In the Summer of 2010, I was an intern with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF). I registered migrant workers for a health program in South Carolina. I stayed at the house of a former SAF intern’s mother.
The road leaving our neighborhood crossed with another road. The road it crossed means more to me every time I think about it. In one direction: The interstate, the city of Columbia and the new offices of South Carolina Primary Health Care, where I worked for the Migrant Health Project. Bars, fitness clubs, restaurants and music clubs were all in that direction.
Columbia was a place of power. The State House stood there with its long sets of steps and its tall columns.
Along the State House’s sides, monuments told an official version of South Carolina history. There were monuments to the Confederate dead and to Strom Thurmond. Other monuments showed African-Americans’ long history, from the days of slavery in the fields of indigo to achievements in the present day.
Our landlady, Jennet, told us that in the other direction was “nothing.” For her, as for many people in Columbia, that area was nothing. It was more suburbs.Then it was sprawling fields of peaches, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and plants city people couldn’t tell apart from each other.
The countryside was not a wasteland. Big farms had offices and receptionists. Farmers ran their fields like factories, only with hotter and tougher work.
The country was more random than the city. Downtown for one town was an old-fashioned-looking block of brick buildings that happened to include a Mexican popsicle store. The center of another town seemed to be a white Victorian-style house serving as the office for an IGA store.
It could rain one minute. The next minute, dust could be blowing. Workers lived in many arrangements: trailers, cinder houses, even log cabins in one place.The land was flat, but by the end of that summer, I could not see it as “nothing.” For many farm workers I met, it was everything, or at least everything that they saw of South Carolina.
People who had come from other countries to work the land often had no way to drive anywhere else and no reason to do so. To them, the lights of Columbia and the steps of the capital were a faint rumor if they were anything.