This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd. #AmAnth17
By Angela Stuesse, author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South
In 2004 I moved to Scott County, Mississippi, where new Latin American immigrants, recruited by the area’s poultry industry, were arriving from across the continent. There I joined a budding coalition of immigrant and civil rights advocates, communities of faith, union leaders, employment justice attorneys, and working people who were grappling with the changes happening in their neighborhoods and workplaces.
For six years I contributed to their efforts to create a workers’ center to support poultry workers in defense of their rights. I also conducted research on how the area’s transformations came about, their relationship to longstanding political economies of race in the South, and their impacts on poultry workers, their communities, and possibilities for workplace justice. A decade later I told this story in my book, Scratching Out a Living.
While I eventually left Mississippi, many of the relationships I built there were deep, rooted in personal commitment and political struggle. This is especially true of the bonds I formed with injured workers. As Coordinator of the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center’s Workplace Injury Project, I spent thousands of hours advocating on behalf of injured workers, including 100+ trips to doctors and lawyers in which I served as interpreter and advocate.
Nearly half of those doctor’s visits were with Gaudenico, who lost part of his hand in a gruesome workplace accident when he was just 17 years old. We spent the next year in surgeries and physical therapy together, including countless hours of conversations on the road to and from appointments. He took to wearing a glove to hide his twisted and amputated digits, a practice I couldn’t convince him to shake. When he returned to Veracruz a few years later, at first he called periodically to give me updates on his life back home, but eventually we lost touch. The number I had for him stopped working, and his phone calls ceased.
This semester I have been on research leave in Mexico, and last weekend, while attending the XVIII Encuentro de Pueblos Negros in Veracruz, my young children and I embarked on a journey in search of Gaudenico. I had no idea whether I might find him in his village, living in a nearby city, back in the United States, or even alive, but I’ve long wondered what became of him, and I couldn’t let the opportunity pass us by. Armed with his birth certificate, an old student ID, a handful of photos, and bunches of curiosity, we headed into the mountains of Veracruz.
While inquiring about the best routes and state of the rural dirt roads at our hotel, an employee called her father, a retired long-haul trucker from the area, for guidance. Don Tibursio offered to accompany us on our journey, and we were delighted to have a local guide and native Nahautl speaker on our team. Several hours into our journey, talking to folks in the town where the asphalt ended led us to believe we could reach Gaudenico’s community along a sharp shale road up the mountain in 1-2 hours, as long as we had a spare tire and attempted by day. But nearly to the village, my realization that I had failed to fill the gas tank that morning forced us to turn back.
I felt a flood of disappointment as we searched for gas in the town where the asphalt ended. We had come so far but had been unable to find Gaudenico or his family. Don Tibursio insisted it was too late in the day to make a second attempt. Not to be defeated, after partially filling the tank with a questionable substance using a homemade soda bottle funnel, I started asking who in town might have contact with people in Gaudenico’s village.
We eventually found ourselves in the home of a woman who had married a man from the village. Though skeptical at first, her husband shared by phone that he knew the family. He had seen Gaudenico sometime in the last few years and believed he was living several hours away in the city of Xalapa. Unable to stay, I left a note for Gaudencio, one for his mother, and a copy of my book along with a request that they be delivered. I hoped that one day with the help of kind strangers and technology I might hear from one of them.
Little did I know that my notes would be taken to Gaudencio’s mother in person by someone heading up the mountain that very night! My phone rang early the next morning. The delight in Gaudenico’s voice when I answered matched my own, and he wept as he told me of the time nearly a decade ago that his phone was stolen and all his contacts lost. Our families joyfully met up later that day outside of Xalapa. “I love you like a sister, and I’ll never forget the role you played at such an important time in my life,” he said as he held my hand. “I didn’t do anything,” I replied. “It was what anyone would do when seeing another human being suffer. I’ve missed you.”
What a heartwarming reunion it was. At 30 years old, today Gaudencio is married with an infant daughter. He drives a taxi for a living. He appears happy and healthy, and his disability doesn’t seem to slow him down in the least. Oh, and that glove he used to wear? He proudly boasts that he tossed it as soon as he returned to Mexico. Today we’re all smiling, inside and out.
Angela Stuesse is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her book, Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South, has been selected as the recipient of the 2017 Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology (SLACA) Book Prize, to be awarded at this week’s American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington, DC. Learn more about Stuesse’s work at www.AngelaStuesse.com.