Celso Mendoza spent the last two decades of his life scratching out a meager living on the processing line at a chicken plant in Forest, Mississippi. Though he lived humbly, he was an honorable man; a worker leader respected by many in his community.
On May 2, his life was cut tragically short by COVID-19. He was 59 years old.
In recent weeks poultry and meatpacking workers have increasingly sounded the alarm as processing plants across the country have experienced outbreaks of COVID-19. As workers begin to perish, advocates warn that they are at particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19.
Packed closer together than the birds they slaughter, amid the constant din of machinery, workers are forced into close range at every turn. Few have access to paid sick leave and many cannot afford to miss work when they feel unwell. These practices present ideal conditions for the coronavirus to infect large numbers of people quickly. And many, like my friend Celso, won’t survive.
To amplify the chorus of voices warning our nation of what is still to come for food chain workers, and in honor of a man I greatly respected, I want to share a small part of Celso Mendoza’s story.
I was a grad student with a lot to learn
Celso and I first met in 2002, shortly after each of us first arrived in Mississippi. Our friendship was an unlikely but easy one. As a graduate student studying the labor practices of this industry, I had a lot to learn from Celso.
He had migrated from Veracruz, Mexico, to work in the chicken plant for $6 an hour. While it wasn’t much, by sharing a house with a dozen others from his village he was able to send money home to support his family there.
I remember sitting on a sagging sofa in the living room of the house they rented our first winter in Forest. Bundled in coats, hats, and gloves, we laughed together over our favorite telenovela, "Pedro El Escamoso," enjoying the opportunity to unwind after a long day.
The floor sloped down toward one wall, and there was a 2-inch gap under the front door. A tiny electric heater worked overtime in the middle of the room, but it did little to keep us warm. The pipes had been frozen for three days, the central heat wouldn’t turn on, and the plumbing was out of commission. This was no small problem for a household of 13 men who handled raw chicken for most of their waking hours, yet their landlord rarely responded in a timely fashion to their maintenance requests.
This is the life of many immigrant poultry workers throughout the U.S.: earning far less than a fair wage, paying far beyond a fair price for housing, barely scraping by, year after year. But if disadvantage dampened Celso’s spirits, he didn’t let on, and he always fought for what he knew was right.
When the labor contractor that supplied workers to the chicken plant reneged on a small raise it had promised its longtime employees, cutting their earnings by 10%, Celso was righteously indignant. In the span of one weekend he organized his co-workers to carry out a work stoppage. When they arrived at the plant on that Monday, dozens of people refused to enter the processing lines to work, demanding a reinstatement of their wages.
Coronavirus protection:Workplaces aren't ready for mass reopening. First we need standards to keep workers safe.
Their action attracted the attention of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, and by year’s end workers at the chicken plant had won a union contract. In addition to securing better pay and working conditions, the contract and its subsequent renegotiations gradually phased out the third-party labor contractor altogether.
As a result, eventually Celso and many others were hired directly by the chicken plant, granting them hard-fought union protections and a slightly improved quality of life.
In recent years Celso lived alone in a one-room apartment. Though I had moved away, I visited him in 2014 to read him sections of my draft book manuscript about Mississippi’s poultry workers, for which he was tickled to provide feedback. I found a decade-old 4x6 picture of us tacked up on his wall.
I visited again in 2016 to gift him an inscribed copy of the book. As always, he received me graciously despite having just returned from a long day at work. Our time was short but precious.
Celso’s son Daniel, who also works at a chicken plant, generously called to tell me of his passing. When he went to his father’s apartment he found my book, some letters, and the photo. “He would have wanted you to know,” he said. I thanked him, telling him I esteemed Celso for his kindness, his generosity, his moral compass, and his leadership on issues of worker justice. Daniel also told me that the hospital in Jackson, where Celso spent his last days, is full of COVID-positive poultry workers.
These lives matter
Just days before Celso passed, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to ensure that plants remain open despite the hazard they present to the humans working inside. This will dramatically hamper the efforts of local and state-level health officials to slow the spread of this deadly disease, which, as of the first week of May, has already infected over 10,000 poultry and meatpacking workers and killed at least 45.
Because of the pandemic, Celso's family cannot commemorate his life as they would like. Instead, they've placed his framed photo and a vase of flowers on a table in their yard, inviting their community to stop by to pay their last respects in solitude.
Safety first:Coronavirus pandemic shines a light on the risks meatpackers are facing
Celso's wish was to return to Mexico, and his family is doing all they can to raise the $8,000 needed to send his body home. Meanwhile, Daniel's kidney disease has worsened, and he desperately needs a transplant to survive. But determined to do right by his father, Daniel is now preparing to spend the money he had saved for his own medical treatment on Celso’s repatriation.
Celso Mendoza’s life mattered. Daniel Mendoza’s life matters. Poultry and meatpacking workers' lives matter. And if we value all lives, we must take action to protect all lives, including those of the mostly black and brown hardworking people who keep America’s food chain running.
Angela Stuesse is an associate professor of Anthropology and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of "Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South." Follow her on Twitter: @astuesse. To support Daniel's transplant and Celso's repatriation fund, click here. This column first appeared in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger.