HARVESTING THE CROPS OF OTHERS: MIGRANT FARM LABOR ON THE EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA
Each year several thousand migrant farmworkers come to the Eastern Shore of Virginia to live and work. Most travel in labor crews under the supervision and domination of a crew leader. Workers on these crews share many features characteristic of migrant life: low wages, isolated living places, and health problems due to unsanitary conditions and pesticide exposure. However, significant differences among labor crews also exist based on the composition of the crew by age, gender, and cultural background. Fieldwork for this dissertation was conducted in 1978-1979 in Florida and on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Data were gathered by living and working with six different labor crews on the Shore and form the basis for a descriptive account of these crews. Research was also conducted among farmers and those who work with social service programs for migrants both in Florida and on the Shore. An account of the migrant labor system from the perspective of the three categories of participants in it--farmers, crew leaders, and workers--is also provided. Most workers who came to the Shore in 1979 were from either of two cultural groups, American black or Mexican/Mexican-American. The effects of the differing cultural backgrounds of these workers form the major area of investigation for this dissertation. Cultural background and orientation were found to be significant on three analytical levels. On the most obvious level, the surface markers of ethnicity served to distinguish black and Mexican crews from each other. These differences were significant as boundary markers both for non-crew members and for the workers themselves. At the second level of analysis, the social structure and organization of black and Mexican labor crews were found to be essentially identical. The migrant labor system imposed its own structure on the crews which determined how workers organized the work as well as how they related to their employers and to each other. Only when looking at the larger system of migrant labor, and specifically at strategies workers had used to decrease dependence on a crew leader while still remaining migrant farmworkers, did differences stemming from cultural background and orientation arise. The third level of analysis dealt with the ideas which migrant farmworkers held about their work, about themselves as migrants, and about their future in farmwork. Differences between black and Mexican workers were found on this ideological level. These differences were tied to a group's historical background as well as to their current position within American society.