By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
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Worker protections, too, have improved. Safety gear is required--bump caps, mesh guards, arm guards, and chain-mail chest protectors. Workers are rotated from task to task--one in the morning, one after morning break, and one after lunch--to reduce the risk of repetitive-stress injury.
Even so, accidents are frequent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, poultry processing is one of the most dangerous occupations around, with injuries occurring at a rate of 12 per 100 full-time workers. Other sources estimate the injury rate to be as high as 30 percent. At Jerome, the accident-frequency rate has hovered around 12 to 15 percent in the past five years.
It is this human cost that concerned Sinclair. When he wrote The Jungle, he was not after changes in the food law. He was a committed socialist bent on exposing inhumane working conditions. The result of his work disappointed him. "I aimed at the public's heart," he said at the time, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
The first Hispanic to settle in Faribault permanently was Enrique Porras. His father had been a migrant in the '40s and '50s. He was following the same path. Now one of his sons, Raul, is a supervisor at Jerome. Another, Daniel, is a minister at the town's House of Prayer Christian Church, formerly First Evangelical Hispanic Church.
When he was 7 years old, Daniel started working alongside his father in the fields. "It was for me some fun, a little kid working on the fields. I used to get 25 cents an hour. You work so much, and after you give to the household, you get the rest. If you are brought up in that situation, you get used to it. You don't miss the things that you don't have--clothes, shoes. Everything was hand-downs.
"One other thing: Food. That's one thing that always sticks to you--going hungry at night, or eating the same thing for weeks. In the morning beans with eggs. In the afternoon beans with a little jalapeno. Beans for this, beans for that. One of the first impressions I got from this country when I came here was, I would look at the American people--man, they were tall. They were strong. They were big. Now that my kids are able to eat what they need, they are bigger, too."
In the mid-'60s, Daniel's father heard there were permanent jobs at the Faribault turkey factory, which at that time did not belong to Jerome. "Back then they were offering to bring workers from Mexico," says Daniel. "They came down there advertising that they were providing housing, employment, and all this stuff. My dad saw an opportunity. He came mainly because the turkey company was offering these benefits.
"Well, the housing was little shacks that basically didn't have no indoor plumbing. It was like a concentration camp; there were huts all around. It was fenced in with barbed wire. In the middle of the camp you had the bathrooms. No heat, just stoves. No running water."
Just as he had in the fields, Daniel followed his father into the turkey factory. "Back then they had people who weren't mentally fit to work," he remembers. "People constantly had seizures. They had people who would talk to themselves. They were physically able, but mentally I don't know. People screaming all the time.
"Back then, everything was done by hand. It wasn't pretty, but we had to do it. Jerome was the only place that would hire you right away. You don't have to speak the language. All you want to do is work? Then they would hire you."
Enrique Porras worked at the turkey plant for a few years, and then got a job at Carleton College as a janitor. His son moved out of the factory as fast as he could--first becoming a welder, then a student, and finally a pastor. Today he is in high demand as a translator, trouble-shooter, and go-between for the city of Faribault and the Hispanic community.
Housing is the main problem. Most Hispanics in Faribault live in trailer courts where conditions, Porras says, are "filthy, dirty. You have three and four families living in a mobile home with two and three bedrooms. I know of mobile homes with 16 people in one trailer."
"Last week we had a family who was evicted out of a trailer home. It was condemned because [it] was in such terrible shape, and the people didn't have the money to fix it. This case in particular, she has eight kids. They condemned the house, and now they took the kids away, and they said, 'Once you have adequate housing we'll give the kids back.' Basically they said, 'Well, go look.' She doesn't speak English. She doesn't have money. She has a job that pays $5.50 an hour."
Porras spends much of his time dealing with problems like this--housing, legal, financial, work. Violence erupts in the trailer parks. His church has been spray-painted "Wetbacks go home." But he insists he's not politically active. "I'm getting more toward the spiritual side," he says. "Once we take care of our spiritual needs, our physical needs will come.