The genesis for “The chicken hangers” comes from a personal crisis. I didn’t know whether I wanted to finish my Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Texas at Austin or go full-bore into freelance writing, something I had been toying with for three years. When I got a grant through UT’s L.B.J. School of Public Affairs in 2003, to research Latino immigration in Deep South poultry plants, I decided to put the crisis on hold and spend a summer living, writing, breathing, and eating poultry.

The dense smell of chickens getting slaughtered and processed lingers in the humid Mississippi air in small towns like Collins and Laurel, where poultry plants dominate the local economy. It’s a strange smell — something like a cross between hot chocolate and road kill. When I think back about the time I spent in and around those chicken plants, it’s that smell that I remember most. Proust has his tea-dipped madeleine, I have my Peco Foods chicken plant in Bay Springs, Mississippi.

Under the terms of the grant, I was to document the rapid transformation of Mississippi from a biracial state to a place where Latinos had displaced African Americans in the lowest-paying jobs. It’s a familiar story, but in Mississippi, those low-paying jobs were especially bad. The jobs that went to Latinos were in catfish farms and poultry plants:  dangerous and filthy jobs where workers sometimes didn’t get paid. Employers in the poultry industry play cat-and-mouse games with the workers; they know the workers are undocumented but allow them to use fake drivers’ licenses and Social Security cards until the workers start unionizing or demanding higher wages. Employers will suddenly discover that the ID the worker used to get the job was fake. Then, it’s out the door.

I’m proud of “The chicken hangers” because it documents these practices without sensationalizing anything. I was living among the chicken workers at the same time Fast Food Nation was causing a national stir, and I wanted to resist some of the melodrama epitomized by that book. After all, the workers didn’t want anyone to boycott the poultry producers; we all ate the same chicken they killed, de-boned, and packaged.

A lot of academics — myself included — dream about writing for an audience other than a handful of specialists, while a lot of journalists dream about writing complex and nuanced stories that do more than report “the facts.” Researching and writing “The chicken hangers” was, in this regard, the best of both worlds.

Still, publishing the article in InTheFray didn’t make me any friends, and, in fact, destroyed many of the relationships I had established while researching it. Even some of the people who come off as sympathetic — the union reps and workers — were not happy about having their stories published. On the other hand, my academic credentials scored me plant tours and long interviews from poultry industry executives.  “I’m a graduate student researcher,” I’d say, hoping it would sound innocuous.

These people probably felt betrayed by the story, since I never said I was also a journalist. Even the non-profit organization that sponsored my stay in Mississippi was nonplussed about the story, since it adversely affected the organizing efforts of some of immigrants’ rights groups.

None of this bothers me in the slightest. “The chicken hangers” reveals a side of the so-called “illegal immigration” debate that is rarely featured in the media. I tried to humanize a group of people who are dehumanized — sometimes even by people with good intentions. Many protestant churches in the South, for example, embrace these workers and help them get on their feet. These churches think of themselves as a better force for social good than the government, but, in the end, they see the mostly Catholic immigrants as possible converts to evangelical Christianity. It was a bleak picture for Latinos in the South, and I hear it’s only gotten worse in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

After writing “The chicken hangers”, I moved to Paris and started work on my dissertation. The project didn’t solve my crisis, but it did put it in perspective. After all, I could be hanging chickens in Mississippi.

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