Native Language Skills: Give Boost to Research on Immigrant Workers, Labor Unions
WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Shaped by Latino culture and bearing native familiarity with the Spanish language, students Paola Vizcaino and Natalie Mariona provided what Paul Apostolidis calls “tremendously helpful” assistance with early stages of his research into immigrant workers, labor unions and the meat-packing industry.
An associate professor and chair of the politics department, Apostolidis conducted extensive ethnographic interviews over the past two years with 45 immigrant workers, all but six of them employed at meat-packing plants near Wallula, Wash. (Tyson Foods) and Fort Morgan, Colo. (Excel Corp.). Vizcaino, who helped design the interview format, assisted with all 24 interviews at Wallula, while Mariona and Apostolidis made a 2003 Spring Break trip to Fort Morgan for 15 interviews. Before graduating in May of this year, both students had also helped with painstaking transcription and analysis of the collected material.
“The College is very clear that when students help with these research projects, they should participate on a sophisticated, intellectual level, and not be used simply as go-fers or hired hands,” Apostolidis says. “I’ve been very fortunate in that Natalie and Paola provided very professional research assistance. They exceeded all possible expectations.”
The research is part of a book Apostolidis is writing about the politics of labor unions in a meat-packing industry now heavily reliant on Hispanic immigrant workers. “This is an industry that’s gone from supporting a privileged workforce in the 1960s, one that was mostly native-born, white male unionized workers with fairly high wages, to having a mostly immigrant workforce where injury rates have gone up while union participation, along with wages and benefits, have gone down.”
Recent Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans comprise about 85 percent of the workforce at Tyson’s Wallula plant, which sits less than 40 miles from the Whitman campus. While Apostolidis rates his Spanish-language skills as “strong,” he was glad to have Vizcaino, a native of Metepec, Mexico, on hand for the interviews. “In most cases, I think I was getting 80 to 85 percent of what was being said,” he says. “Understanding the every-day Spanish colloquialisms of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans wasn’t always within my capabilities. It was incredibly helpful to have Paola there to essentially catch everything.”
Apostolidis was just as thankful to have Mariona present for interviews at the Fort Morgan plant, where the workforce is about 50 percent Mexican, 25 percent Guatemalan and 25 percent Salvadoran. Mariona, also an economics major, and her family were displaced by El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, moving to Bellingham, Wash., when she was seven years old. “We were living in El Salvador’s capital city at the time, and I just remember that it wasn’t a safe place to be,” she says.
“Most of the union leaders and activists at Fort Morgan are Salvadoran, in part because there has been a successful labor movement in El Salvador in recent times,” Apostolidis says. “With her background, Natalie helped the Fort Morgan activists become more immediately comfortable with us in a situation where timing was critical. We were only there for four or five days, so we didn’t have much time.”
Both Mariona and Vizcaino displayed top-notch interviewing skills, Apostolidis says. “Their ability to effectively communicate with people and make them feel comfortable was impressive. They showed a knack for handling topics that were in many cases sensitive. Many of these workers had never been asked, by anyone, for their opinions or about their experiences as immigrants, either inside or outside the workplace. One man broke down in tears, telling for the first time the story of his father’s death when he was a young boy, and how from that point forward he was basically forced into a life of a wandering migrant worker, first in Mexico and later in America.
“There were many powerful, sometimes terrifying stories that came to us during these interviews,” he adds. “There were stories of being pursued by border patrol agents, and stories of being victimized by human smugglers. All for relatively low-wage jobs that U.S. corporations are more than happy to have them fill.”
Apart from their research roles, Mariona and Vizcaino made many contributions to Whitman and the local community, Apostolidis says. “Both were involved in efforts to engage all of our multi-cultural students in the process of helping Whitman articulate and develop a vision for making this a more diverse institution. Both also were active in volunteer efforts by students to form partnerships with the labor union at the Wallula plant and to raise public awareness of problems and issues at the plant.”
Mariona and Vizcaino helped start a new student group, Alliance for Workplace Justice, and Mariona was the group’s primary leader this past year. Whitman students rallied in support of the labor union when efforts to decertify the union led to an election. The decertification effort, supported by the Tyson Corp., failed by a narrow margin. “It was the first time that Tyson had ever lost an election of that sort,” Apostolidis says. “I think our students played a tremendous role in keeping the union in place. More than anything else, it’s heartening for the workers to know that other people outside the plant know and care about what’s going on. It can be very demoralizing for workers to face those situations and conditions by themselves. It’s very rewarding for me to see our students make a difference in the world around them, while they are here. Natalie and Paola were leaders in building bridges to the surrounding community.”
Mariona, who served as president of the Alliance for Workplace Justice, played a pivotal role last September in organizing a Walla Walla stop of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. Sponsored by the AFL-CIO, Freedom Ride buses departed from 10 major cities, including Seattle and Portland, and eventually converged on Washington, D.C. and New York City for political rallies.
While at Whitman, Mariona also helped revitalize its Club Latino student group, serving as its president. She also received the 2004 Colleen Seidelhuber Willoughby Award for Excellence in Student Leadership.
Last summer, Mariona was one of about 30 juniors from around the country who were accepted into Princeton University’s Summer Institute on Public Policy and International Affairs. The 10-week program included a public policy course divided between U.S. education and Iraq democracy, as well as advanced classes on statistics and micro-economics. There were speakers on a variety of public policy issues and field trips to observe how some policies are being applied to community development.
Mariona eventually plans to attend graduate school for a master’s degree in some aspect of public policy advocacy. Her possibilities range from health care and housing to the rights of minorities, workers or consumers. She also is considering joint-degree programs that lead to master’s and law degrees. For now, she wants to log a year or two of real-life experience, and she has applied for a number of internships with such groups as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Greenlining Institute.
Vizcaino, who graduated summa cum laude and was elected Phi Beta Kappa, served as president of the International Students Club as a sophomore and then spent the spring semester of her junior year in Paris, the recipient of a High Academic Achievement Scholarship. She considers herself proficient (rather than fluent) in French, her third language, and she hopes to learn Japanese as well. She is one of 10 Whitman students who received funding to study traditional Japanese arts early this summer in Kyoto, Japan. In July, she begins a six-month internship doing research with the AFL-CIO’s Office of Investment in Washington, D.C.
Her internship could be extended to a full year, which Vizcaino says would give her more time to decide where to focus her graduate studies. Her possibilities range from international economics to immigrant workers and labor unions.
While at Whitman, Vizcaino also found time to serve as one of the more dominating varsity tennis players in the Northwest Conference. She was twice named NWC Player of the Year and once elected Sportswoman of the Year. As a senior, she also earned a spot on the women’s Academic All-Region Team. Vizcaino and Denise Kirstein, a volleyball and basketball player, shared the 2004 Mignon Borleske Trophy, which is presented annually to the top female athlete at Whitman.