An ‘American dream’ in the fields of North Carolina

Regardless of political thoughts about immigration, every farmer knows that without cheap labour the crops would rot

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The child of Mexican farm labourers plays with his Captain America toys in the back yard of his home in rural Sampson County, North Carolina [Andrew Lichtenstein/Al Jazeera]

North Carolina, US – For a decade I have been travelling to the fertile fields of eastern North Carolina, where the nation’s tobacco crop is harvested.

The region is also a centre of food production, from where vegetables and sweet potatoes are exported to the rest of the country. These crops are all dependent upon migrant farm labourers, mostly from Mexico, who plant and harvest them.

Whatever their political thoughts about illegal and legal immigration, every farmer in the region knows that without a steady and reliable stream of cheap labour, the crops would rot in the fields. When another southern state, Alabama, passed a harsh law against immigrants, farm labourers fled, and farmers lost millions of dollars.

Simply put, Americans cannot – or will not – do the backbreaking work required to bring in the food that they eat.

I have seen dramatic changes in this area of North Carolina since I first started photographing here in 2005. While many of the migrant labourers continue to move from labour camp to labour camp – spending the spring and summer in North Carolina before moving on to Florida for the autumn and winter – just as many have decided to settle down in the area and raise their families.

The Latino population, 1,500 miles from the Mexican border, has increased dramatically. Every small town now has stores that sell Spanish food, and the local public schools are teaching a generation of bilingual students, the American children of farm labourers.

Some conservative Republicans view this huge demographic shift as a conspiracy by the Democratic Party to allow weak enforcement at the border in order to increase their voter rolls. Other Republicans recognise it for what it is – the American Dream in action.

But whatever political disagreements and racial prejudices are brought out in the election campaign, without some support from America’s growing Latino population, a Republican Party of angry whites has very little chance of ever winning a national election again.

In much the same way that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s changed national politics by finally allowing African Americans to exercise their constitutional right to vote, the growing Latino population in the US is making once solidly conservative states such as North Carolina, Nevada and Texas a more complex and diverse political equation.

I remember visiting an impoverished labour camp in the area several years ago. The camp was hidden from the road and the workers lived in flimsy shacks infested with roaches. The bathrooms were so primitive that the surrounding woods were covered in human faeces.

In front of one family cabin, though, was a small sign issued by the local school system. It said “Proud Parents of Honour Students”.

Recently, while visiting the area again, by chance I ran into that same family. They had left the camp and now lived in their own home, purchased through years of hard work in the fields. Their two sons were now young men preparing for college.

To not celebrate that success, to not recognise it as a great source of strength, but instead to diminish and dismiss it as some sort of national threat, is the sign of a country possessed by its own demons.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Andrew Lichtenstein is a documentary photographer, journalist and teacher who works on long-term stories of social concern. Over the past two decades he has concentrated on photographing stories about social justice in the US. He first began covering national politics when he rode on presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign bus in 1992.

Source: Al Jazeera