"Don't Let Them Make You Feel You Did a Crime": Immigration Law, Labor Rights, and Farmworker Testimony

By Shea, Anne | MELUS, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

"Don't Let Them Make You Feel You Did a Crime": Immigration Law, Labor Rights, and Farmworker Testimony


Shea, Anne, MELUS


"Now as farmworker women, we're educating ourselves. We're helping other farmworker women to know their rights. We have conferences where we teach women how to defend themselves, how to get legal assistance, how to sue.... We also have conferences on domestic violence, sexual harassment, pesticides, and AIDS" (Rothenberg 57). Maria Carmona, one of the founders of the Women's Leadership Project, illustrates how migrant workers deploy various strategies of resistance through which they struggle against forms of coercion exercised by the state and transnational capital. The Farmworker Women's Leadership Project, as well as unions such as the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), represents strategies of formal, organized opposition. The struggle for a safe working environment, a living wage, and a measure of control over the workplace has been at the center of migrant laborers' political battles.

Yet, these battles are waged not only through the picket line, the strike, and the ballot box but also through the production of narratives that articulate forms of oppositional knowledge and identity. Transnational capital generates discursive strategies that create racial, national, and gendered divisions of labor that target specific bodies for specific kinds of work. Producing truth claims, these discourses seek to contain resistance and coerce workers into compliance. In worker testimony, we witness how farm laborers analyze, critique, and resist these discourses. Through narrative, workers engage in struggle over the truth claims produced by power. Migrant laborers not only generate oppositional knowledge about the workplace and their labor, but also redefine "the family" and "the self." In this essay I analyze hegemonic narratives about migrant labor, and I consider the forms of cultural resistance produced by workers through testimony. (1) I discuss the novel Under the Feet of Jesus, arguing that Helena Maria Viramontes not only critiques the prevailing discourses of criminality that serve to legitimize the exploitation of migrant labor but also offers tools for intervention into the current legal and representational practices that seek to define migrant workers through essentializing race and gender stereotypes.

Contemporary narratives featuring the stereotype of the "illegal alien" suppress the long history of migration between the United States and Mexico. Putting aside for a moment the larger issues raised by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the United States appropriation of land formerly owned by Mexico, the United States has relied upon labor from Mexico throughout the twentieth century. In the first quarter of the last century, agricultural interests began to pressure the US government to facilitate the use of Mexican agricultural workers in the fields. In 1925, one year after the Border Patrol was created, the Department of Labor and the Immigration Bureau initiated programs attempting to restrict Mexican immigration to those who were either already employed or guaranteed employment on US farms. Some of the very same immigration laws which had been used to exclude the Chinese in the nineteenth century (the head tax, literacy requirements, public charge provisions, and the Alien Contract Labor Law) were waived to ensure the flow of Mexican farm workers into the fields. During the Depression, these immigration laws, still on the books, were used to restrict Mexican immigration, and, in Los Angeles from 1929 to 1935, 80,000 people of Mexican descent, regardless of their legal right to be in the United States, were deported to Mexico.

In 1942, as World War II produced another labor shortage, an Executive Order initiated the bracero program which recruited four to five million Mexicans to work in the United States. At the end of the war, while employers were still bringing in workers, the federal government instituted large-scale expulsions of Mexican immigrants in the mass militarized roundups of 1954 and 1955. …

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