“Carne Viva” are two words in Spanish that together can be translated in various ways. Taken literally, they refer to live flesh, like an open wound. In this way they can allude to the slow process of recovery after a traumatic event. The words draw up images of enduring pain. In addition, they can be read to refer to fresh meat and in the context of human relations, to the image of new conquest. They can also draw our thoughts to the context of a slaughterhouse, where working conditions involve constant contact with carcasses and blood, and the value of human life is not superior to the lives of the animals processed on the line; both cattle and humans are vehicles for profit—Jennifer Cooley & Karen Mitchell.
Jennifer Cooley and Karen Mitchell’s Carne Viva in Postville: Stories of Madres & Monarchs is a bilingual play based on interviews collected from several undocumented Guatemalan women after the May 12, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid—with the participation of state and local police agents—which occurred at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. Close to 400 workers were detained, hurled on buses and transported to the National Cattle Congress, where they were physically treated like animals. Not only did ICE and police agents cage “the undocumented” migrant workers in the very stalls where cattle and hogs are usually caged, but they also put them on fast-track legal proceedings which were unique in the U.S. history. It should be noted that most of the detainees were women who, by the end of the day, were tagged with GPS tracking monitors to restrict their movement, released, and prevented from working and leaving Iowa. Of course, they were “free” to take care of their children. In Carne Viva in Postville, Cooley and Mitchell show that although the proceedings under which the raid took place have been declared unconstitutional since then, they changed the lives of those who lived the nightmare.
In this essay, I mix personal essay writing with literary analysis. I draw on my personal experiences as an asylee and immigrant as well as my emotional responses as a member of the audience watching Carne Viva in Postville. As a whole, this essay testifies to how immigrants and migrant workers from Latin American countries and elsewhere affirm their sense of self, identity, and culture in the face of adversity and displacement.
The last time I saw a play was when I attended the National University of Rwanda in the 1980s. Although I have been in the United States for almost twenty-three years, I have never attended a play, let alone in an academic environment with my colleagues as writers and directors. Even going to movies in theatres, it took Hotel Rwanda to make me go to an American movie theatre. I always wait until the movie comes out in a DVD format. Then, I can comfortably watch it at home with my family. Writer and publisher Ishmael Reed had asked me to write an essay review (“Paul Rusesabagina’s Oasis of Ubu-Muntu in Hotel Rwanda: A Review Essay”) for Konch magazine. Hotel Rwanda chronicles the heroic deeds of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who saved more than one thousand lives in a Kigali hotel during the Genocide in 1994. When I saw dead bodies sprawled in the streets of what was supposed to be Kigali, Rwanda—they shot the film in South Africa or somewhere else in Africa but Rwanda—I cried, breaking a Rwandan “taboo” according to which men do not cry.
Tears welled into my eyes, too, when I and my family attended the last showing of Carne Viva in Postville: Stories of Madres & Monarchs, a play written and directed by Jennifer Cooley and Karen Mitchell, two University of Northern Iowa professors.
SCENE 1: May 12, 2008
(Sound of helicopters begins. Sirens are heard in the background. As they crescendo, we hear agents talking on walkie-talkies. Over-exposed images of the raid appear as the lights come up on people scurrying as they rush to hide from ICE agents. Lights begin to flash on and off across stage. Workers hide as agents invade the space. Momentarily, the space is empty as sounds of the raid continue among shouts of profanity in both English and Spanish. ICE agents enter with several people in shackles. They are forced to kneel on the floor and handcuffed. They are marched out of the space. A single worker reveals herself. She was hiding under the risers in the theatre. She looks around cautiously, and runs off stage. Blackout.)
This scene brought tears to my eyes. It was intense and scary, particularly when ICE agents drew their guns. Although I have never been brutalized by United States immigration officers, it felt like I was reliving something that I had been through. I felt fear for the workers. My mind raced back to how I came to the United States of America as a Fulbright grantee to pursue a Ph.D. degree in English and American Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo, nearly twenty-three years ago. How when the war broke out in Rwanda in October 1990 (between the Hutu-led Rwandan government army and the invading Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front’s army from Uganda) and the massacres started in April 1994, my family and I were about to return to Rwanda. As I had finished my studies early, I had almost two years I could use for “practical training—it has a different name now. Calling it work would have required a working visa, not J-1 (which I had) or an F-1 for international students who were not sponsored by a U.S. government agency—My wife and I had to apply for Temporary Protective Status or TPS. My daughter and son were U.S.-born citizens. We received help from one of the United States Senators from Idaho. At the time, I was a visiting assistant professor of English at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho.
There is a feeling of uncertainty when one sends any application to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. One does not know what to expect, and it may take a long time before one receives a response. While watching Carne Viva in Postville, I thought about the anxiety of not knowing which way the decision will go and the fear of being informed that a request has been denied, and therefore, one has to leave the country. This led me to behave as if I had already experienced a deportation process. When the actual raid happened in Postville, I watched clips about it on local television stations and read newspapers recounting how ICE agents had rounded up Guatemalan migrant workers and “herded” them to the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. Like cattle. (One sees the National Cattle Congress from Highway 218 South to St. Louis, Missouri. It is also known as the Avenue of the Saints. There is nothing “attractive” about the place.) In Carne Viva in Postville, the audience gets the stories about this from Raquel, Esperanza, and Aurora.
Watching Carne Viva in Postville also took me back to the time when my wife and I applied for political asylum before moving from Pocatello to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to teach at the University of Northern Iowa, and we learned that INS had lost almost a hundred pages we had sent as evidence that our lives would be in danger if we returned to Rwanda. We sent a letter of protest, but it was returned years later when they granted us asylum. As the burden of proof was on us, and we had more copies of the required documents, we applied anew. The same thing would happen again when we applied for our Green Cards or Permanent Residence and Citizenship. It took the help of two U.S. Senators from Iowa. Once again, we experienced the anxiety and the fear of the unknown decision. A Green Card, which is not green at all, allows you to stay in the U.S. and can be renewed, whereas a Certificate of Naturalization earns you a letter from the President of the United States of America welcoming you to “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” A U.S. Citizen! One can enjoy all the privileges, including being able to apply for federal jobs. Of all the privileges, the one I cherish the most is being able to go to the polls and vote. I exercised this right the first time in 2008, when I voted for Barack Obama for President of the United States. My wife and I served as Obama’s co-precinct captains. We enjoy looking at the several photos we took with Barack and Michelle Obama during the campaign.
In stark contrast, the characters in Carne Viva in Postville do not have privileges, and their basic human rights are denied and trampled over.
One of the highlights in Carne Viva in Postville occurs when Raquel, Esperanza, and Aurora tell their stories while showing their woven goods to Christina, a university professor at a university in the Midwest (clearly University of Northern Iowa), who wants to write about their ordeal as well as triumph through weaving and helping one another. As they tell their stories of survival, they show Christina how to make a huipil, a traditional Mayan blouse. As Esperanza narrates the story of how she met her husband and Raquel encourages her to tell the story of the “ransom money,” I sensed that she was maybe talking about a dowry, albeit Christina thought otherwise—“Were you kidnapped?”, she asked. Neither is correct. According to Esperanza, the bride’s uncles collect money, which signifies what the “bride is worth,” which goes to the groom’s family if the bride is ever seen with another man.
As Christina listened to the stories and donned Guatemalan traditional clothes, I could not help but think about those Europeans and Americans who travel to Africa and buy dashikis and try to drink local beers. When the three women started dancing, Christina tried to follow their moves. Something exotic. Like the baskets with butterflies on them. But there is something about Christina which is Midwestern, Iowan to be exact. The ethics of political activism, human compassion, and attempt to solve world problems. In “The Kite,” a short story by the Puerto Rican fiction writer Ed Vega, Rich Sanchez brings Kathy, described as “the corn-fed blonde VISTA volunteer from Iowa,” home to the dissatisfaction of his family. When Pop later asks his son why Kathy went home, Rick Sanchez explains that she “‘thought she was really going to solve the problems on her block,’” including drugs, illegitimate children, and other ills. When it became too much to bear, she left and returned to Iowa.
Similarly, Christina thinks that she can solve these women’s immigration issues or at least alleviate them. Not only does she listen to their stories and tries to sympathize with them, but she also brings them bags of children’s clothes, paper towels, toilet paper, and food. Additionally, she helps Ale to convince the Guatemalan women to tell them about any cases of “verbal abuse, physical abuse, unwanted attention, pressure to do things at work that were not appropriate because they were dangerous or too personal… or even invitations to meet outside of the workplace” or to think back and try to remember specific times when there was pressure to perform sexual favors.”
In Carne Viva in Postville, gender and sexuality intersect with immigration and suggest that female migrant workers face many more challenges than male migrant workers. For example, Esperanza recounts how she, like many women at the plant, was forced to urinate in her pants when the manager would not allow her to take a break. When Aurora refuses to tell her story of rape and sexual harassment at the plant in Postville and leaves the room, Raquel informs Christina that two years before the immigration raid Aurora miscarried her baby when she was seven months pregnant—at the assembly line, they did not allow her to take breaks to go to the bathroom or eat something—It was rumored that since the baby was the manager’s, it was an abortion, not a miscarriage. Here, the audience has to glean the truth from the fact that her husband threatened to leave her. More important, Aurora is pregnant again, which prompts Christina, Raquel, and Esperanza to wonder whether or not the baby embodies blessings and promises for the future, albeit she is an illegal alien stuck in Postville with neither job nor husband.
Verisimilitude enhances characters in works of fiction, drama, and film. These are characters or actors who dramatize their roles so convincingly that they appear to be true. Such is the case with the young actress who played Aurora. At the time she was rehearsing her role in Carne Viva in Postville, she was also enrolled in one of my courses for juniors and seniors. She did not appear pregnant. When she appeared on stage the first time, I did not recognize her. “Which one is your student?” my wife kept asking. “I don’t know. I don’t see her yet,” I answered. Then, I recognized her face and whispered to my wife while pointing to where the Aurora character was sitting down, weaving a butterfly pattern. “But she isn’t pregnant in my class,” I added. My wife convinced me that the young woman looked pregnant. I was baffled by the idea that I had failed to notice that one of my students was pregnant. How did she hide it? I wondered. Only during the intermission did my wife and I become convinced that it was good acting and make-up. She had brilliantly portrayed the character of Aurora and shed light to her nightmarish tale of trauma at a meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa.
As a play, Carne Viva in Postville: Stories of Madres & Monarchs ends on a somber note. In a scene that takes place in October 2011 in a university office, Christina mulls over the fact that there is no happy ending to both butterflies—which migrate south and then return north—and migrants. “But the truth is that migration is a just a vague promise for the future. It is triggered by the instinctual wish for a better life for our children, but it’s uncertain.” As she leaves her office late on Labor Day Night and saw thousands of monarch butterflies on pine trees, however, she seemed to think that although the butterflies may lay their eggs and not see the fruits of their labor, what matters is their effort to do so. Carne Viva in Postville: Stories of Madres & Monarchs also reminds us that what happened in Postville is not an Iowan problem. It is a national quandary, as migrants at meat processing plants across the United States continue to experience the same hardships and economic exploitation at the hands of plant managers.