Driftless: Stories from Iowa, is a MediaStorm project that features stories from rural Iowa from the point of view of photojournalist Danny Wilcox Frazier. Frazier, a white guy from Iowa City, Iowa, frames Iowa from a majority white, romanticized point of view.
I was raised in Southeast Iowa near Iowa City and have been to a lot of the towns that are featured in Frazier’s project. The project is split into distinct sections: Family Farm, Town Bar, Jumping Rock, Migrant Labor, Country Butcher, and Harry & Helen.
Kalona and Conesville are a couple of the towns that are featured in the project. I grew up in that part of Iowa – East of Kalona and West of Conesville. The film includes many of the things that most people associate with Iowa: farming, cows, hogs, cornfields, gravel roads, guns, tractors, and white people. Associating Iowa with white people is not a difficult thing to do as the latest U.S. Census numbers show that Iowa is 94% white. However, Iowa is not 100% white and I think that Frazier is barely aware of this fact.
Frazier’s interviews in the piece construct rural Iowans as being all white and that people of color, predominantly Latinos, are “newcomers” or semi-permanent residents. People from Mexico immigrated to Iowa as early as the 1800’s. Frazier’s subjects who are older than 50 are all white and are depicted as “true Iowans.”
Whiteness is romanticized. The video clip titled “Migrant Labor” and the transcript of the video provides ample fodder for critique:
Terry Bell: I know in Iowa every small town has had a lot of Hispanics coming into it. I think the Midwest was one of the last places to become integrated, but we’re integrated now and that’s the way it is.
Latinos have lived in Iowa for over 100 years. The Bell’s are completely oblivious to this fact and act like Iowa has been all white up until the 1980’s. This whitewashed view of Iowa is saturated throughout the media and is continued in this interview. When Terry says that “that’s the way it is,” it almost seems that a sense of resentment is portrayed in that comment.
Jim McCormick: The residents of the town have changed. At one time this was a small community, had probably 100 people. They were all white working middle class people. Now, it’s over, I’d say two-thirds of the town population is Hispanic which, don’t get me wrong, a lot of them are really nice people. They are tax payers, they work hard, they take care of their property, and then of course, you always have a few bad eggs. We’re starting to get gang problems. We also have a drug problem we never used to have. And the quality of life has went downhill.
Let’s talk about why Conesville was all white at one time. It’s because the racist residents of the town kept people of color from living there. For example, that part of Iowa used to be home to thousands of Native Americans and now Native folks make up less than 1% of the population. McCormick starts off with a comment on how “they” are all not bad, but then ends with the overarching statement that the “quality of life has went downhill” as a result of Latinos living in Conesville. What’s interesting to know is that Latinos have been living in Conesville for a long time. I find it interesting that Latinos in Iowa are all depicted as migrant laborers and not part of the community. Whiteness is romanticized and people of color are placed in a position of “the other”.
Tom Bell: It was the late eighties before we started seeing the Hispanic coming into this. My father hired a few. But my brother and I are the ones that carried it on to the extent that we have today.
Notice how Bell uses the phrase, “the Hispanic” as opposed to Hispanic people. You would never hear him say “the white”. Again, white people are framed as being in Iowa for a long period of time and Latinos are “newcomers.”
Terry: We’re allowed to say we need this number of agricultural workers on a temporary basis and then they’re given their Visas to come in with our names to work a specific period of time. People think that guest worker program might be cheap labor. To us it’s not cheap labor for farm work. And the wages are going up year after year.
It is cheap labor. That’s why you hire migrant farmworkers. Of course the wages are going up each year…it’s called inflation. Everyone’s wages are supposed to go up each year to keep up with it, but Bell who gets to dictate to temporary laborers a low wage, is complaining about this? He gives them their Visas. He has complete power over people and doesn’t think twice about it.
Jim: If he has 1,200 here next year that’s three times our local population. We can’t handle it. We don’t have a law enforcement, we don’t have the monetary assets to handle it.
It’s like they are talking about pseudo-slavery. And of course he conflates crime with Latinos as the first issue the town will need to address. How about Jim gets a mirror and gains some awareness of his whiteness and the power that he and other white men have in the Conesville community. How many Latinos in Conesville own businesses?
Terry: We’re not minimizing their concerns. We understand it. It’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of transient people in their mind. But they’re really not so transient. They come here and they go home.
Their concerns are mostly based around racist tropes and it is a widespread and unfortunate view.
Tom: It’s very hard work. You’re bent over all day long. It’s hot. And the Hispanic workers know exactly what needs to be picked and it works real well.
He’s almost saying that Latinos have a sixth sense for fruit picking…of course this is untrue, but he conflates Latino workers with fruit picking knowledge. Well, the migrant laborers who work for Mr. Bell would not have jobs if they were not aware of the tasks that are necessary for the job. Being Latino and knowledge of fruit picking do not go hand in hand.
Jim: I’ve known Mr. Bell for a lot of years and Mr. Bell is Mr. Bell. He’s in there to make a profit which I don’t blame him. He has to make a living too. But he’s putting an unfunded mandate on the community. We can’t afford it.
Just exactly “is” the “community” that Jim is referring to…how do you become a member of his whitewashed community?
Terry: It used to be there were so many farms, and there were kids on those farms that wanted summer jobs. That used to be who did this work. And you can’t find very many farm kids anymore period. There are just aren’t a lot of them.
Bell makes it sound as if all of the white kids (the majority of farm owners in Iowa are white) from farms disappeared. He should really try to talk about the classism and racism that is present in the modern-day Iowa watermelon farm. White kids are not present to do these jobs because they don’t have to…mainly because those irksome wages that you spoke of earlier have failed to keep pace with inflation and expectations.
Jim: The kids around here quit doing that because they tried to run them 10, 12, 14 hours a day. While I understand the push, but we’re talking teenage kids. And you can’t push them that hard. So he brought in the migrants. Well he also pays them less than what he was having to pay the local kids. Because the local kids can go work at a grocery store for 6, 8 hours and make the same kind of money and not have to work near as hard.
Translation: You can’t push white kids like you can push migrant Latino laborers. Can we call it indentured servitude yet? Why can’t Latinos in Conesville work in the grocery store? I used to work in the grocery store that he speaks of…the Economart – air conditioned and a high hourly wage for a teenager.
Terry: You always hear that argument. If you paid more you wouldn’t have to bring all these people in. That’s not true. There just aren’t the available people to do this kind of work. We could be paying $30 an hour and we would not get the people here to do the job we need done, because it’s temporary. They can’t have the job long enough to do people that live here much good.
I really wish that these guys would read up on classism and racism. They have created a backbreaking system and then “brought” in people to work within it.
Tom: We advertise in all the local papers. Got one young man from the area that came and applied and I hired him. But there’s very, very few that come and want to put those hours in. All the people that we brought in over the years, I don’t think there is over one or two or three that we have actually not brought back because they didn’t work. They’re good people. And I enjoy working with hard-working people.
I think that he really enjoys “bringing in” people that he can pay a low-wage so that he can maximize his profits at the expense of everyone outside of his family. It’s hard to complain about shitty work when your employer grants you a Visa which is what enables you to be with your family.
Jim: They worked the dog dirt out of the, their temporary help. And they sleep in that migrant camp over there. It would probably be 100 degrees at 10:00 at night. I mean, it’s terrible.
But if the Bell’s didn’t pay low wages and participate in a modern version of indentured servitude then they wouldn’t be able to have their nice house.
Terry: We feel a responsibility to them. We couldn’t get our jobs done without them. We appreciate what they do for us. We hope it’s good for them, they’re good for us.
Translation: We make a lot of money off of the backbreaking labors of migrant Latinos. That “responsibility” that he mentions feels sickeningly paternalistic.
Jim: Some people feel that if you say no about anything, that makes you a racist. Well, I’m sorry, that isn’t true. If you can’t have an opinion then you might as well be in Soviet Russia. I feel that the people in this community have a right to have their say in what becomes of their community. If somebody else doesn’t like it, too bad.
I think that Jim has said more than just “no about anything.” Yes, he can have an opinion and yes, it can definitely be racist. Again, who makes up this “community”? In Jim’s white supremacist brain, it is not Latinos who make up the community.
Danny Wilcox Frazier does not give a single second of air time to sharing the voices of Latinos in Conesville. The paternalistic white Iowan overseers are portrayed as victims who cannot maintain their “communities.”
I grew up in rural Iowa near Conesville, Iowa. Several of my high school classmates lived in Conesville. There are generations of Latinos who have lived, worked and prospered in that part of Iowa. This documentary project minimizes their contributions and silences their voices.