Saturday, August 6, 2011
Book Review: Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson
I've worked in restaurants off and on since I was sixteen years old, and many of those years were spent in places whose kitchen staff was either largely or entirely composed of people from Central and South America of questionable immigration status. My experience with these people flies in the face of the conventionally held notion that all undocumented immigrants are lazy, inveterate criminals who want to milk the American government for all the services they possibly can, preferably while having eight children apiece, selling drugs, stealing jobs from hard-working American citizens, and, of course, forcing us all to suffer the indignities of a bilingual culture by expecting us to learn Spanish. I spent three summers working in such a restaurant in Knoxville, and then another four years working in similar places in Nashville, and I have yet to encounter an individual as described above.
The vast majority of immigrants I encountered, legal and otherwise, were simply hard workers from impoverished backgrounds who were desperately trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. They were some of the most dedicated people I've ever met, and their work ethics put mine (and just about every other white person I know's) to shame. Most of them worked two full-time jobs. Some added a third part-time job, if they could squeeze it into their overloaded schedule. None of them, that I was aware of, were involved in illegal activities. If anything, they were scrupulously law-abiding because they knew that any run-ins with the law could lead to deportation at best, lengthy and expensive criminal trials at the worst. That same paranoid fear also kept them from seeking public services; they were often afraid they'd get turned into the INS if they tried to use them. Beyond that, they were pretty keen to learn English, and would often talk to the waitstaff as practice, asking questions about words and what they meant.
My experiences, of course, are limited. Undocumented workers do all kinds of unpleasant work, and restaurant jobs are, sadly, the cushiest ones available to them (if you've ever worked in food service, you know how truly crappy that is). I've never been in a position to interact with those who have had to work harder jobs in manufacturing, food processing, agriculture, or construction. As a result, I was pretty intrigued when I saw Working in the Shadows on the shelf at the library. Finally, an account of what happens to undocumented immigrants who wind up working the really awful jobs.
Thompson takes on a series of jobs over the course of two years. He picks lettuce in Arizona, works a chicken factory in Alabama, and heads home to New York City to test the waters in the underground economy. All along the way, he interviews his coworkers about their lives and experiences in their lines of work, and their responses are both predictable and somewhat surprising. Thompson does an excellent job portraying the realities of the immigrant experience as well as contextualizing in the broader landscape of American employment (he has a great deal to say about white workers in low-income work, too). All in all, Working in the Shadows is very well-written, exhaustively researched, and highly informative. I definitely recommend it.
4 out of 5 stars.