Academic journal article Human Organization

Racial Triangulation of Latino/a Workers by Agricultural Employers

Academic journal article Human Organization

Racial Triangulation of Latino/a Workers by Agricultural Employers

Article excerpt

Tree-fruit production in the US Northwest relies heavily on seasonal workers who for many years have come primarily from Mexico and Central America. Racialization of that worker population on the part of employers and communities maintains a markedly stratified labor force. This paper examines racial triangulation, or the valuation and placement of racial groups in a field of racial positions relative to one another and along two axes: superior/inferior and insider/outsider, as one key dimension of the racialization of workers by employers. Specifically, employers valorize Latino/a workers relative to White workers. Significantly also, employers make distinctions between recent and settled immigrants and consistently articulate a preference for recently-arrived immigrants, citing their good work ethic, lack of complaining, and a lack of shame in doing manual work. Further, employers claim that the longer Latino/a workers are in the United States, the more these virtues recede, thus effectively justifying and privileging the hiring of new or recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America over settled workers from those areas. Employers argue that those workers who have become settled in the United States become "Americanized" and "lazy," do not want to work as hard, and want more money and time off. Finally, employers mobilize notions of immutable cultural difference to explain the division of labor and the channeling of ethnoracial groups into different kinds of jobs. Implications of the racial triangulation framework for race theory and practical implications for immigrant workers and community building are examined.

Key words: racialization, racial triangulation, relative valorization, civic ostracism, agricultural work, Latino/a labor


Racialization, or the everyday production, reproduction, and contest over racialized meanings and structures, is a constitutive element of the experience of immigrant workers in the United States. US workplaces are heavily segmented along racial and ethnic lines, with workers routinely being channeled into highly segregated occupations. Research suggests that such segregation has systematic negative impacts for workers who enter "minority occupations." Specifically, occupations with high concentrations of ethnic minorities-such as those that Latino/a immigrants enter predominantly-tend to be characterized by depressed wages and involve little to no possibility of mobility (Hossfeld 1993; Tomaskovic-Devey 1993; Hirsch and Schumacher 1992; Catanzarite 2000; 2002; Catanzarite and Aguilera 2002; Kmec 2003). In addition, employers in US workplaces routinely use race as a proxy for skill and as an indicator for the desirability and quality of workers (Kirschenman and Neckerman 1991; Moss and Tilly 2001; Shih 2002; Maldonado 2004). Indeed, employers habitually valorize and rank workers along racial and ethnic lines. Studies show, for example, that employers value the labor of Latino/a and Asian immigrant workers relative to the labor of White and Black Americans (Hossfeld 1993; Griffith 1993; Moss and Tilly 2001; Kirschenman and Neckerman 1991; Waldinger 1003; Shih 2002; Maldonado 2004). Notably also, immigrant labor from developing countries is often constructed and rendered-symbolically and materially-as cheap and disposable through entrenched racial ideologies and through racialized everyday institutional practices (Maldonado 2004).

Hence, as immigrant workers from Latin America continue to enter and transform workplaces in the United States, becoming the primary labor force in many low-wage occupations, it becomes crucial to understand how they are racialized1 in such work contexts, and how their racialization affects the conditions and experiences they face, and the dynamics that unfold as a result in workplaces and communities.

Study Site and Methodology

This article is based on research conducted in the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan valleys of Central Washington, a region that is the hub of labor-intensive tree fruit production in the state of Washington. …

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