Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

By Peter Benson | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
El Campo

Payday

FRIDAY IS PAYDAY ON THE FARM. At noon, before heading back 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. It contains a dozen paychecks, each in a sealed envelope. He gives one of the envelopes to Diego, an older, frail man who moved to the United States from Central Mexico during the late 1970s’ wave of Mexican immigration. Diego has worked in various regions and sectors of the U.S. economy, recently settling in North Carolina. His checkered shirt is unbuttoned and his hairless chest is 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 run-down 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, pickled carrots, onions, and chili peppers—and relax before returning to the afternoon’s tobacco grind.1

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 farmwork. Campo also refers to a field where crops are cultivated and the housing facility, the labor camp, where workers reside. In North Carolina’s coastal plain, it is as if campo were not just this or that thing, but the social condition of farm labor itself, characterized by interlocking

1 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.

-166-

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Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I- The Tobacco Industry, Public Health, and Agrarian Change 35
  • Chapter 1- Most Admired Company 37
  • Chapter 2- The Jungle 63
  • Chapter 3- Enemies of Tobacco 96
  • Part II- Innocence and Blame in American Society 133
  • Chapter 4- Good, Clean Tobacco 135
  • Chapter 5- El Campo 166
  • Chapter 6- Sorriness 210
  • Conclusion Reflections on the Tobacco Industry (and American Exceptionalism) 258
  • Bibliography 275
  • Index 307
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