Against Farm Worker Discipline and the Man Box: Towards Liberation

Rancho de las Viboras, Washington – My earliest memory of the grower that my parents worked for is from the 1980s, I was perhaps 9 years old, and my mother had a new job as an office worker for the firm. This memory begins with his adopted son from india, all of five or six years old being scolded, a pause and from a distance, “Ha ha daddy, I flipped you off!” in the smallest voice you could imagine. The next scene is of a bearded dutch man’s belt coming off, face flushed red, catching up to the boy holding him tightly by the arm and completely losing himself on the boy who is screaming in agony and pleading for mercy as he is dragged into the CEO suite and the door is closed.

I remember looking up to my mother, terrified, and asking if the boy would be alright.

WAGES AS DISCIPLINE

I began to work for this man in the summer of 1992, my checks would be made out to my parent’s name. I worked in an all youth crew who worked limited hours coating the tree trunks with a mixed latex treatment to protect them from the sun and boring insects. I was paid the state minimum wage ($4.25/hour), 50 cents less than adult entry level agricultural workers, which was justified by the owner because of the risk that he was taking in allowing us to work and because wage laws allowed for younger workers to be paid less than adult workers.[1] I was disciplined twice at this job without any warnings, and my wages were withheld as a penalty.

The first incident involved flicking paint, though everyone on the children’s crew was flicking paint, it was my paint flicking that landed in my youth foreman’s eye. I was taken to the very office where I had witnessed the above, was laid off for a day, and had the wages I had earned for the day withheld.

The second incident involved breaking a sprinkler in one of the fields. Again, all of the youth in the children’s crew were shaking the tall sprinklers, but it was the particular sprinkler that I was shaking that snapped at the joint. The owner came and laughed at me, and arranged for the repair of the sprinkler to come out of my day’s wage.

As the son of a manager, I had the special privilege, I was told, to work alongside other manager’s children in an all youth crew, to make money to help our parents. At first, we were hardly supervised, with the crop manager checking in on us and one of the older youth being put in charge of about 10 youth between 12 and 17 years old.

It was a living hell. As you can tell above, being unsupervised equaled not just my own but other youth inflicted injuries and workplace “accidents” because we were not supervised. The most common injury was completely accidental, it involved getting pesticide residue in your eyes by rubbing them with unwashed hands.

Teasing

As youth who were given a repetitive task, we often became bored. Teasing was a sort of art that permeated the entire experience. To begin with, we were all reluctantly referred to by the worst possible nickname one could think of. I was given the nickname of “Tambo de cebo” (Tub of Lard) by Jorge, one of the older 17 year old youths at about 12 years old. The youth who was placed in charge of us, Jose who was also 17 was given the “worst” nickname by the youth standards of “El Jotolongo” (The Long Gaylord) and teasing by the youth against this appointed manager was the worst.

STORYTELLING AS DISCIPLINE

As we would be painting trees between 6 and 8 hours a day, lulls in the day were filled by misogynist and homophobic storytelling by the older youth. Jose would encourage us with stories about what we could buy if we worked hard, and how we would be rewarded with an extra rest break after finishing painting a row.

Other youth took this opportunity to tell the most humiliating of stories or took it upon themselves to educate the younger youth about sexuality and about rape culture.

Stories of Humiliation

These types of stories were targeted at the youth foreman or any youth who backed him up. For our foreman, the story they would tell implied a history of childhood sexual abuse where his cousin’s would reference a picture of him spooning with his uncle. The youth claimed that this was evidence that the foreman was gay, hence the nickname of “El Jotolongo.” These kinds of stories fed off of each other, and were applied to any youth who appeared to be weak or came to the defense of another youth.

Misogynist Stories that Advanced Rape Culture

Most of the stories that older youth imposed upon the younger youth were stories about dominating women that were framed as how to “please” or “attract” women. Most of these stories involved a discourse of conquest that involved a process of objectifying women, in particular white women. That according to the older youth, only the best could “attract” and “posess”. This process of objectification required “practice” and thus all of the youth engaged in humiliation rituals that were overtly sexual.

HUMILIATION AS DISCIPLINE

The message of humiliation was that if you do not obey, you will get fucked/raped.

Dry Rape

One of the most common forms of humiliation of young men was the use of dry rape. This practice was a youth demonstrating dominance over another youth, by acting out the actions of rape upon that youth, with their clothes on. In this way, the symbolic violence that was threatened via the narratives above was reinforced in a physical manifestation with the desired result of humiliation in two ways.

The first was for the other youth’s gender identity to be subverted, i.e. a male identified person to be victim of the misogyny against women identified persons.

Second, if the youth happened to appear to enjoy the horseplay, their sexual orientation would be called into question, this would occur with a rebound into storytelling where the dominating youth would retell the story of dry raping the subjugated youth as a conquest and successful objectification, much in the way one would describe a fine wine or wonderful meal.

Instilling Terror

The second technology of humiliation as a form of discipline was the installation of terror. Storytelling here was central, because youth that would perpetuate these acts of terror were often mining for other youths insecurities and gaging reactions. One of the most common acts of terror in the fields were fights.

Fights

Fights between youth that were unsupervised usually involved a stronger youth and a weaker youth. The terror of being brutalized, in much the way that my own experience described in the opening sequence above was even more personal for many of the youth. Fights were most often a result of bored older youth pitting two younger youth to fight against each other. This was preceded by several hours of storytelling that involved the youth that were to be pit against each other and what they “said” about the other youth. Most of the storytelling was fantasy or fictionalized for the purpose of priming the youth to fight in the afternoon.

As a youth that was chosen to fight, I had to develop a strategy. My strategy was to draw the oppenent’s body close to mine as to limit their ability to swing or kick and hold them tight until they gave up. My strategy was not fun to watch for the older youth, so fighting against me instead turned to random sucker punches because I would not retaliate and I also learned here to hold back the tears because for the older youth, watching a weaker youth break down cry was entertaining and would lead to more teasing.

Two of the grower’s in-law youth, white youth that began in our all youth crew lasted a total of a few days and one week because of this. The grower’s own children, having been disciplined in this way, were accustomed to the “culture” of discipline and remained until they were allowed to work irrigation riding around in ATV’s turning on sprinkler systems.

The Outhouse

The creativity of the unsupervised youth to turn something as mundane as taking a dump into a terrifying experience was beyond compare. Should any youth, in particular youth that were prone to cry, were to take a bathroom break at the outhouse. The other youth would leave their posts after a few minutes, when they were sure that someone was deficating, and bring a team that would sneak around, surround the outhouse and shake it vigorously.

The terror of being trapped in the confines of an outhouse that is being shaken, of not being able to get out, and risk being splashed with feces and chemical solvent, while your pants are down indeed resulted in several youth stepping out of the outhouse with their pants at their ankles, tears streaming, while the other youth pointed and laughed and commenced on a tirade of body shaming that rendered the experience unrelenting.

The closest example of this type of humiliation is a youtube video of a youth falling into a creek because his companions shake him off:

THE MAN BOX

TheManBox

The experiences that I am describing at the fundamental level, that affected both the grower, the grower’s children, and the farm workers at El Rancho de las Viboras is an example of the way that men’s oppression is institutionalized through the imposition of the wage, workplace discipline, and misogynist youth culture.

Tony Porter, in a TEDX talk titled “A Call to Men” explains just how this same man box is applied to young black youth in the United States and offers some ideas of what his organization is doing to attempt to stop it from being perpetuated.

OPPRESSION

Oppression is the systematic legal and extra-legal predisposition to premature death of a targeted group of people based upon arbitrary identifiers in order to allow one group of arbitrarily identified people to accumulate private property, wealth, power, privilege and prestige.[2]

Oppression is not inherent in human nature. It is quite the opposite, it is learned behavior.

Above you have read a bit about how oppression was instilled upon a group of farm worker youth in rural Washington, but it is important now to expand the conversation to the realm of human experience. Starting where we have the most in common as human beings, oppression is first introduced to us, as it was to me in the opening sequence demonstrates, when we are children.

HOW OPPRESSION IS INSTALLED

Slide1

When we are children, we get to cry, scream and tantrum. When we are hurt, the emotions flow with those actions and the hurt level deminishes. If you let a child cry when they are hurt, after a while they will be alright, running around as if nothing happened.

Aurora Levins Morales argues that “the oppression of children is the wheel that keeps all other oppressions turning,” she asserts that “without it, misery would have to be imposed afresh on each new generation, instead of being passed down like a heritage of disease,” and ultimately that “it is through the agency of former children that the revolutionary potential of each generation of children is held in check” in our society.[3]

What the oppressive society does is to tell us as young children to “suck it up,” “get over it,” “be a man,” anything so that we won’t show our emotions. So what we end up doing is welling all of this hurt inside of us and this is what allows for the internalization of oppression to occur.[4]

Slide2

In the beginning, when we first experience oppression as children, the immediate fear we experience that is locked up within us, instead of being let go. When we are told not to cry, tremble or tantrum, we hold back those feelings until some random moment when we feel that it is safe to let them out, usually to other children like ourselves to burst and purge our misdirected distress upon somebody else.

As we grow and experience more instances of oppression, and see that oppression is reinforced by social institutions such as schools, police, etc. People go around the world with all of this hurt, not being able to let it go, and welling it up. What happens when people well it up? There are leaks that spring out. At random moments people let it out and that externalized outlet of these welled feelings may be targeted to a black person, to another child, to women.

Slide3

Oppression this way functions in a completely irrational manner in both it’s internal and externalized manifestations ruled by rigid binary thinking.

Slide4

Those among us who have had the most traumatic experiences, who have been severely hurt, or witnessed others being hurt without ever having the ability to heal from that hurt, including historic traumatic experiences of war, famine, rape and genocide internalize all of this distress of violence and this manifests both internally and externally in random oppression directed violence because people that feel this way feel that their life is at stake and would rather act out oppression than experience the humiliation, shame and terror again.

This idea is further developed by Harvey Jackins a now deceased working class counseling leader,

“This means that the person who has been oppressed carries around recordings of feeling oppressed which, when restimulated, act upon him or her to produce feelings as if fresh oppression was coming from the outside, even though no new oppression is taking place…These recordings, when restimulated, have the man on whom the recordings have been made feeling discouraged, isolated, guilty, depressed, angry, and vulnerable to reacting with other men’s negative recordings in mutual hostility, disappointment, etc.”[5]

As stated above our fears become completely random about what we would rather die than experience again. Even something as mundane as going to the beach can bring back those feelings if no one was there to comfort us:

MEN’S OPPRESSION

Sometimes people are brought to this level by society on purpose, by social institutions such as prisons, the military, work, families, sex industries, sports industries, and mass media.[6]

For men, as demonstrated through the example of work discipline above and the cultural policing of the gender binary via the man box, this systematic oppression results in an internalization of that oppression. As children of managers, we too were being groomed to be future workers and managers to perpetuate the future prosperity of the agricultural corporation.

LIBERATION

Being that there are many of us who believe that this is not the future we want to see in this world. Undoing farm worker discipline regimes and undoing the man box go hand in hand.

As a comrade in the struggle at Community to Community Development said once before, if you want to undo domestic violence in farmworker communities, you must start with higher wages and better working conditions. You cannot address these structural problems in an individual manner, to do so would be to continue to perpetuate the crisis.

According to Jackins when it comes to working class men,

“The most effective means for contradicting men’s internalized oppression is to find ways for men to become intelligent parts of each other’s lives—to show our flexible, warm, mutually-appreciative selves to each other”[7]

To do so with all human beings, other species, and the earth is to rebuild the fabric of community. He continues,

“This goes to the root of the isolation internalized by individual men, makes it impossible for internalized oppression to drive men to hurt each other, and rocks the foundations of institutionalized men’s oppression. For men to make friends with men is to enable us to become aware of the conditioning that has been put upon us and to want liberation from it.”[8]

To apply this method across the gender binary, across sexual orientations, across class lines, and across race and ethnic lines, across religious lines, and to bring into question the rigid thinking of us/them is the work that lies ahead towards our collective intense desire for liberation. Ending one oppression requires ending all oppressions.

One example of farm workers advancing a just transition towards collective liberation:

WORKS CITED

[1] Tax Policy Center, “State Minimum Wage Rates, 1983-2011” http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/content/PDF/state_min_wage.pdf, accessed 11/05/12.

[2] Adapted from Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of Racism – “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) pg 28.

[3] Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998), pg. 51.

[4] See https://www.rc.org/publication/uer/BasicTheoryOfRC.html

[5] See Harvey Jackins, “The Human Male” http://nypolisci.org/files/PDF%20FILES/Chapter%20V_%209-The%20Human%20Male.pdf

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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