Buiilding a new world in the midst of the surreal


South of the Border (SC) , FLOC (NC), Hazelton, PA and a quick trip to Florida

This past week has been very interesting. I rented a car in Columbia, S. Carolina and begin making my way back to Central N. Carolina to visit with the folks at FLOC. Sherry had told me to be on the lookout for a tacky place near the S. Carolina-N. Carolina border if I came up I-95. I couldn’t miss it because for at least a hundred miles out there were numerous billboards advertising this gaudy tourist attraction–though it seemed to be so may things I couldn’t quite figure out what it was until I saw it with my own eyes.

From July-December 2007 I’ll be biking across the U.S. This experience will be the basis for book that follows José Martí’s 1891 call in “Our America” for a distinctively American culture, one that embraces rather than denies, the dynamic and organic relationship between place, language, and experience that shapes the American continent. In the blog I’ll document the exchanges I have with people about the Latinoization of the U.S. as well as my own life experiences and thoughts.

I arrived to the neon monstrosity fairly late–around 11:00PM. It’s not a town, at least not in the typical sense, but a stop about one mile south of N. Carolina that includes restaurants, campgrounds, gas station, a tobacco store, an amusement park, shops, ice cream parlor, and so on–all based on some godawful South of the Border theme that makes Taco Bell look sophisticated in comparison. Here you can find Pedro’s Campground next to larger than life images of sleeping Mexicans. This is among a variety of other caricatures and images meant to evoke someone’s idea of Mexicanness intended for amusement and easy consumption. It’s other worldly alright. No wonder the alien moniker has such enduring force in regions where one-dimensional, ahistorical, caricatures reign supreme. Below is some text from a website that documents and celebrates the origins of this “dis-traction”. A living testament to how people’s ideas can live outside of time. Most of the places were closed or closing when I was there. i decided to go into the gift shop to take a look and I swear the two young clerks did a double take when I walked in. Seeing a real Mexican in their midst must have confused them!

South Of The Border (or SOB, as it’s known to insiders) is a unique amalgam of Dixie and Old Mexico. At first you wonder what all this Mexican stuff is doing in South Carolina, thousands of miles from its natural habitat. But in a remarkably short time you’ll accept SOB as a neon yellow and pink Tijuana, with the one added benefit that its inhabitants speak English and its water is safe to drink. (http://www.roadsideamerica.com/attract/SCDILsob.html)

Lisa Sass Zaragoza helped me make contact with FLOC executive director, Baldemar Velasquez, to give the folks at FLOC a heads up about my desire to stop in and visit with them. FLOC is a legendary farm worker union based in Toldeo, Ohio who opened a permanent office in the small town of Dudley, NC (just outside of Goldsboro) after they successfully won a huge case against the Mt. Olive Pickle company following a five year campaign.

In 2004 FLOC signed a collective bargaining agreement with Mount Olive and the growers. More than 6,000 of the state’s 10,000 guest workers joined FLOC. As Leticia Zavala, the young union organizer (and mother of an infant son) told me, one of the reasons this was such an historic victory was that more than 1,000 growers agreed to form the North Carolina Growers Association. In doing so, they also agreed to act as the employers’ collective bargaining agent. More importantly, this agreement marked the first time an American labor union represented guest workers. FLOC quickly established a program to bring guest workers into the United States under the H-2A temporary guest worker visa program. According to Leticia, they are the nation’s largest utilizer of the H-2A.

Leticia immigrated to the US in the mid-80s with her family. They became part of the migrant stream, working throughout the mid-west. Eventually, they came to N. Carolina and the family stayed year round on the east coast. After high school she attended South Florida University and majored in Business Administration. She got a job as a union organizer after graduating. When I asked her if she used her degree, she laughed and said it was helpful in organizing economic boycotts. The FLOC offices are run by a small staff but it was clear that they are much more than just a union–they (the workers, union staff, and community members) see themselves building a social movement of workers, advocating for fair and human working conditions, but also social justice in the largest sense of the word. FLOC is one of the few unions that successfully operates transnationally. They organize guest workers in Mexico by not only recruiting them but informing them of their rights as workers and meeting with extended family members in Mexico so they can feel secure that their loved ones are part of a larger community here in the US when they come to work.

FLOC’s latest campaign is focused on the tobacco industry. In addition to seeking fair wage, there are a number of deplorable working conditions that have to be addressed. Many workers suffer from nicotine exposure in the fields and receive no health protections or compensation when this occurs. Leticia and I spoke briefly about tensions between immigrant workers and African Americans. She said that most of this tension revolves around manufacturing jobs because there is little competition for field work since it is not work local people want to do. More than 90%+ of agricultural workers in N. Carolina are Latino.

The FLOC offices in Dudley are housed in a beautiful multi-functional building that serves as not only union offices, but playground, community gathering space for quinceneras, picnics, church services, and so on. The land was donated by a highly respected elder of the community, a diminutive in stature but huge at heart woman named Angelita who is originally from San Antonio. As Angelita explained to me, she has done any and all kinds of jobs possible. She left San Antonio and became a migrant worker because she was worried about her children being susceptible to big city influences of crime and drugs. Several years back she opened up a store, Las Palmitas, to serve the needs of the small but growing migrant community in N. Carolina. This business is successful but some of her other ventures, including a construction company that pursued state contracts, have not fared as well.

In the area around FLOC a little barrio is emerging with several businesses surrounding the offices. Seventh Day Adventists hold church services once a week at the offices.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO is both a social movement and a labor union. Our immediate constituency is migrant workers in the agricultural industry, but we are also involved with immigrant workers, Latinos, our local communities, and national and international coalitions concerned with justice. The FLOC vision emphasizes human rights as the standard and self-determination as the process for achieving these rights. We struggle for full justice for those who have been marginalized and exploited for the benefit of others, and we have sought to change the structures of society to enable these people a direct voice in their own conditions. (Above paragraph from http://www.floc.com/)