In this era of American ethnic cleansing, the roundup and deportation of Latin American migrants to a near certain fate of poverty and shockingly likely fates of violence and death to make white people feel good about themselves is one of the most depressing facets of the United States. What most of us may well realize, if we stop to think about it, is that we don’t know who these people are. They surround us and they play an integral role in our economy, but we don’t know any of them. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but most people don’t know the first thing about these people. That so many of the industries where they work are isolated only adds to this. In Out of Sight, I talked about how one facet of capital mobility remained internal, even as global capitalism becomes ever more entrenched. For a number of reasons, it often makes sense for production to continue taking place inside the U.S., but the principles of capital mobility still apply–move to places where you can bust unions and control workers, while hiding every part of the process from the broader public. Meatpacking is first among these, as the Eisenhower administration and farm state interests intentionally undermined the United Packinghouse Workers of America-organized Chicago meat processors in the 1950s as a way to lower meat prices. Meatpacking went to places in rural Iowa and Kansas and that’s where immigrants go today to work.
Ann Sittig is a Spanish instructor who used to work at a community college in Nebraska. She got to know the Mayan immigrants from Guatemala who were working in the meatpacking plants scattered around the state, where they became major parts of a lot of small towns. Martha Florinda Gonzalez is a Mayan migrant herself who was Sittig’s first interview. Together, they interviewed immigrants laboring in these meatpacking plants about their lives. They chose mostly women, but there is one man included. The great value of The Mayans Among Us is simply in presenting the lives of these unknown Americans to you. It is worth reading for this. That’s really the book’s point. It seeks to honor these women and their stories. They aren’t exceptional women. They are just regular women who have come to the United States to flee violence, political or domestic. They get involved in churches, Catholic or evangelical. They send money back home or they start entire new families in the United States. They build communities here at the same time that they long to return home. They work very hard. They live their lives the best they can in a foreign land, not dissimilar to so many millions of immigrants in the past and the present.
The book does a good job at situating all of this in the revolutions, civil wars, and U.S. interference that have rocked Guatemalan society in the last century. The women tell their stories to Sittig and Gonzalez, often not thinking they are that big of a deal and wondering why anyone would be interested, but then revealing their inner stories which are often quite powerful. Maybe these women aren’t exactly Rigoberta Menchu, who frames the book and its participants, but their lives were touched by violence in profound ways and in any case, the poverty they faced drove many into the U.S. anyway. They struggled at home, risked their lives to cross the border, and rebuilt their lives in a new land. Sure, many would like to go home, and occasionally some do, but to do so requires either moving back to poverty and violence at home or again go into debt and risk death crossing the border. What drives me crazy about the immigration debate is the inability of people who oppose immigration to put themselves in the place of migrants, understanding how it tears at the heartstrings to realize your parents may well be dying at home and you can’t see them, nor may you ever see your homeland again. It’s really quite devastating, even if you are a supporter of immigration and believe that we should have more of it.
The only real weakness of the book is not really a weakness, but rather a matter of how academic studies and publishing goes. The interviews in this book range back well over 10 years now and the process between interviews and book publication was a long one, which can make one wonder how relevant they are for the current time. However, in the world of oral history and anthropology and other such fields that rely on this method, this is hardly uncommon. And for a such as this one, where the situation for these workers has become worse even since the book’s publication, simply placing yourself in these people’s life histories has tremendous value and makes it well worth a read for anyone who needs to understand more about the lives of immigrants, which is nearly all of us.