Once upon a time in Mexico: Ana's story (Part II.)
I met Ana shortly after I started an ongoing social justice portrait project about marginalized communities in mid-Missouri and she was mentioned as someone I might want to photograph. She was easy to find; I was actively reaching out to immigrants in the area for participation in my project, and she had been outspoken about her status as a DACA recipient and speaking publicly about it for months. I had first heard about her as the Women’s March of 2017 was taking shape in the frantic aftermath of the presidential election.
A year later, with passions settled into a predictable calendar of protests in response of presidential tweets and a handful of activists pushing for social change, I finally met Ana. We were both speakers at the Women’s March, now renamed Solidarity March, an event drawing smaller but still significant crowds.
Ana lives in Mexico, Missouri, as the Latinx people of the town call it, to distinguish it from their native country. It is a small town a forty-five minutes drive northeast of Columbia, the relatively liberal college town on Interstate 70 where the marches occur and the activist groups fight their battle, and a cultural world away from it.
Mexico is a rural town in the heart of Missouri. Missouri is a state where Trump won fifty-five percent of the popular vote and Josh Hawley, a Republican listed along with Steve King and five others as a hate-peddling politicians by the Southern Poverty Law Center in its 2019 hate groups survey, won Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill’s seat by a wide margin in the mid-term elections of 2018. In its outer ring of fast-food joints and car dealerships, its churches with white steeples, its courthouse on the square surrounded by small local businesses in two-story turn-of-the-century brick buildings and rows of empty parking spaces, Mexico looks just like many other towns around the Midwest, and America. It is also similar to many rural towns around the country in the way it has seen a sizable influx of Latino-American workers over the past three decades.
Ana’s family emigrated from Selma, a town in the Central Valley area of California to Mexico, Missouri, in 2001, her parents lured by work offers at a factory there. In the nineties the company was struggling to find employees, and on the verge of closing altogether. The man who convinced Ana’s parents to cram all their belongings in a car and head east into the unknown once again was an uncle, and one of the recruiters the factory used to try to enlist immigrant workers with the promise of a better job, lower costs of living, and a safer place to live. We got in a van with other men we knew, they were from the same town as my parents, and we drove, says Ana. They drove for three days. She was eight.
The plants were struggling then, and so was the town.
The economic recession the U.S. experienced in the nineties didn’t spare Mexico. The town was once known as “the firebrick capital of the world,” and the highly heat-resistant bricks its refractory factories made from Missouri clay supplied the country’s booming steel industry (the bricks were used to line steel and cement factories’ furnaces.) The decline of these industries, on top of the general economic downturn, sounded a severe downward trend in the local economy. Refractory factories, such as A.P. Green Co., founded in 1910 by its namesake, A.P. Green, a Mexico icon and the grandfather of Missouri senator “Kit” Bond, closed down, eliminating not just hundreds of jobs but solid union jobs that had good salaries. The brick plants were the biggest employers in the area, says Mexico Mayor Ayanna Shivers, an educator and pastor who went away to complete her education and returned to her hometown five years ago out of a sense of duty, and filial love, and who has become a friend of Ana’s through their shared advocacy. “A lot of families were supported by members that were working there, generations worked there, so when they closed that was some of the best paying jobs that were closed down and it left a gap in opportunities.” The last refractory factory, National Refractories and Minerals Corp., closed in 2002.
By then the town was struggling to restart its economy in a changing landscape, a landscape increasingly shaped by boardroom decisions made on the other side of the country and the the world, globalization reaching deep into the heartland. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been signed ten years earlier, resulting in increased trade for all three countries involved, including Mexico, but also a near-fatal decline of American unions, the gutting of the Mexican farming economy, and mass migration of Mexican agricultural workers to the U.S. in search of jobs.
What those factory managers set in motion when they sent out scouts to California to look for bargain workers who wouldn’t balk at the absence of unions and low salaries the way many in the local workforce did, was a chain of events that would make Mexico, Missouri, a microcosm of the country’s rural economic and immigration landscape.
They also changed the course of Ana’s life, sending her halfway across the country and even farther away from Oaxaca to grow up in the little white cottage down the street from an all-American girl named Mercedes.