The following post is a contribution from Ann Sittig, co-author of The Mayans Among Us: Migrant Women and Meatpacking on the Great Plains (Nebraska, 2016).
A recent article in the Lincoln Journal Star pointed out the growing immigrant role in Nebraska and outlined the state-by-state findings on the impact of immigration as reported by the Partnership for a New American Economy. The study noted that the vast majority of Nebraska’s immigrants are in their prime working years, and they do the labor-intensive work in the meatpacking and service industries that many Americans simply do not pursue. They also make local and federal tax contributions and pay into retirement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The article stated that updating immigration laws will preserve family unity as well, whereas the report focuses on the fact that supporting immigrant labor is also wise economic policy.
The current presidential campaign has included anti-immigrant rhetoric calling for the deportation of the estimated 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the US, approximately 41,484 of which live in Nebraska, as well as the construction of physical barriers to keep additional immigrants out. Conversely, many economists and some business leaders are focusing on the benefits immigrant labor brings to the economy, as well as encouraging immigration reform that will offer a pathway to citizenship. It’s disappointing that the value placed on certain human beings’ presence seemingly boils down to whether they are providing stimulation to a state’s economy, but hopefully we have not reached a point in our civilization in which economic gain is our major objective.
According to the New American Economy study, immigrants made up seventy seven percent of the butchers and other meat, poultry, and fish processing workers in Nebraska in 2014. Our book, The Mayans Among Us: Migrant Women and Meatpacking on the Great Plains narrates immigrant Mayan women’s stories of their journey to find economic security by leaving Guatemala to seek out labor opportunities in the US. We interviewed Mayan women working in the meatpacking plants in eastern Nebraska in an effort to elucidate their situation as immigrants, a reality shared by many in the US. Our book details the way war had emptied their country of resources, leaving the population largely impoverished, and it narrates how each woman finally made the decision to abandon her homeland in search of economic stability, leaving family, and often children, behind. It also reveals the dignified nature of their family lives and their dedication to their jobs as they seek to subsist and survive in a new country, hoping to provide a better life for their children. Their journey, largely on foot, across two highly patrolled borders, coupled with all the adversity they met along the way, somehow resulted in their safe arrival in the small meatpacking cities of eastern Nebraska where they have managed to find beneficial work. The women appreciate the employment they have and the money that affords them the chance to assist their local and extended families. In getting to know the women throughout the process of interviewing and observation, their deep spiritual and religious practice stood out as the center of their lives and families, providing a source of socialization for many of the newcomers.
I grew up in Nebraska. For as long as I can remember, my friends’ Czech grandparents made us kolaches and served us roast pork with bread dumplings and sauerkraut. When the Catholic Social Services welcomed Cuban refugees into our community, my new first grade classmate immediately began teaching me Spanish; at their house I experienced my first black beans and rice, and the limitless bounds of a language I would learn to live in and love. Later the Vietnamese refugees arrived and opened small Asian food stores, and restaurants where we enjoyed their noodle soups and fried rice with stir-fried vegetables, accompanied by pots of steaming jasmine and oolong tea. Nowadays, while conducting research for the book, we noted the newly arrived presence of Mayans, Sudanese, and Somalis around the meatpacking plants and enjoyed some of the best Salvadoran pupusas on earth, taking in the new multilingual and multicultural essence in these small rural Nebraska cities. Nebraska has a well-deserved reputation for attracting immigrants and providing them with work opportunities, but I’d like to believe it’s also because of the warm, authentic kindness, and openness that defines Nebraskans, rather than imagining that immigrants are accepted into our local fabric as a source of stimulation for the state’s economy.
I would like to invite you to give our book a read, to consider the effects of war on economies that are already weakened, and to ask yourself what you would have done if you had found yourself in their situation of extreme postwar poverty. The women were thankful to tell their stories and have them written down; many of them arrived in Nebraska speaking only their Mayan languages. Learning Spanish, and later English, is some far-off dream, delayed while doing physical labor forty hours a week, as well as tending to their house and caring for their children. Their contact with locals is limited due to their language barrier and their work obligations. We wrote this book in the hopes that it would create more understanding and compassion for immigrants living in Nebraska. Possibly, if each of us conducted a genealogical study of our own backgrounds, we would realize we have all come from a long line of immigrants that built up this nation.
The Mayans Among Us seeks to find the place where we will consider other people’s realities and strive to share this planet in a collective way rather than an individual way. We hope you will read their stories to learn more about their journeys here, their lives in eastern Nebraska, and the present day challenges of Mayan women working in the meatpacking plants of the Great Plains.