1, August 2018

White, and in the minority

White, and in the minority

Story by Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post
Photos by Michael S. Williamson

FREDERICKSBURG, Pa. — It was minutes before the end of the first shift, and the beginning of the second, and the hallways at the chicken plant swarmed with workers coming and going. One pulled a hairnet over her curly hair, giggling at a joke. Two others exchanged kisses on the cheek. A woman with a black ponytail hugged everyone within reach. And a thin, ashen woman, whom no one greeted or even seemed to notice, suddenly smiled.

There he was. Standing near the lockers. Tall and crew-cut. Her boyfriend.

“Hi,” said Heaven Engle, 20.

“Hey,” replied Venson Heim, 25.

They met every day at this time, before he started his shift as a mechanic at Bell & Evans Plant 2, and she started hers as “I don’t know what they call it; I just check the chicken.” It was the hardest moment of her day. She knew she was about to go at least eight hours without speaking English, or probably anything at all, in a plant where nearly all of the workers were Latino and spoke Spanish, and she was one of the few who wasn’t and didn’t.

She slowly took out her earrings, nose ring and lip ring, placing them into her knapsack, and he turned to leave. “I got to go in 10 seconds,” he said, and she grabbed onto him. “Why are you trying to act like you want to leave me or something?” she said, and the two held the embrace, swaying slightly, their world outside the plant’s walls — white, rural, conservative — feeling distant in this world within, where they were the outsiders, the ones who couldn’t communicate, the minority.

In a country where whites will lose majority status in about a quarter-century, and where research suggests that demographic anxiety is contributing to many of the social fissures polarizing the United States, from immigration policy to welfare reform to the election of President Trump, the story of the coming decades will be, to some degree, the story of how white people adapt to a changing country. It will be the story of people like Heaven Engle and Venson Heim, both of whom were beginning careers on the bottom rung of an industry remade by Latinos, whose population growth is fueling that of America, and were now, in unusually intense circumstances, coming to understand what it means to be outnumbered.

They didn’t know the heavy burden of discrimination familiar to members of historically oppressed minority groups, including biased policing and unequal access to jobs and housing. But some of the everyday experiences that have long challenged millions of black, Latino and immigrant Americans — the struggle to understand and be understood, feeling unseen, fear of rapid judgments — were beginning to challenge them, too.

Venson let go of Heaven. He told her he had to clock in. She watched him disappear around a corner, then stood there for a moment, alone. She pulled on a winter hat, a wool scarf and a thick coat, knowing how cold the factory can get, then went to a different clock-in station. In the nearly vacant hallway, she watched the clock, waiting for her shift to begin at 3:20.

Seven minutes left: Employees gathered around Heaven, first three, then four, then six.

Studies have shown how some whites, who are dying faster than they’re being born in 26 states, react when they become aware of a tectonic demographic shift that will, with little historic precedent, reconfigure the racial and ethnic geography of an entire country. They swing to the right, either becoming conservative for the first time, or increasingly conservative — “politically activated,” explained Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard University, who among others found that white Democrats voted for Trump in higher numbers in places where the Latino population had recently grown the most.

Four minutes left: Heaven, looking at the floor, heard laughter and jokes exchanged in the rapid Spanish of the Dominican Republic.

They feel threatened, even if not directly affected by the change, and adopt positions targeting minorities out of “fears of what America will look like,” said Rachel Wetts of the University of California at Berkeley, who argued in one study that recent calls by whites to cut welfare were born of racial resentment inflamed by demographic anxiety, even though whites benefit from the social safety net as well.

Two minutes left: Heaven pressed closer and closer to the wall in a hallway that was now filled with workers, all Latino.

They empathize more deeply with other whites — a sense of group identity ignited — because “they feel like ‘We’re part of a threatened group, and we need to band together,’ ” said René Flores, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Chicago who has analyzed how whites reacted to the growing Latino presence in rural Pennsylvania.

And they feel as Heaven did now, clocking in, then following the others out onto the production floor: Either she’d find a way to fit in, or she’d find a way to get out.

heavens homeHeaven lives with her mother in the same small house in Fredericksburg where she was raised. The world outside the nearby Bell & Evans plant is white, rural and conservative.

When Heaven graduated high school in the spring of 2016, she had no desire to leave Fredericksburg. College didn’t interest her, because she hated school and wasn’t great at it, and she didn’t want to go out and see the world, either. She believed that everything she’d ever need was already here, so she felt content to apply for a job at Bell & Evans, whose water tower looms over the town, and where just about everyone she knew had already worked.

You’ll love it there, her sister said.

They’ve got great benefits, her mother said.

Give it a chance, her ex-boyfriend said.

It was now her 20th month of giving it a chance, and she was standing at the end of a long processing machine called the Multivac, wearing a white smock and blue latex gloves, making $13 an hour, waiting for the next four packages of chicken breasts to come down the line. They arrived every six seconds, and in that time she scanned for discoloration, leakage and mislabeling, setting aside defective packages for reprocessing. It was relentless: Here they came, there they went, every six seconds, about 40 in a minute, thousands in a shift — a shift during which so many things would upset her, but never the work.

She could handle the monotony. She could deal with standing under the vents, which cooled the production floor to 40 degrees. She could even tolerate the mess. The day chicken juice got all over her hair and face, the thing that had been intolerable had not been the smell or the taste, but that she didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.

She felt more alone than she’d ever thought possible. Alone when a worker slipped in front of her, and she wanted to ask if he was okay, but didn’t know how. Alone when she once went to the break room, saw the tables filled with people speaking Spanish, and swore that she’d never be back. And now when another plant worker, Denisse Salvador, a demure 25-year-old from the Dominican Republic, came to collect 40 chicken breasts that Heaven had placed into a bucket, she felt alone again. Months before, Salvador had marshaled all of her English to ask Heaven her name, and for a moment Heaven had felt less isolated, as though maybe that could be the beginning of a friendship, but that had been the extent of the conversation, and now neither said anything as Salvador collected the chicken breasts and left.

chicken on assembly lineHeaven makes $13 an hour working on a quality-control line, where she stands at the end of a long processing machine, waiting for packages of chicken breasts to arrive. She scans them for discoloration, leakage and mislabeling, setting aside defective packages for reprocessing. Many things upset her during her shifts, but never the work.

Heaven watched her go, then looked down. Four more chicken packages were arriving. She vacantly scanned them, and the next batch, and the next, losing herself in a thought that had grown to consume her. She couldn’t do this anymore. Two years of her life — gone, spent in near silence. She knew it was her fault, too. She could have tried harder, learned a few Spanish words, overcome her shyness. But instead, all she’d ever wanted was another job, where friends would come easier and where she wouldn’t feel so outnumbered, because, as she had again tried to explain earlier that day to her father, Dave Engle, “It sucks when you can’t talk to no one.”

“But that way at least you should be working,” he said. “If you can’t even talk.”

“I would rather sit and talk,” she said. “It would make the day go faster.”

They were riding in Dave’s big red truck. The windows were down. Country music was playing. The road cut through an endless expanse of fields and hills, a view that included a sign that said, “TRUMP,” with the “T” replaced by a handgun.

Growing Hispanic populationSo much of Lebanon County, population 140,000, was undergoing what local historian Adam Bentz called a “demographic transformation,” but not Fredericksburg, and not its 1,500 residents. Over the past two decades, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans had surged into nearby Lebanon city, either from New York or the Caribbean, attracted by cheap housing, an established Latino community, and food-processing plants that had become increasingly, if not mostly, staffed by Latinos, because, as one former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity put it, “White people didn’t want to work in the stinky chicken shop.” Fredericksburg, meanwhile, home to some plants, was still 95 percent white, still overwhelmingly conservative. Downtown amounted to a library, a bar named the Fredericksburg Eagle Hotel, banners emblazoned with the bald eagle, signs that said, among other things, “NOTICE: This place is politically incorrect,” and houses flying the Confederate flag.

Heaven looked out the window. This was her town. Her people. Was it so wrong to want to be among them? Was it so wrong to want to work with them? Was it so wrong to refuse to learn a new language? She had taken some Spanish in high school, but had dropped it, not because she had any animosity toward the language or the people who spoke it, but because that just wasn’t her — that was other parts of Lebanon County, not Fredericksburg.

Now on the edge of her Fredericksburg rose a giant new factory, and Heaven read a sign outside saying, “Hiring All Positions.”

quote 1“That big place right back there,” she said. “That’s the Ace Hardware I want to apply at. Isn’t it opening in June?”

“It’s already open,” her father replied, and she started thinking of all of the possibilities of working there — conversations, friends, belonging — rather than the reality of what awaited her hours later, which was another bin full of raw chicken legs, and Salvador again making her way toward the back of the line to pick it up. Heaven watched Salvador coming, annoyed. Why couldn’t she learn English? Why was it up to Heaven to change? Salvador was the newcomer, not her.

What Heaven didn’t know was that Salvador agreed with her. She thought it was her responsibility to learn English, too. She’d grown up seeing Americans come through her town along the Dominican Republic’s northern coast, and had dreamed of following them back to the United States. But when she finally got here in April 2017, all she’d found was a sick mother, who had sponsored her green card but whom she now had to care for, endless household chores and a 45-minute commute from their home in Reading, Pa., to a chicken plant where there was no need to learn English because everyone spoke Spanish. So now, nearly as monolingual as when she arrived, all she did when she reached the back of the line was smile at Heaven, who smiled back, then wheel the chicken away.

flagsA part-American, part Confederate flag flies outside a house on a country road south of Lebanon, Pa. Much of Lebanon County, population 140,000, was undergoing what local historian Adam Bentz called a demographic transformation driven by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, but not Fredericksburg, and not its 1,500 residents.

“I’m quitting,” Heaven was saying.

“You’re always saying you’re quitting,” said this shift’s only other white production worker, Ronaele Wengert, 31, who came by one day to tell Heaven that they had a meeting in a few minutes. They knew what that could mean.

“I swear to God, if they don’t say anything in English, I’m going to freak out,” Heaven said.

“Then they’ll say, ‘Do you understand? Do you understand?’ Does it look like I understand?” Wengert said. “Then they translate.”

“They try.”

Heaven shook her head. What was this job doing to her? She’d never thought of herself as prejudiced — and still didn’t — but there were increasingly times when she felt so far on the outside, so little understood, that her alienation was hardening into something closer to anger, and possibly worse. Like when she had to clock in and felt pushed out of the way. Or when people said “gringa” and she experienced a flash of paranoia that they were talking about her. Or when supervisors separated Spanish speakers from English speakers for training videos, sometimes leaving Heaven in a room alone, except for a guy whom she believed spoke only French.

Worried that it might happen again, she headed to the wash sinks, past row after row of silver machinery humming so loudly that workers nearby had to shout, past the deboning station and the conveyor belts, and warmed her numb hands under the water. She took off her smock and hairnet and, straightening her hair, went into the meeting room. It was already filled with employees, but there was a seat in the back, where she sat down and waited.

quote2A form was handed out, and she sighed in irritation when she saw it was in Spanish — “politica de zapatos resistentes a resbalones” — only nodding in relief when she flipped it over and realized there was an English version: “slip-resistant shoe policy.” She quickly looked at it, then leaned over to Wengert, seated beside her, and said, “This is not going to be in English.”

“Yeah,” Wengert said.

“I’m okay sitting here and reading it,” Heaven said. “I did that last time.”

As the meeting went on — presenters at first switching between Spanish and English, but increasingly talking only in Spanish — she became more and more irritated. When one worker joked that his Timberland boots were probably slip-resistant, and everyone laughed, she didn’t understand what was happening. Later, when another employee called the boots pictured in the handout ugly, and people chuckled again, she crossed her arms. One of the presenters tried to keep up, translating all that he could, looking at Heaven when he did, but it was no use. He missed some things, or got the words wrong.

hispanic share of mfg-1“Is that supposed to be English?” Wengert whispered to Heaven, who shook her head slightly. When the meeting was over, she stood up and, without a word, walked out. It was break time, and everyone else was talking lunch, heading for the cafeteria. But Heaven didn’t follow. She instead went to her locker, took out her phone and a pack of menthol cigarettes, and went outside into the day’s last light.

That’s where she saw him. Outside, along the iron fence, taking his break alone, too.

“Is that my boyfriend?” she called.

She went to him. They kissed and sat side by side, legs touching. Flipping through Facebook, she told him about the meeting, how uncomfortable it had been.

“They don’t give a rat’s ass about people with white skin,” he said.

She nodded, feeling better. This was exactly what she had needed. Someone who understood, and Venson always did. She first met him last July. For months, she had called over any mechanic — most of whom were white on her shift — repairing a nearby machine, just to have someone to talk to, and then one day it was Venson. He told her he’d gone to the same high school she had, and it felt so good to connect that they soon had a relationship going, one whose core was their shared experience at Bell & Evans.

“Half of them know English and they just don’t show it,” Venson continued, pulling on a cigarette.

“They do,” she agreed, smoking her own.

“You get pretty much overlooked,” he said.

She sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder, feeling tired, and then the two of them were quiet as the trucks carting away the chicken rumbled off and the final minutes of their break ticked down to nothing.

smoochHeaven and Venson kiss goodbye outside the break room before their shifts. The core of their relationship is their shared experience at Bell & Evans.

There were days when Venson imagined what might await America. This would be a nation where whites weren’t only a minority, but disadvantaged, punished for their collective crimes, because, as he put it, “we haven’t been the nicest race.” Speaking Spanish wouldn’t just be beneficial, but essential, and people like him would never be able to recover from what they didn’t know. “Screwed for life,” he said.

These were relatively new thoughts for him. Until now, his entire life had been lived in one America, the America of Jonestown, Pa., where he shared a drab two-story rental with his mother in a neighborhood of neat yards, basketball hoops and trucks parked in the driveways. He graduated from Northern Lebanon High School, whose demographics the principal, Jennifer Hassler, struggled to describe as “Diversity isn’t necessarily — we don’t have a lot of diversity, we just don’t.” On weekends, his family took day trips to nearby Hershey’s Chocolate World.

But since he’d started at Bell & Evans, and been plunged into another America, this one less familiar, race had been on his mind all of the time. He thought about it when Heaven said she wanted to quit. He thought about it when his mother vented about finding jobs for the immigrants at her temp agency, and when he watched the news on his big-screen television in his room, amid his sports posters, work boots and video games.

He didn’t understand why people said the United States should allow in more immigrants. If a Syrian needed asylum from a murderous regime, then yes, the country should help. But anyone crossing the border seeking jobs, even government assistance — that didn’t seem fair. What about the people already here? What about the homeless? What about him? He was the one, after all, whose career had been shaped by Washington policymakers, who he believed didn’t know what it was like to be an outsider in your own community — a feeling that had become as ordinary to him as the wrench in his back pocket, which he now took out to tinker with a malfunctioning batter machine.

“The motors are burning because they’re constantly running,” Venson shouted over the clamor, but only got confused looks in return.

Three white mechanics in blue smocks were huddled around the machine. Ten Latino workers in white smocks were huddled around them, watching as Venson unscrewed a clogged pipe to drain the excess batter, then screwed it back on. The white men stood up and, with another job done, returned to the mechanics’ break room, finding a mess of junk food and drinks and a giant American flag hanging in the back from ceiling to floor. They took off their smocks and hairnets. Venson sat at the picnic table. He took in a slow breath and let it out.

The truth was that he loved this job. He didn’t have a vocational degree, like some of the mechanics, or any experience, like others. But in just one year, he’d gotten so good at it that his bosses had bumped his hourly pay from $13.50 to $17. When the Pacmac or the DSI Portioning System acted up, he was the one who knew what to do, not because he was a savant, but because he’d worked at it, day after day, which was why he became so frustrated when workers in that department didn’t ask him for assistance. They wanted help only from Juan Leon, the shift’s lone Latino mechanic, a Puerto Rican transplant whom Venson genuinely liked and appreciated, but who didn’t know those machines. Venson did. So why didn’t they ask him for help? Why did they want solely another Latino? How did it get to be this way?

“I was amazed,” mechanic Mike Stubblefield said one day, during another break room conversation about the plant’s racial dynamic, after seeing entire Latino families working at the plant. “ ‘Your father works here, your mother, your brother and your sister?’ ”

“That goes right back to what I was saying. It’s an easy place to get employed, these plants are,” Venson said. “They just come put in an application, ‘I need trabajo.’ ”

“Yo necesito trabajo?” said Mike Zombro, another mechanic.

“Yeah, sure, whatever, yo quiero Taco Bell,” Venson said. “No speak-a the Spanish.”

“That’s why we have Juan. ‘Juan, what the f— is he saying to me? Because I don’t f—ing know,’ ” Zombro said, laughing and backslapping Leon, who last year had requested a transfer to a shift with more Latino mechanics, in part to get away from this type of talk. He silently listened to the conversation, expressionless, until a call came over the radio. Time to get out onto the production floor. The men pulled on their hairnets.

On his way toward the next assignment, Venson saw Heaven. She was alone at the back of Line 4. He’d never seen her speak with anyone, not in the year he’d been here, and he didn’t know how she did it. At least he had the camaraderie of the mechanics, the reprieve of their break room, the fulfillment of doing work he liked. But why was she still here, he couldn’t help but think. Why hadn’t she quit?

2 photos LEFT: On mornings after her night shifts at the plant, Heaven often sleeps in until noon, and the first thing she often does is check for messages from Venson. RIGHT: Heaven and Venson visit the Siegrist Dam near Lebanon, Pa., for a day trip and hike.

It was nearly 2 in the afternoon when Heaven woke, two hours later than she’d wanted, inside a trailer sealed from the light of outside. Lying on a mattress without a frame, she checked her phone to see if Venson had texted her — not yet — then looked around the room where she’d spent nearly every night for almost as long as she could remember. There were her stuffed elephants. An old flower-print chair piled with clothing. The chalkboard on the wall where she’d written, “11/11/17,” the date her relationship with Venson started. And a pack of menthol cigarettes, which she carried outside, squinting into the cloudless afternoon.

She got a cigarette going, and then another, looking at a view that spilled out like a painting, only crops and trees and sun.

No matter how many times she’d been out here, the view had never changed, one of the few things that hadn’t in a county and state and country where every year seemed to bring more news of transformation. In 2015, demographers announced that California had more Latinos than whites. In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau said white babies hadn’t been the majority the year before. In 2017, all racial minorities were found to be growing faster than whites. And here in Lebanon County, plans were underway for yet more factories and plants, including one at Bell & Evans, that local experts predict will employ mostly Latinos, accelerating the demographic shift.

Heaven, looking out into this county, felt resigned to what she could not change. She had applied to the new Ace Hardware factory. Then when that didn’t lead to anything, she submitted an application to an industrial supply plant. But no one got back to her on that, either, and she now wondered: What had been the point? She believed she’d be a minority no matter what plant she worked in. The world she’d never wanted to go out and see had instead come to her, and it was here to stay.

The cigarette was done, and she went inside. She put on her makeup, sprayed herself with a burst of Winter Candy Apple perfume, then drove the three miles into work. She looked for Venson, but he’d already clocked in, so she pulled on her winter hat and scarf again. It was seven minutes until her shift began, and with nothing better to do, and no one to talk to, she went to the clock-in station, where she watched the woman with a black ponytail coming down the hallway, hugging people as she went.

This time, however, when she reached Heaven, the woman stopped. Heaven stayed motionless, unsure. Without a trace of caution, the woman embraced her, saying something Heaven didn’t understand. Then an older woman kissed her cheek. Then the women crowding around Heaven began to laugh, and, as the final minutes went by, she started laughing, too.

Then it was over. The clock hit 3:20. A rush of key cards touched the clock-in machine. The women dispersed: the Spanish speakers to one station, where they stood and got to work, chatting as they went, and Heaven to the back of Line 4, where the only sound in her ears was the whir of the Multivac pushing out the next four packages of chicken.

flag barnAn American flag is painted on a barn near Lebanon, Pa. Fredericksburg, in Lebanon County, is 95 percent white and overwhelmingly conservative.

Credits: Story by Terrence McCoy . Photos by Michael S. Williamson. Designed by Clare Ramirez . Photo Editing by Mark Miller.

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