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Global Heartland: Displaced Labor, Transnational Lives, and Local Placemaking

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Global Heartland is the account of diverse, dispossessed, and displaced people brought together in a former sundown town in Illinois. Recruited to work in the local meat-processing plant, African Americans, Mexicans, and West Africans re-create the town in unexpected ways. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in the US, Mexico, and Togo, Faranak Miraftab shows how this workforce is produced for the global labor market; how the displaced workers’ transnational lives help them stay in these jobs; and how they negotiate their relationships with each other across the lines of ethnicity, race, language, and nationality as they make a new home. Beardstown is not an exception but an example of local-global connections that make for local development. Focusing on a locality in a non-metropolitan region, this work contributes to urban scholarship on globalization by offering a fresh perspective on politics and materialities of placemaking.

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Introduction: The Global Heartland

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The Global Heartland

A WOMAN DRESSED IN A DRAPED, PRINTED AFRICAN FABRIC, WITH one shoulder exposed, and wearing a flamboyant scarlet and gold headdress, locks her parked car and walks toward three men on the sidewalk. The men, who are African in appearance, are engaged in an intense conversation, frequently and effortlessly switching between Ewe and French. One is wearing an off-white buba and sokoto, traditional African attire made with embroidered brocade; another, slender and tall, wears jeans and a striped blue and white T-shirt; the third man, short in stature, is dressed in a suit and tie and holds a Bible in his hand—he may have just come from a church visit or a Bible study class. At the same moment a crowd of several hundred people are leaving the nearby Catholic Church where the Spanish-language mass has just ended. Many of them stand around on the sidewalks in front of the church and in the parking lot across the street, chatting and socializing in Spanish. A young boy, his hair cut short and neat with the top part greased and swept up to form a peak, is dressed in his Sunday best; he rides away on his bike, ornamented with a small Mexican flag. A man wearing a stiff-brimmed white hat, a belt with a metal buckle that makes his bulging belly even more prominent, and pointy-toed, handcrafted boots holds hands with a young woman with long, black, silky hair, who hardly fits into her too-tight clothes. A little girl of seven or eight runs behind her, yelling “Mama! Espérame!” (“Mommy, wait for me!”) as she catches up to the woman and grabs her other hand.

 

Part I: Beardstown: A Place in the World

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BEARDSTOWN IS LOCATED AT THE EDGE OF THE ILLINOIS RIVER, 250 miles southwest of Chicago and fifty miles west of Springfield (see figure 1.1). It became a major shipping port and blue-collar industrial town soon after it was founded in 1829. By the mid-nineteenth century, Beardstown was the largest center of meatpacking in the United States and gained its title of the “Porkopolis” (Schweer 1925, 10). From the late nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth, Beardstown was the seat of several heavy industries, a place where men worked in well-paying union jobs with benefits and security. Today Beardstown locals take pride in being “the watermelon capital of the nation,”1 the home of Beardstown Ladies Investment Club,2 and the site of Lincoln’s 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas as well as his Almanac Trial.3 But before looking at Beardstown’s history, I would like to take you on a brief tour to introduce the places and institutions that are important for establishing the local context.

 

Part II: Displaced Labor

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IN JULY 2008, I DECIDED TO TRAVEL TO MICHOACÁN BECAUSE EARLY on in my research, I had realized that Beardstown was a node in a larger web of closely connected communities. Many immigrants talked about home and how it motivated them to keep working in Beardstown, either because they hoped to return or they feared for what they left behind. I could not understand the transformation of Beardstown without understanding what happened in their home countries. That summer I felt close enough to some of the Mexican immigrants to ask them if I could visit their families back home. I also prevailed on one of them, “Lupita” I call her, to be my travel partner for a journey to Michoacán, a state from where many Mexican immigrants came. Lupita was one of the first Mexicans who moved to Beardstown in the early 1990s and also one of the people I had known since I first started my research. She was not from Michoacán, but grew up in Mexico and knew the country relatively well. Young, outgoing, and brave, Lupita accompanied me on my journey to Michoacán (see figure 3.1).

 

Part III: Outsourced Lives

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In 2012, a university reporter interviewed me for an article which quoted my argument that immigrants’ families in distant locations contribute to the development of the heartland in places like Beardstown. This article was then picked up and reprinted by My Journal Courier, a newspaper in the Beardstown area with a large local readership (Rhodes 2012). The article grabbed the attention of different people for different reasons. Cargill’s management, for one, objected to my description of how the company recruited immigrant laborers and offered bonuses to workers who helped the company by recruiting through their personal networks. Mike Martin, identifying himself as the plant’s director of communications,1 made a call to the journalist who wrote the piece protesting the report, and subsequently the statement was removed from the online version of the newspaper. This report also gained traction among some of local residents and workers at the Cargill plant, who posted their comments online in response to the article.

 

Part IV: We Wanted Workers, We Got People

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AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE CARGILL PLANT IN BEARDSTOWN, TWO smiling pig-head planters welcome visitors to the slaughterhouse (see figure 7.1). How is one slaughtered with a smiling face? And why of all images and objects that a planter at this slaughter house could represent, the choice of a pig head?

Unlike the company towns of the early twentieth century, contemporary company towns in the meat and food industry move to sites that had already been developed with private investments and, most importantly, with public tax money. The corporations no longer build houses, schools, or daycare facilities for their workforce, yet they operate what are de facto company towns. The power of the company in these towns does not involve brick and mortar but institutional and financial arrangements justified through certain discursive and bureaucratic means. Furthermore, unlike company towns of the previous era, contemporary meatpacking towns like Beardstown rely on public and private funds to house a diverse cohort drawn from various ethnic, racial, linguistic and national backgrounds. Cargill’s Beardstown operation represents this new company town model in many ways.

 

Appendix: Demographic and Labor Tables, Profile of Interviewees

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Demographic and Labor Tables,
Profile of Interviewees

Table A1. Summary of population census data for Beardstown and Rushville, Illinois, 1890–2010

Sources: All the population and race data reported here are obtained from the decennial census reports of U.S. Census Bureau (available at: http://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html). The following tables for different time periods were used to obtain these values: Year 1890: Table 19: Population by sex, general nativity, and color, of places having 2,500 inhabitants or more, 1890, Table 22: Native and foreign-born and white and colored population, classified by sex and by counties, 1890. Year 1900: Table 22: Native and foreign-born and white and colored population, classified by sex and by counties, 1900, Table 23: Population by Sex, General Nativity, and Color, for places having 2,500 inhabitants or more, 1900. Year 1920: Table 9: Composition and characteristics of the population for counties, 1920, Table 11: Composition and characteristics of the population, for places of 2,500 to 10,000, 1920. Year 1930: Table 13: Composition of the population, by counties, 1930, Table 16: Composition of the population, for incorporated places of 2,500 to 10,000, 1930. Year 1940: Table 29: Race and age, by sex, with rural-farm population, for incorporated places of 1,000 to 2,500, 1940, Table 30: Composition of population for incorporated places of 2,500 to 10,000, 1940. Year 1950: Table 38: General characteristics of the population, for urban places of 2,500 to 10,000, 1950. Year 1960: Table 22: Characteristics of the population, for urban places of 2,500 to 10,000, 1960. Year 1970: Table 31: General Characteristics of places of 2,500 to 10,000, 1970. Year 1980: Table 16: Total persons and Spanish-origin persons by type of Spanish origin and race, 1980. Year 1990: Table 6: Race and Hispanic origin, 1990. Year 2000: Table 3. Race and Hispanic or Latino, 2000. Year 2010: Table 3: Race and Hispanic or Latino origin, 2010.

 

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