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1,000 Miles of Hope, Heartache

COLUMN ONE

Aspiring factory workers abandon desperate lives to enter human pipeline from Mexican border to poultry jobs in Middle America. 'If you're expecting Disneyland,' a recruiter says, 'this ain't the place.'

November 10, 1996|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EDINBURG, Texas — On a sweltering South Texas afternoon, the kind that stifles everything but the cactus and mesquite, Greyhound bus No. 6462 pulled away from the Mexican border and set off for the American heartland. We were headed north to work, seven strangers and I, none too certain of where we would end up or what to expect once we arrived.

We'd all seen the help-wanted ad offering to send us to Missouri, to a place where the chicken factories were hiring. "No experience needed, we train," it had said in English and Spanish. "Transportation provided and housing available. Good starting wages." Those lines had been running in the local papers for more than a year, passed from one family to another like word of a cockfight in the shantytowns of the Rio Grande.

It didn't matter that few could have pointed to Missouri on a map. It didn't matter that a chicken factory, whatever went on there, couldn't possibly be very pleasant. These borderlands already had shown what they were about, the Texas side floundering under one of America's highest unemployment rates, and its southern neighbor many times the worse. Hitting the road surely offered better odds than staying put.

I pressed my damp back against the cool window of the bus, studying the travelers who would become my co-workers and roommates. To my left was Erasmo, a young Texas native in a Mickey Mouse shirt and Nikes who made the sign of a cross over his heart as soon as we lurched out of the station. To my right was Antonio, a stern, leathery veteran of Mexico's oil fields who left a trail of cigarette butts on the ground before taking his seat. Somewhere in the back, Roberto already was asleep, snuggling up with the plastic grocery bags that served as his luggage.

Twenty-four hours up the road, in an emerald, spring-fed corner of the Ozarks, Hudson Foods Inc. was facing the opposite quandary. Its customers--everyone from Wal-Mart to Hooters to Safeway--kept demanding more chicken. The appetite seemed insatiable, stoked by the public's desire for health-conscious meals. Hudson expanded, running its machinery on overtime, but orders still went unfilled. There just weren't enough people in this part of Missouri, at least not enough willing to take a job plucking chickens.

Although it sounds peculiar in an era of corporate downsizing and global labor markets, many U.S. companies are finding themselves similarly short-handed, often saddled with hundreds of vacancies at a time. The problem is most severe in unskilled and low-wage fields, especially in the Midwest and Southeast, where booming economies have shrunk unemployment rates almost to zero. Hudson, like a growing number of those firms, finally went looking for help in one place as desperate as it: the Mexican frontier.

To learn more about that human pipeline and the mutual necessity that fuels it, I came to the Rio Grande Valley last summer and answered the ad for a chicken job.

That act launched me on a weeklong odyssey, beginning here in the southern tip of Texas, where I showed up with only a few changes of secondhand clothes. It ended 1,000 miles away in tiny Noel, Mo., where I was outfitted with a hairnet, earplugs and a plastic apron, then ordered to hook raw chickens onto a shackle line until 2 a.m.

Along the way, my colleagues became confidants. We ate together and slept together. We gave each other nicknames and showed off family photos. Even after submitting my resignation at Hudson, I continued to visit, each time learning new details about the lives of my companeros.

This is the story of that journey up "the chicken trail," a route forged by thousands of Mexican and Mexican American workers every year.

It reflects a nationwide shift in Latino migration, not unlike the great exodus of Southern blacks to Northern cities after World War II, or the westward flight of Dust Bowl refugees during the Depression. It has expanded the concept of migrant labor to include not just the farm, but the factory, an evolution that federal regulations have been slow to address. It also has transported the nation's immigration debate beyond the border states of California and Texas and into some of the most insular pockets of Middle America--places with little exposure to another culture or race.

The moment they set foot on the bus, Erasmo, Antonio and Roberto joined that transformation. Only I had a ticket out. Even if "the chicken trail" led to a dead end, they'd have to earn their passage home.

GETTING HIRED

The journey, for all of us, began in here: an old house tucked behind a Chevrolet dealership near a banner spanning this town's main drag. "Welcome to Edinburg," it said. "All-America City." The house had two benches outside and a sign of its own. "B. Chapman & Co." it said. "Labor Recruiting."

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