Connecting Narratives of Food Work Through Labor Studies and Migrant Studies

In order for my vision of my Senior Thesis to become clearer, I have begun compiling a reading list that is influenced by the presence of food labor in literature.  Narratives on food labor are often less about the actual work being done, and more about the various forces, conditions, and injustices underlying the very nature of this work.  It is the academic analysis of these (often intersecting) issues in narratives of food labor that I have sought out in my field work. Seeking these analyses, I have come across two noteworthy texts discussing literary depictions of food labor.  The first is featured in the Summer issue of the journal Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. (MELUS), titled “Lands of Entrapment: Environmental Health and Well-Being in Literature about the US Southwest and Chicana/o Communities” by María Isabel Pérez-Ramos.  The second text is “Beastmen and Labor Experts: Fiction and the Problem of Authority from 1900 to 1917”, the fifth chapter of the book Labor’s Text: The Worker in American Fiction by Laura Hapke.

In “Beastmen and Labor Experts”, Laura Hapke introduces her analysis on early 20th century labor narratives by explaining the history behind the United States’ increasing reliance on immigrant labor in industry.  In accordance with this reliance on mainly Slavic labor, Hapke also details the unjust rules and conditions these workers were forced to accept. This rise of injustice coincided with the establishment of the Socialist party in the United States in 1901, and Hapke contends that both instances created a literary culture that was rooted in the ‘social protest’ of exploitative labor.  But in analyzing this specific culture, Hapke argues that ““Even as the new social protest authors relied more heavily than did their nineteenth century predecessors on the authority of experience, they filtered the work through an authority all their own” (121) To support this, she touches on the subject of Upton Sinclair and his 1906 novel, The Jungle.  Initially, Hapke explains that Sinclair- a prominent Socialist of his time- wrote The Jungle with the intention of revealing the cruel injustices faced by the worker that have resulted from Capitalism’s parasitic nature.  And to many readers, as Hapke argues, his writing truly “captured the terrors of workers” (123). However, Hapke takes her analysis one step further by arguing that Sinclair’s writing style, in its “excessive focus on degradation” in the Chicago meatpacking industry, ultimately “has a dulling effect” (124).  To Hapke, Sinclair’s writing style and manipulation of language actually served to dehumanize the laborers he hoped to represent and ‘brutalize’ his novel’s central character, the Slavic meatpacking worker Jurgis Rudkis.

Source: Ebay

In “Lands of Entrapment”, Pérez-Ramos focuses on Chicanx narratives about the relationship between Chicanx communities in the United States, their relationship with the land they inhabit, and the environmental racism many of these communities- especially Chicanx farmworker communities- face.  To Pérez-Ramos, theses narratives hold a deeper meaning beyond representation, and reach into a collective ideology that is intrinsic to Latinx native histories. “Chicana/o culture and literature, in its pursuit of socioenvironmental justice, strives for well-being by conjoining economic, environmental, and social issues.  In Latin America, this holistic perception of socioenvironmental well-being is referred to as Buen Vivir.  The philosophy of Buen Vivir is in turn influenced by indigenous ways of living and interpreting the world” (130)  Through this concept of Buen Vivir, Pérez-Ramos presents her argument that the environmental racism that violates Chicanx bodies and communities simultaneously imposes violence on an idea that is foundational to the Chicanx and Latinx mind, and the depiction of these violations in literature is crucial to attaining justice and redemption.  To illustrate these depictions and their passionate themes of justice, Pérez-Ramos writes about the plays and novels, Heroes and Saints by Cherrie Moraga, Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes, and Cactus Blood by Lucha Corpi.  The three plays and novels depict Chicanx farmworking communities in the States, centering their narratives on characters who either work directly in the fields or are related to these workers.  As Pérez-Ramos explains, the narratives all follow the characters as they navigate the physical and psychological devastation that has been imposed on them due to polluted water, pesticide poisoning, toxic waste, and other environmental hazards that have been redirected to their community.  She emphasizes the psychological devastation in these narratives by describing them as “toxic traumas”, and notes that by this toxic trauma being explored further in depth by Chicanx writers, we can understand the gravity of the oppression Chicanx farmworking communities endure.

In terms of the central arguments both sources make about the implications of labor in their respective texts, there is a definite divergence.  For Perez-Ramos, it is clear that her analysis of Moraga, Viramontes, and Corpi’s works seeks to reveal certain themes on racial and ethnic identity, collective indigenous philosophies, and how this all affects the Chicanx diaspora in the American agricultural South.  Hapke’s analysis on Sinclair’s The Jungle, however, shows a shift towards themes of socialist interpretations of literature, authorship and the ‘authority of experience’ (121), and language manipulation.

While these sources touch on very distinct experiences of labor during very different periods of American history, I have found them both to be invaluable in my research and understanding of labor within the food industry and how this impacts the humanity of the immigrant laborer.  Both Hapke and Perez-Ramos use their research and analysis of different texts to highlight literature’s abilities in bringing attention to the worker exploitation that can occur during the production of the food we eat. Specifically, both sources and the texts they discuss work cohesively within the field of Literary Labor Studies, which explores different kinds of depictions of work in literature, often through Socialist or Communist frames.

My thesis will be looking intently at the fields of Food Studies, Ethnic Literature, Labor in Literature, and Migration in Literature, as well as being framed by the terms: food production, immigration, labor exploitation, and authorship.  “Beastmen and Labor Experts” has raised the issue of authorship within Labor in Literature by revealing how class and race often clashes with good intentions when it comes to writing the immigrant working individual and the communities they live in.  I have been aware that audience reaction to The Jungle has focused more on outrage over food conditions rather than labor conditions, and attributed this to a trend of many Americans prioritizing their plates over people.  However, Hapke’s argues that this reaction can also be attributed to Sinclair’s brutalized depiction of workers consequently made it difficult for audiences to connect with them.  This argument has made me more aware of perhaps even the exploitative nature in socialist literary depictions of labor in food production.

Additionally, “Lands of Entrapment” has raised what I feel is an oversight in Latinx depictions of food labor.  Perez-Ramos emphasizes the roles of racism and citizenship in the exploitation of the workers in the texts she analyzes, and while this emphasis is vital- I do believe her analysis can also benefit from a framework that also acknowledges the roles of capitalism and industry in this exploitation.  As The Jungle shows, exploitation in food has held a history in the United States that has involved numerous marginalized and undocumented groups, and this can be attributed to industries taking advantage of these groups’ inability to legally advocate and organize for better wages and conditions.  Therefore, I am hoping that as I continue to study narratives of the Latinx agricultural laborer, I will come across scholars who acknowledge these forces as well.

These two sources have immeasurably helped me in my navigation of the thesis research process.  Admittedly, I had been intimidated by the prospect of studying literary depictions of Slavic immigrant meatpacking workers in the early 20th century alongside depictions of Latinx immigrant/migrant farmworkers in a contemporary sense.  These sources have shown me the extensive history of immigrant exploitation in the food industry, and the pivotal role literature can play in making this exploitation visible to those who are unaware. Specifically, Hapke has helped me learn to pay attention to the language and writing style used to describe laborers, as well as knowing who is behind these words, and the role their own identity and experiences plays in representations of immigrant laborers.  Now, as I dive further into my central texts, I will be looking into my first impressions of characters, and dive deeper into: why I have come to certain conclusions, what forces are at play in my perception of their representation, and how do I think this representation is interpreted by other readers?  Additionally, I am asking questions about the challenges of capturing experiences and conditions of exploitation- is the text I’m studying voyeuristic? Valid in its attempt to raise awareness of injustice? Reducing these stories simply to make a political point?

In terms of Perez-Ramos’ work, I have been reminded to pay close attention to the mental conditions of the workers in the texts I analyze.  It is easy to write about the painful physical consequences of exploitative labor, but by also giving the psychological consequences of exploitative labor a platform, I will be able to reiterate the humanity in the characters I write about for my thesis.  This is something that is of utmost importance to me. The narratives I am studying are interpretations of actual experiences of oppression, exploitation, and trauma, and it is important to analyze how these experiences affect the mental wellbeing of the laborer by paying closer attention to their words and actions.

Blog Post #5


Hapke, Laura.  “Beastmen and Labor Experts: Fiction and the Problem of Authority from 1900 to 1917” Labor’s Text: The Worker in American Fiction.  Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2001.  pp. 121-4.

Pérez-Ramos, María I. “Lands of Entrapment: Environmental Health and Well-Being in Literature about the US Southwest and Chicana/o Communities” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.  Vol. 43, No. 2.  2018. pp. 129-50