- On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South by Vanesa Ribas
Drive though just about any out-of-the-way southern town these days and you will pass a convenience store selling phone cards for Mexico and Guatemala, Goya products, and fresh empanadas. Across the street, shuttered Long John Silver’s and Pizza Hut outlets have been reopened as La Cabana or Mi Casita restaurants, and they are not just selling piping-hot enchilada combo plates to long-time residents. They are selling more authentic dishes as well. A number of scholars from a number of fields have already written important and detailed accounts of the emergence and meaning of this Nuevo South. In her new book, On the Line, sociologist Vanesa Ribas adds to this literature and offers fresh insights and observations on race, migration, work, and community
A native Spanish speaker, Ribas spent a remarkable sixteen months between August 2009 and December 2010 working in the packing rooms at what she calls Swine Inc., a large slaughterhouse located in a small town in North Carolina. On top of that, she spent countless hours socializing with her coworkers, talking about love and sex and work and family outside the factory. In addition, she conducted twenty-five in-depth interviews with Latina/o and African American workers. Based on her research, Ribas maintains that the workplace, more than the neighborhood or religious or political institutions, represents the essential site of socialization and conflict in the Nuevo South and the best place to observe and understand the region’s increasingly complex multicultural social relations.
The first big sociological idea that Ribas takes on is the notion of “ethnic succession” (see, for instance, Roger Waldinger, “Still the Promised City”? African-Americans and New Immigrants in Postindustrial New York [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996]). As it applies to the history of work in the South, this idea suggests that when locals did not want to do the dirty jobs of killing and breaking down animals anymore or would not work in such unsafe and violent places for minimum wages anymore, employers, unwilling to make any concessions, brought in new workers from outside the community who were willing to do this labor at the prevailing rate or even lower. As a result, the new group replaced the old group. Yet at Swine Inc., Ribas observes, things did not unfold so clearly or neatly. African Americans and a few whites continued to work on the line even after Mexicans, then Central Americans and Caribbean-born laborers got hired. The next idea that Ribas challenges is the idea of ethnic competition. According to this notion, the replaced group typically harbors hostility toward the group that took its jobs. But even though African Americans did lose out somewhat to Latino laborers, they did not, Ribas notes, express fierce animosity toward them. In marked contrast to the conclusions put forth in recent research on the topic of intergroup relations in the US South, African American workers did not talk or behave as if they felt especially threatened [End Page 104] by economic, political, or cultural competition from Latino migrants. This finding held true regardless of whether African Americans were the majority or the minority in a specific department at Swine Inc.
Latino workers, however, displayed dramatically different responses to race in the workplace. To get at their views and ideas, Ribas, in an interesting section of the book, goes back to the sender nations. She explains that Mexicans, Salvadorians, and Hondurans each had their own history with race and with notions of blackness and otherness. At Swine, however, these differences seem to largely melt away. Linguistic boundaries help to create a Latino panethnicity, Ribas suggests, that expressed itself most clearly in the plant around issues of race.
“Tomorrow,” one of Ribas’s coworkers told her, “I’m coming in painted black, so I don’t have to work” (93). That telling quote frames a crucial chapter in the book and encapsulates, according to...