Clawing Out

Mexican women travel to U.S. for jobs processing crab meat.

Originally published in The Washington Times, September 29, 2002.

In 2002, much of America’s Midwest and East Coast was just becoming aware of the large numbers of Latino immigrants – most from Mexico and Central America – who were working in fields, factories and other businesses in their communities. While much attention was being given to the young men who came, a newer trend was emerging. Women were leaving families, children and loved ones in Latin America to make the treacherous journey north by themselves and take advantage of industries desperate for manual laborers. One of those industries was North Carolina’s struggling crab processors.

Story by Andy Olsen

In 1989, Teresa Zapata told her family the unthinkable. The 25- year-old from Tabasco, Mexico, was going to work in the United States – and she was going on her own. Across Mexico that year, families were scandalized as several hundred young women left for jobs in American crab-processing plants. All along the East Coast, crab-plant owners were looking for replacements for their local workers, who were growing old and leaving.

“You’re crazy,” Miss Zapata’s father and mother told her. Her uncles stared, insulted. But she went anyway, taking the first step in what she calls a revolution for Mexican women.

Particularly in North Carolina, the blue-crab industry provides a revealing glimpse of the next wave of migration to the United States. Most of the state’s crab workers are among the thousands of Mexican women who are leaving husbands, children and families to come here on their own.

The first women who came to North Carolina in the late 1980s carried visas that allowed them to work during the six-month crab season and return home.

Others followed, not always legally. When she first came 14 years ago, Miss Zapata was one of just a few Latinos at the plant where she worked in Elizabeth City, N.C. This year the state hosted nearly 1,600 Mexicans, most of them women, according to the North Carolina Employment Securities Commission.

“If not for these women, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” said Sherrill Styron, owner of Garland Fulcher Seafood in Oriental, N.C.

Standing at just over 5 feet tall and talking with her arms, Miss Zapata acknowledged that Mexican women who venture out alone leave in their wake a slew of broken social norms. They have jobs. They probably make more money than their husbands and brothers back home. And they may not go home.

Since the mid-1970s, imports of crabmeat from places like Mexico, Thailand and China have wreaked havoc on the blue-crab industry along the East Coast. So have declining catches, as well as a lack of experienced local workers. So in the mid- 1980s, crab-company owners like Mr. Styron began recruiting among the crab plants that dot Mexico’s Gulf and Pacific coasts, where the crab season ends just as North Carolina’s heats up.

Mr. Styron ordered 23 women on H2G “guest worker” visas, the document that nearly all female migrant laborers are given.

“You take someone that’s never picked a crab, they’ll break you paying them minimum wage,” Mr. Styron said.
Buses and trucks began bringing groups of 20 and 30 women from Mexico to dozens of sleepy towns perched on the Abermarle and Pamlico sounds, where humid air blends with the smell of cooking crab.

The bosses in North Carolina watched with wide eyes as the women from the packing houses of Mexico worked through mountains of crabs, piling high the plastic tubs of freshly picked crab. Crew chiefs found they had to force them to stop at the day’s end.

A picker in Mexico brings in about $5 dollars a day. The best at Garland Fulcher make more than $400 a week, $10,000 in a six-month season.

Mexican men have long been coming to the United States on H2B visas to work in factories, farms and meat-packing plants. But the arrival of Mexican women has swelled the flow; a total of 34,996 such visas were issued last year, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

More Mexican women are coming illegally as well. Mexican Embassy officials estimate that roughly 15 percent of undocumented migrants are female.

A Mexican woman’s motivation for leaving home varies. “There are some who come looking for their men, and others who come for better opportunities,” said Victor Clark, a professor of border studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

For 23-year-old Maria Rodriguez, the trip was prompted by a broken heart.

She had never planned to come to America or to pick crabs. Her days inside the concrete walls of her family’s store in Paraiso had settled into a simple routine: Wake up at 5 a.m., mix flour into dough for the day’s empanadas, sell them.

Three years ago, her husband kissed her and their two children goodbye and left to work tobacco in Virginia. Two years later, he stopped calling; sitting on his bed stand in a room in Virginia, she later learned, was a photograph of his fair-skinned American girlfriend.

She headed to North Carolina to work in the crab industry, hoping to earn enough that her sons, 5-year-old Moises and 6-year-old Jose, would not have to make empanadas for a living.

Mrs. Rodriguez left her boys with her mother-in-law almost a year ago and slipped unnoticed with an illegal immigration broker, or “coyote,” across the U.S.-Mexican border. She dreams of sending the boys to American schools.

“They don’t charge for school, they don’t wear a uniform, nothing like that,” she said. “On the other hand, in Mexico you have to pay the government. They ask you for books, for uniforms, for crayons, for everything.”

When they come, the women sleep in old homes and warehouses. They don white rubber boots and green rubber gloves to slice the cold crustaceans, cutting carefully to preserve large lumps called “jumbo,” their most prized yield.

When there are enough crabs to pick, they do it from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. – 11 hours. An ambitious worker can pick as many as 1,300 crabs a day, nearly two every minute. When there are no crabs, they wait anxiously for a truck to bring more. Between shifts, older girls rub the hands of the newer ones, raw from hours of work.

At Sea Safari Ltd. in Belhaven, the women live about two miles from they plant where they work. Their home is a converted steel-roof warehouse on a gravel lot, with plywood walls separating their rooms. Dump trucks rumble by outside to feed the giant blast furnace next door that burns the waste from tons of dismembered crabs.

They occasionally mistake the trucks for thunder. “Sometimes you cry, and you want to go home,” said 23-year-old Glenda Corrales, who talks of someday living in the United States permanently and finding an American husband. “But you stay. You made a promise, and you have to see it through.” Ask the women why they come, and they say, “Para ganar un peso más.” It means, “To earn another peso.”

In just a few weeks time, that extra peso begins to change a young woman. Her face looks different in the mirror. Her dreams change as her savings grow. It is that change that concerns Mr. Styron of Garland Fulcher Seafood and owners of other crab-packing plants.

Some owners have been criticized for holding their workers’ passports and not letting them leave at night. But Mr. Styron, who now only asks his workers to tell him where they will be if they want to go out, said he sees his workers more as daughters to be protected than women to be controlled.

“The first year I had them up here, I reckon I was like a mother hen with them,” he said. “For some of them, it’s their first year up here, they’ve been working three or four weeks, they’re making money, and they just go crazy.”

So far this season, three of his workers have run away. One left to meet her husband, who was also in the United States. Two younger girls slipped out in the night with some boys. But the paychecks have not affected the more-patient women. Some, like Miss Corrales, tack sheets of paper with English words to the wall to stare at while lying in bed.

Others carry verb manuals to flip through in quiet moments.

They know the American dream is often a slow one. But women like Tammy Cota, the crew supervisor at Sea Safari, are a reminder that the dream is possible. Her hair is blond now. Her English is losing its heavy accent. And she loves to tell how her neighbors in Sinaloa mistake her for an American when she goes back each year.

“They’re jealous because I got better year after year, you know,” she said. “I have my nice house, which I love. Every year, I do something to my house. I add this room or add this or do that.”

Miss Zapata is not so lucky. This year, her season ended early. One day last month, a man showed up at their company-owned housing at the H.L. Stephenson Crab Company in Windsor and told them the plant was dying.

They had three days to get out. The women pleaded, begging for two more weeks of work or at least an advance for a plane ticket home, but got no response.

After they left, Miss Zapata and 25 women from her plant found refuge in the rectory of Holy Trinity Church in Williamston, N.C., before finding an apartment nearby. Their visas have expired.

Having just paid off the loan for their plane tickets to come here, they have no money to return to Mexico.
They have one another. As small groups drive out each day to factories and Wal-Mart looking for jobs, the rest wait together in the house, cooking and joking about American boys.

And Miss Zapata takes it upon herself to keep them together. “I think of myself like a mother and they’re my daughters, no matter their age,” she said. “We’re protected and we feel powerful.

“As long as we’re together, nothing is going to happen to us.” A couple of girls have found work on the breakfast shift at McDonald’s.

They pool their money to buy tickets for everyone. No one leaves until everyone can. They live near one another in Mexico, and if you go home alone, everyone in town frets. In 14 years, Miss Zapata has felt every bump along the road.

“This was an insult for the men and for our towns. But we showed that women could go forward, we didn’t have to sleep with men or anything like that,” she said. “When the women begin to revolutionize, there’s nothing that can stop it. Sometimes it evolves for the worse, sometimes for the better.”

When Maria Rodriguez arrived in Washington, N.C., last September, a Mexican woman sold her a Social Security number for $850. She said she came to pick crabs but by then, last year’s season was winding down and nobody was hiring.

Mrs. Rodriguez stayed with some friends for almost a year, babysitting occasionally, before she picked up some hours at a local factory.

Each night, Mrs. Rodriguez sits on a bench along the waterfront of this hushed town about 80 miles from the Outer Banks, where vacationers and sport fishermen tie their cruisers to the piers in the evenings.

There she watches mothers and fathers walk their children in flip-flops and thinks about bringing her own sons to America when she finds a permanent job. She tries to put her husband out of her mind. Sometimes she calls back home.

“My mom asks me if everything is good, and I tell her, ‘Yes, I’m good,’“ she said, nervously thumbing a Winnie the Pooh key chain on her lap. “I’m not having any problems here.”