated 2000). Workers defecated in the woods, using toilet paper brought from the camp or the leaves of trees and bushes. But the federal government has cracked down on this issue and farmers now uniformly comply. The portable toilet, a Porta Potti, is towed on a flat, steel trailer and driven to the field with the labor crew. But at the farms where I studied, workers did not use the toilet. They called it a “discriminación.”

“We used to shit in the wilderness [el monte],” Bartolo tells me. “In the woods you can be with the animals, be alone, and be quiet. You can think. You can jack off. The woods are cool and refreshing. You are away from work and outside of the field [campo]. The woods remind me of my hometown.” Importantly, migrants commonly use the term monte to refer to the vast expanse of desert, the wilderness that must be traversed on the cross-border trip. In Bartolo's spatial imagination, this expanse is private and concealed space divorced from work and linked to activities of excess and expenditure that do not yield salable commodities: masturbation, defecation, and reminiscence. The wilderness is imagined as punctuated by el campo, a patchwork of clearings (i.e., fields and camps) linked to agricultural production, spaces exposed to the light of capitalist discipline and the labor camp's ceaseless glow.

This spatial imaginary helps us understand why the toilet is seen as discriminatory. Workers describe the law as a racialized form of isolation that makes defecation into a public spectacle, moves them and their bodies into the light of day. The toilet's discriminatory feel comes out of a combination of there being a “Mexican law” and a “law about shit,” as Bartolo complained. “They oblige you to use it. If you are a Mexican, you must use that toilet, you must shit in there. It is a Mexican toilet. It's like the law sees Mexicans as people who shit.” Workers also commonly describe the toilet as uncomfortable and dangerous. Although federal law specifies that the toilet must be “adequately ventilated […] constructed to ensure privacy” (North Carolina Department of Labor 2008:16), the toilet ends up sitting in the sun and becomes unbearably hot and smelly. It is not the least bit private. Typically parked in the front of the field, at the roadside, it is in plain view of motorists.

The toilet law comes out of good intentions that aim to protect and enable migrant life and work. Its reasoning is founded on the sound logic of rights and protections that is applied across other professions. In practice, the toilet interferes with a fleeting experience of freedom and spatializes human biological processes as properly belonging to the campo; shitting is dispossessed, brought from the woods into the john owned by the boss. This biopolitics of defecation reproduces a regime of visibility in which individual bodies—those running for the toilet, for example—are visualized as part of a population associated with trash, filth, and transience. A tobacco field's faciality is profoundly altered when a portable toilet is placed in it. The field looks different, and it looks at one differently. Bartolo calls attention to the power of vision when he says that the law sees Mexicans in a particular way. He knows passing motorists perceive the toilet as part of a moving cultural zone of Mexican space, like labor camps, a landscape facialized as a “recurring, detachable face” that is the “face of the permanently Other” (Taussig 1999:88). Rather than remake migrants' relationship to society, the toilet law, in seeking to dignify work, contributes to the framework of faciality in which Mexicans are associated with manual labor, trashed labor camps, toilet paper on the floor, and, now, roadside defecation.

CONCLUSION

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

The explosive growth of agricultural output and consumer surpluses over the last half-century has been built on the structural violence that puts workers in harm's way, while international agricultural restructuring, persistent government neglect, and cultural barriers such as stereotyping collude to create a context of ethical variability in which farm labor seems undignified and deserving of squalid conditions and inadequate social response. Farm labor advocates realize the power of vision and the face in constituting this system. They utilize faciality in struggles over farmworker rights and social justice—the reproduced images of destitute faces in an Oxfam America report are meant to morally and politically challenge a food system that mystifies labor as faceless beneath the cellophane of product packaging and depersonalizes workers as “machines in the field” (2004; Thompson and Wiggins 2002). The trope of faceless labor is repeated in scholarly literature on farmworkers, evidenced in Daniel Rothenberg's (1998)“hidden world” and Leo R. Chávez's (1992)“shadowed lives.” Although the invisibility of labor is surely a problem on a national level, my analysis suggests that on a local level, in places like rural North Carolina, farm labor is not shadowed. In addition to macro political-economic forces, the perpetuation and justification of structural violence on tobacco farms is the result of a mode of active perception. Faciality is coproduced alongside structural violence and is part of the social constitution of the specific landscapes on which symbolic and material forms of violence are played out. Migrant farmworkers are often viewed through a prism of faciality that frames them and spaces linked to their life and work as “other” and belonging on the “outside.” They are people who do manual field labor under the beating sun, run headlong for the portable toilet, and live in an archipelago of labor camps that are literally not counted in the string of houses that anchor people inside the moving borderlines of community.

Recent efforts to criminalize undocumented individuals and militarize the border reflect a narrow understanding of immigration that seeks to punish individuals—employers and employees—and overlooks the role of macro forces of liberalization in driving transnational labor migration and applying downward pressure on farms (De Genova 2005; Massey et al. 2003). Noncompliance for growers is a beneficial and strategic way to compete in international commodity markets, while consumers, who may know very little about how agricultural products are harvested, reap the benefits of cheaply priced products. To locate growers and workers as part of a shared predicament is not to neglect the division of labor that very clearly exists on farms or to let growers off the hook for noncompliance and prejudice. But, with my informants Enrique and Diego, I find it more helpful to depersonalize blame and spotlight broader conditions that make noncompliance and low wages viable strategies in the first place. As Walter Benjamin writes, “Sudden shifts of power such as are now overdue in our society can make the ability to read facial types a matter of vital importance” (1999:520). Indeed, this was exactly Diego's tactic: to discern in the facial type of the boss traces of structural forces that put both men in a similar situation.

To explore how faces are socially produced and perceived is to gauge the workings of power and resistance in the most intimate of ways. Several practical implications come out of an analysis of faciality as part of structural violence. My analysis suggests that collective responses and farm labor advocacy ought to focus on transforming political-economic conditions and corporate power over agricultural operations, rather than on growers, who seem like a commonsensical target of advocacy because they are often noncompliant. A medical anthropological perspective pushes us to see the structural violence that affects farm labor as originating in economic policies and (a lack of ) government regulation over farm labor conditions. Growers are a node through which harm passes and at which it is localized. Efforts that seek to improve farm labor conditions will be most effective when they do not also facialize growers as blameworthy, because the antagonism tobacco growers exhibit toward workers and labor organizers is partly a face-saving response to the multiple kinds of blame they themselves face—blame for growing a lethal crop, potentially failing as a farmer, illegally hiring undocumented workers, and maintaining substandard labor camps (Benson 2008). Possibilities for collaborative political action between farm labor and management would be enhanced if farm labor advocacy sought to improve economic security among growers along with the conditions of workers. Targeting agribusiness corporations as complicit in localized antagonisms and noncompliance is crucial to such an orientation, as FLOC's successful boycott initiatives show. My analysis of faciality is also useful to an assessment of protective policies, suggesting the importance of ethnographic research on experiential aspects of the farm workplace to determine how a seemingly beneficial measure such as the portable toilet law might actually contribute to stigmatization and social stereotypes. Faciality is ultimately an analytical tool that emphasizes questions of ethics. In directing our attention to how and why people or governments may or may not respond to structural violence, faciality is helpful for organizing political responses that eschew stereotypes and go beyond narrow framings of blame to bring social systems into account.

NOTES

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
  16. REFERENCES CITED

Acknowledgments

Acknowledgments This essay significantly benefited from the time and resources provided by the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University, where I completed it as a postdoctoral fellow in 2007–08, and from stimulating conversations with the program directors Jim Scott and Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan and program fellows, especially Stuart Kirsch. Research for this essay was funded by an Individual Research Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and, at Harvard University, the Center for American Political Studies, the Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Graduate Society, and the Hemenway Fellowship of American Ethnology. This essay benefited from comments offered during public presentations at the Center for International Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture at Vanderbilt University, the University at Albany, the University of Georgia, Harvard University (esp. the Political Ecology Working Group), the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Washington University in St. Louis. Thanks for the support and guidance of former colleagues at the National Institute for Tobacco-Free Kids, where I was a researcher in 2003. Thanks also to Allan Brandt, Will Day, Virginia Dominguez, Ted Fischer, Zahra Jamal, Arthur Kleinman, Randy Matory, Mark Nichter, Mary Steedly, Ajantha Subramanian, Kedron Thomas, and James Watson as well as to CA editors Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun and anonymous reviewers for extensive and extremely helpful comments.

1. All names that appear in this essay are pseudonyms.

2. Bartolo is not a crew leader (i.e., a labor recruiter), a term described later. He lives with the crew in the labor camp and, having worked for Craig for successive years and being able to speak more English than other migrants, is considered the foreman and charged with operating the van and dispensing paychecks. Craig does not employ a crew leader. Instead, he recruits workers by word of mouth and solicitations posted at local laundromats and grocery stores.

3. In the peak tobacco harvest season (late June to early October) employees work between 35 and 50 hours per week without overtime pay, earning the federal minimum hourly wage, which amounts to a few hundred dollars weekly. About half of the 2.5 million individuals employed in U.S. agriculture earn less than $8,000 per year, making farm labor one of the country's poorest social classes. Relative agricultural wages have fallen by 10 percent since the late 1980s (Oxfam America 2004:12). Among other problems, such as exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, tobacco workers are commonly afflicted with “green tobacco sickness,” which results from dermal exposure to dissolved nicotine from wet tobacco leaves and induces nausea, vomiting, headache, and breathing problems, among other symptoms (Arcury et al. 2001, 2003).

4. The phenomenology of perception is a subfield of phenomenology that comes out of Edmund Husserl's concern with acts of intentionality that constitute human perception. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2002) expanded beyond the Cartesian underpinnings of Husserl's work to develop a more dynamic and worldly sense of perception as constituted at the nexus of consciousness, body, and world. The phenomenological analyses undertaken in this article are influenced by this social approach to how people see themselves and others (see Lingis 1998; Schutz 1967).

5. On the role of the face in marking race and class differences, see Roland Barthes's (1972:56–57) analysis of Greta Garbo, Sander L. Gilman's (2001) cultural histories of plastic surgery and the aesthetics of anti-Semitism, and Kathleen Stewart's (2002) analysis of facial gesture and cultural style in photographs of Appalachian people.

6. Hispanic migrant farmworkers distinguish North Carolina's camps from rental housing (casas de renta) found in Florida, where workers pay rent to contractors or growers. The term casa is almost never used to describe housing facilities in North Carolina.

7. For more on the micropolitics of race and class at the tobacco farm workplace, see Benson (2008). Editor's Note: Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays on migrant labor. See, for example, Shao Jing's“Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006); Yan Hairong's“Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks” (2003); and Adeline Masquelier's“Of Headhunters and Cannibals: Migrancy, Labor, and Consumption in the Mawri Imagination” (2000). Cultural Anthropology has also published other essays on Mexicana/o politics in the United States. See, for example, Michael J. Montoya's“Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research” (2007); Laura A. Lewis's“Of Ships and Saints: History, Memory, and Place in the Making of Moreno Mexican Identity” (2001); and Arlene Dávila's“Latinizing Culture: Art, Museums, and the Politics of U.S. Multicultural Encompassment” (1999).

REFERENCES CITED

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. PAYDAY
  4. FACING STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
  5. FARM LABOR AND LABOR CAMPS
  6. FACIALITY
  7. CULTURE OF BLAME
  8. FACE TIME
  9. INSOMNIA
  10. FACE-OBJECT
  11. DIVISIONS OF LABOR
  12. STRATEGIC ESSENTIALISM AND VISIBILITY IN FARM LABOR STRUGGLES
  13. ANOTHER TOILET PROBLEM
  14. CONCLUSION
  15. NOTES
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