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For Determined Factory Hands, Hope Quickly Fades

Labor: Many workers find rigors of poultry industry unbearable. Annual turnover at plant tops 100%.

November 11, 1996|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time I returned again two months later, only La Flaquencia and Baldemar were still at the Ginger Blue. I knocked on the door of my old room, but the men living there were strangers; I finally found my friends in a far-off corner of the lodge.

It was noon, and La Flaquencia was sitting in a chair, alone, in the dark. I startled him when I walked in. He'd been meditating and didn't recognize me right away.

"What a miracle," he said. We took a drive in my rental car, ending up at a small park in Noel, alongside the river.

By then, I'd learned that La Flaquencia didn't owe his fragility just to the gentleness of his soul. During his stressful years as an accountant in Mexico, he told me, a doctor had begun prescribing Valium. For much of the next decade, he said, he'd lived on a diet of pills, eventually growing so addicted that he was twice institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital.

He was clean now, he insisted, although he admitted to still battling his old demons. He slept only in fitful spurts and sometimes heard voices. At odd moments, he would pound his chest as if fighting for breath. In the plant, he feared that other workers were ridiculing him behind his back. "I don't really blame them," he said. "I'm such a bundle of nerves."

El Bronco and Erasmo thought they'd been exploited, but not La Flaquencia. The way he saw it, it was him using Hudson. His drug problem had destroyed his career and embarrassed his family back in Mexico. Although Hudson didn't know it, the company was giving him a chance to restore his reputation, to show his wife and two little girls that he was a decent man and a dependable provider.

"I just want people to believe in me again," he said.

I took the same drive with Baldemar, who had remained distant and silent during my stay at the Ginger Blue. He'd spent most of his time alone, in bed, reading the Bible. To the extent that we'd even noticed him, he was simply El Hermano, the church brother.

As we sat under a towering tree full of webworms, which had enveloped the leaves in a ghostly shroud, he explained that his faith was a shield. "If it wasn't for the Lord, I'd have been gone by now, like the others," Baldemar said.

When things get tough at the Hudson plant--when the chickens turn to a blur and his hands freeze up--he retreats into a world of prayer, silently singing songs of praise as the shackle line shoots another bird his way.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

About This Series

The nation's surging appetite for chicken has created a new class of migrant worker, transporting thousands of laborers near the Mexican border to poultry factories in the American heartland. Jesse Katz, The Times' Houston Bureau chief, joined them on the "chicken trail."

SUNDAY: The journey from the Rio Grande Valley to the Ozarks.

TODAY: Working the night shift at the poultry plant.

TUESDAY: The costs and benefits of a chicken in every pot.

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