Julia Longoria: You’re listening to The Experiment. I’m Julia Longoria.
(A bell chimes, rewinds, distorts. It’s time for dinner.)
Longoria: This is the third course of a three-course SPAM feast. So if you haven’t already, go back and listen to the first two.
At the start of our journey, producer Gabrielle Berbey set out to solve a family mystery and popped open a Pandora’s can.
(The bell and its accoutrements dissolve.)
Gabrielle Berbey: SPAM, we learned, was an invention of the Great Depression—a reliable source of protein in hard times.
(Dramatic, old-timey music plays, charged with static, patriotic instrumentation.)
Berbey: Then during World War II, SPAM traveled overseas in the food rations of American GIs, where it was many soldiers’ dying meal.
(The music turns dark, then returns with fervor to a patriotic fanfare.)
Berbey: But in the Pacific islands where those GIs landed, SPAM became a symbol of freedom, an emblem of the American dream.
Newscaster 1: They have starved and suffered but lived.
(Over a long drone, like a tornado siren, the patriotic music is replaced with the sounds of conflict in an echoey void.)
Longoria: Then, 40 years later, SPAM sparked a bitter strike that went on to tear its hometown apart.
Union organizer: That’s what we’re talking about here, today, is power: how you can give it and how you can use it.
Longoria: Some people lost their jobs. Others lost their families.
Newscaster 2: Brother was pitted against brother.
Longoria: Everyone lost a way of life.
Rayce Hardy: The worker lost in the ’80s. [A crowd counts down.] They lost.
Longoria: For the strikers, SPAM became a painful reminder of a time when their idea of the American dream was lost.
(A bell clangs out a heavy, consistent beat for a moment over the sound of wildlife, a dramatic change from the conflict of the strike.)
Longoria: So we wondered: After the strike ended, what became of the workers at the plant where SPAM is made?
To answer this, we turn to a time around 2006, when the SPAM saga takes another turn.
Longoria: Where does the story of this whole thing start for you?
Carol Hidalgo: (Laughing.) Honestly, the first thing that—It’s literature that comes to my head: “What is at us?” “What’s afoot?”
Berbey: “What’s afoot?” (Hidalgo laughs.)
Longoria: Wait. What is—what is—what … ?
Berbey: Where is—what is that from?
Hidalgo: (Still lightly, with laughter.) “Afoot” comes from Sherlock Holmes. It’s a mystery! So that’s what came to mind.
(Over plucked strings, the winding melody of a double reed—maybe a bassoon—twists and turns rapidly.)
Berbey: We begin with a detective of sorts.
Hidalgo: My name is Carol Hidalgo. I work at Austin Medical Center. It’s now Mayo Clinic Health System. I’m a staff interpreter liaison.
Berbey: Carol translates for doctors and patients at a medical clinic in Austin, Minnesota: SPAMtown, U.S.A.
Hidalgo: The patients speak Spanish, primarily.
You are greeted at the desk. You check in. The nurse takes you back, asks some preliminary questions, takes your vital signs …
Berbey: And one day, like any other day—
Hidalgo: A gentleman came in.
Berbey: Carol greeted a patient who was there to see one one of the doctors.
Hidalgo: The provider does their interview, the person would answer, I would interpret, and it goes back and forth like that.
Berbey: The man began to describe his symptoms.
(The whimsy of the bassoon is replaced with anxious strings, dissonant and weighty.)
Hidalgo: “I’m weak, fatigued, and tingly, and I don’t have energy. I want to go to work. I can’t work. I can’t get up the stairs at work. I can’t hold my equipment at work.”
Berbey: It was unclear what was causing this tingly sensation. When the appointment was over, the patient left, and Carol went on with her day.
About four months passed, and another patient came in.
Hidalgo: The second one was a younger gentleman who, months ago, had been playing basketball, and he was actually wheelchair-bound. It was weakness and tingling and “Things I could do, I can’t do.”
Berbey: And, after that, another patient came in.
Hidalgo: The third one was this gal …
Berbey: This patient was someone Carol had translated for many times before.
Hidalgo: She was usually really upbeat, really bubbly, very happy. “Hey, Carol! Hi! How are you?” I had seen her two months prior.
Berbey: She had been healthy the last time Carol saw her. But this time was very different.
Hidalgo: I saw her in the ER. And she came in in a wheelchair. She could hardly get out of it. She needed assistance to get up on the exam table. She was going to sign an authorization and couldn’t hold the pen.
Berbey: This patient turned to her and said:
Hidalgo: “You saw me! I could walk two months ago.” [Laughing bitterly.] I was like, “Yeah, you could.” It was drastic, the change. It was significant. She was exhausted. She was worn out. She said, “Everything tingles. I can’t make it stop.” It was like, "Wait, what?” My heart dropped. Didn’t I just say this? Oh, no, that was the other patient.
But I’m just like, Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! This isn’t happening.
I was able to just say, “Hey, you know, something’s sticking out to me about your symptoms.”
(Persistent strings play, slow and steady and ominous.)
Berbey: Carol began to do some sleuthing.
Hidalgo: I like seeing how things relate and seeing how things repeat. I’m a big pattern person [Chuckles.], so I was trying to draw a web around each day. Like, I’d put a person in the middle, then I’d just, you know, brainstorm on paper, basically: “Can I ask you more about anything you’ve done different lately, or where do you work?”
Berbey: And she found out that all the patients with these same symptoms—coming from different departments across the hospital, from different doctors—they did have one thing in common.
Hidalgo: It turned out that the answer that was repeating was it was always the same department in the same position.
Berbey: They worked in the same meatpacking plant: the plant where pigs are slaughtered for SPAM.
(The strings fade out.)
Hidalgo: I thought, “Okay, there is a link. What happened here?”
(A horn, then the strum of a guitar—a light, sparse, Sufjan Stevens–meets–nature documentary sound, triumphant and almost feeble at the same time.)
Longoria: This week, the final installment in the SPAM saga. Decades after a bitter strike tore SPAMtown, U.S.A., apart, and helped to turn a national tide against workers in the 1980s, American meatpacking continued to change. In Austin, Minnesota, a new workforce came to town and put the ideals that the workers had been fighting for to a test.
(The music plays up.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria.
Berbey: I’m Gabrielle Berbey.
(Winding down, the music sounds suddenly somber. And then, just as fast, it’s gone.)
Longoria: This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(After a beat, cumbia music plays in the background, muffled.)
Longoria: Throughout our time reporting in Austin, Minnesota, we wondered: Who are the workers who make SPAM today?
Berbey: Hello! How are you doing?
Longoria: And we saw clues all over town.
Berbey: We just walked out of the bar Cuatro Copas, and directly across from it, there’s the SPAM museum. (Chuckles.)
Longoria: Across the street from where we toured the SPAM museum, a bar is full of Central Americans dancing cumbia. And then …
Berbey: We’re walking into the Mexican grocery store across from the labor center.
Longoria: Directly across the street from the 1980s strike headquarters …
Berbey: We’ve had—we’ve had, like, 20 tacos since we’ve been here! (Laughs.)
Longoria: Was a delicious taco stand.
Miguel Garate: We have some cheese to make, uh, quesadillas. We have, uh, chorizo—that way you can make chorizo con huevos.
(Arpeggiated synthesizer washes over the narration, a wave of ’80s reminiscence.)
Longoria: A lot has changed in Austin since the ’80s. Some of that has to do with what happened in the meatpacking industry.
In the ’80s, larger meatpacking plants started buying out smaller ones in a wave of consolidation. Unions crumbled. Wages dropped.
But some of the change is unique to Austin. When the Hormel strike ended in 1986, only about a third of those strikers came back to work in the plant. Permanent replacement workers came in to fill empty spots.
And then, the very next year, Hormel announced some big news: They would no longer slaughter pigs that went into their products like SPAM. Instead, that would be done by a new and separate company, called Quality Pork Processors, or QPP.
But here’s the thing: The QPP plant wasn’t in another town or even in another part of Austin. QPP workers worked in the same Hormel facility, using the same equipment. A journalist, Ted Genoways, wrote a whole book about this. And he reported that a wall was physically installed inside the plant to separate people in QPP Slaughter from those in Hormel’s Packaging. Even though QPP was only slaughtering pigs for Hormel. The key difference was that QPP paid workers less than Hormel’s union-negotiated rate.
(A synthesized melody joins in over the cascaded notes.)
Longoria: Labor leadership told us that many Austin locals refused QPP’s lower-paying jobs at the new plant. So QPP turned to another workforce to take the lower-wage positions.
Garate: They’re very popular. And here’s where they make the tamales. They’re making everything fresh. He just got here from Mexico.
Longoria: In 2010, up to 90 percent of QPP workers were Latino, according to union officials. Across the country, the meatpacking workforce has only become more Hispanic.
Garate: Whatever you want from the menu, uh, just let me know.
Longoria: In the taco shop, we were greeted by Miguel Garate. He’s friends with the owners. And whenever we asked anyone about the Latino population in Austin, everyone invariably said, “You gotta talk to Miguel.”
Garate: People say that about me.
Longoria: What do they say?
Garate: You know, they say, “Miguel is a Pied Piper. People follow him.”
Longoria: The “Pied Piper,” or unofficial liaison, of the Latino community here.
Longoria: What is the story of you deciding to come here? What, uh—Where does it start?
Garate: I was born in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Longoria: Miguel grew up in a border town, across from Brownsville, Texas.
Garate: I had the best childhood because I was very popular in my neighborhood.
Longoria: It seems like his Pied Piper tendencies started early.
Garate: In my block, we were the only ones who had a TV. And I used to have all my friends come into my house, and I used to charge them 20 cents [An inhaled laugh.] to come into my house. And my mom’s—and then my sister, they’d make popcorn. I remember we watched Tarzan, uh, Gunsmoke. I wish I can go back to those days.
Longoria: And as an adult, he had a good life: a wife, a daughter, a four-year degree, and a job in accounting. But then, in his 30s …
Garate: My plan was to get out. I need to get out because, for me, I was burning from inside, that I need—I need some fresh air.
Longoria: His marriage began to fall apart, and he was looking to start over. And then, almost on a whim …
Garate: I said, “Well, I’m gonna go to, like, a job fair.”
Longoria: He went to a big office building where there were tables set up.
Garate: Recruiting people to go work in the fields, work in production …
Longoria: And looking at this sea of tables, he made direct eye contact with one recruiter.
Garate: And this lady said, “Are you looking for a job?” And I stopped in that table. And …
Berbey: Because of her?
Garate: Because of her. Her hair was brown, short. Most that I remember, her green, green eyes. Very, like, emerald color. Elizabeth Taylor eyes. Very powerful eyes.
And she was saying, “Well, we’re from Austin, Minnesota. We are a production company, and we do packaging, and we’re looking for people like you.” And I go, “Really? What do you mean, ‘like me’? You know, that really speak the language, and then bilingual.”
Longoria: They were looking for people who could speak both English and Spanish to communicate with Spanish-speaking workers.
Garate: I go, “I’m not really bilingual. You know, I’m not a professional bilingual or professional interpreter.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you try? You want to apply?” “Sure. Why not?”
Berbey: Did you know that the company that you would be working for made SPAM?
Garate: Never! They told me it’s a production and they do, uh, hams, and this and that. But they never mentioned me about killing pigs. And I went home and I remember, after a couple weeks or maybe a month, I call, and then go, “The offer’s still going?” “Yeah! Are you coming?” “Yeah, I’m on my way.”
(Lazy, low synthesizers play sustained notes, a bed of sound.)
Longoria: Miguel said a tearful goodbye to his family, packed up his car, and started driving toward his North Star: those Elizabeth Taylor eyes in Austin, Minnesota.
(The low synth is replaced by the scritch-scratch of radio static, and then a mix of radio stations, all playing Spanish-language music.)
Garate: I listened to my radio.
Longoria: Naturally, he cranked up the music.
(Another station, over the sound of car horns.)
Garate: Whatever state you're going through, you’re trying to look for the Spanish music.
(A new station.)
Garate: As soon as you pass Texas, it’s another station. [The sound of another station.] And then to Oklahoma, it’s another station. Spanish music in every state.
(A truck horn blares. The radio fades down. The aspirated synth bed is back, this time with a tremolo synthesizer bouncing up and down, a melody on top.)
Longoria: Eventually, he started to see signs.
Garate: “Austin, seven exits,” and you go, “Okay. Seven exits. Five, four, three …” And you find a main road and you get off and you go, like, “Wow, what is this?” And you go, “What is this?”
Longoria: What did you see?
Garate: I go like, uh, houses, but no people, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] This is a ghost town. This is, like, very quiet. You know, where is everybody? You know? But my life changed after my first day of work.
(The music quiets.)
Longoria: Early the next morning, Miguel drove through the empty streets of Austin for his first day at QPP.
Garate: The parking lot was full of cars. It was like [Sighs in realization.] “No wonder! They’re all here,” you know? “I know where the people are!” I go, “This is where they are!” I walk in, and everybody was waiting for the orientation. We all wear white with boots and helmets and looked like a very professional people.
(Orchestral music plays, dramatic and exciting—perhaps a march, or hunting music.)
Garate: Oh, when we went down, it was like, “Whoa! Pigs, everywhere! Like, what is this? Careful!”
I never in my life see all this many pigs hanging from the ceiling and then moving and then blood in the floor. That was kind of, like, a, not a scary, but, you know, surprise—see all this pig [Laughs.] hanging in the ceiling. Of course, I remember our coat got bloody, but that’s because they’re leaking, you know? And that was like, uh, pigs in the floor. And then you had someone pick it up with a little four-wheel car, push them in, and take it back to the rail.
And I hear people saying, [As if yelling.] “Hey! Welcome, newcomers!” in Spanish and in English. And they were going, like, “Yeah! Woo, woo, woo!” It was like, “Okay, thank you.”
And I can see 90 percent that were Latinos. I go, Oh my God! There’s people here that they know, maybe, my language.
“Where are you from? Where are you from?” “Oh, I’m from McAllen!” “I’m from here. I’m from there.”
(The orchestral music gives way to a thumping beat, popping percussion, bouncy and light. Eventually, a high piano line plays around the beat.)
Longoria: De donde son?
Preciliano Valle: Mexico.
Unidentified voice 1: El estado de Coahuila.
Unidentified voice 2: Mexico!
Luis Valle: I was born in Mexico, northern Mexico.
Olivia Gonzalez: My uncle is also from Mexico too. A lot of Hispanics from Mexico, especially from Oaxaca. They bring their family.
Walter Schwartz: First, one makes the adventure. Then this one calls his cousin, and this cousin, another cousin. And when you ended up, you’re having tons of people from the same villages.
Preciliano: Estaba lleno aquí de hispanos. (It was full of Hispanics here.)
Longoria: We talked to about a dozen people who made the journey—like Miguel—from Mexico to Austin.
Schwartz: We took the trip, and I said, “Wow, what a cute town! It looks like a postcard!”
Luis: Everything was green. The houses looked great, and the cars were new, and people smiled at you.
Garate: Even the garbage looked nice.
(The strumming of guitar in an echo-filled space.)
Garate: ¡Hola! Bienvenidos. Un poquito tarde, pero bueno. (Hi. Welcome. You’re a little late, but it’s okay.) It’s never too late. Buenos dias. (Good morning.)
(“El Señor Es Mi Pastor” plays.)
Longoria: And since he arrived, the Latino community has only grown.
Garate: Right now, we are at Queen of Angels Church in Austin, Minnesota.
Longoria: A church in town that used to serve the white Catholic community in the ’80s now serves the Latino community here.
Garate: I go to the Bible study, and I walk in. It’s, like, a hundred kids. I go, “What is all this coming from?” But they’re here. When I moved here in 1997, that was, like, 80 percent that were men, you know, and then, over the years, they start bringing their wives. And then the kids! Now, they bring the grandma or grandpa or an aunt or someone to help.
(Another beat of the worship music.)
Longoria: QPP has become a starting place for a new life. Miguel started there, worked his way up—he actually ended up recruiting for QPP—and now he works at the community college. That lady who first recruited him?
Garate: We become good friends. One to another, we just start dating and then—now—I have five grandkids.
Longoria: They’ve been together for over two decades. And we heard similar stories of success all over town.
Schwartz: My first job, it was interpreting every Monday for Hormel.
Longoria: An interpreter who ended up starting his own driving business to help newcomers get acquainted to Austin.
Berbey: Do your parents own this store?
Evelyn: Yeah, they do!
Longoria: The owner of that taco shop we loved—
Garate: The parents—they’re my friends, like family to me.
Longoria: —started at QPP.
Garate: Now they have a beautiful home in Morelos.
Longoria: Now they own a vacation home in Mexico.
Garate: It’s a beautiful home. They send me pictures, and I go, [Laughs.] “I will send you a picture next week from Playa del Carmen and see who’s gonna get jealous.”
Evelyn: (Laughs.) I know! Lucky him, right? He should take all of us! He should take all of us there.
(Softly, a weird synthesizer floats down to a clicking beat, atmospheric and dreamy and full of space, like the sound of distant waves.)
Longoria: We came to Austin, Minnesota, 40 years after a strike divided families here and tore the town apart. We wanted to know what became of the ideas the strikers were fighting for: their dignity, a comfortable way of life for their families.
Longoria: What do you think is the legacy of the strike?
Garate: What I understand: Sometimes, for something bad, always something good come up. Maybe the strike, that was need to happen because they bring all these new people to town.
Longoria: It seemed like the idea of the American dream didn't die here after the strike; it was just passed on to a new group of people.
Garate: I am very happy the strike happened, because it bring a lot of new people to this new job force. And then they hire all these people from all over. And then they’re here! They’ve been here for 20-something years. They buy houses, cars, and I—I think the strike bring something good: new, more people to our community.
(A melody plays, up and down, for a moment, before sporadic guitar starts a feeling of unease.)
Longoria: For all of the stories of finding success and prosperity in Austin, there was a darker story we’d heard about.
Schwartz: When the illness was going on in the plant, that’s one thing that people don’t—don’t—don’t want to talk about too much.
Longoria: A story about an illness that had spread among the workers at the plant.
Berbey: Do you think you’d be able to put me in contact with any of the people who had worked at the plant at this time?
Berbey: And when we tried to track down people who may know more about what happened—
Schwartz: I don’t remember seeing them for the last years. I don’t remember.
Berbey: —we kept hitting dead ends.
Gonzalez: I can ask him, but—no, I don’t know if he would want to do that or not.
Victor Contrera: I don’t remember the name and, uh, it’s a long time ago.
Berbey: So we asked Miguel about it.
Longoria: We had read about some kind of problem at the plant. When was the first time that you heard about some kind of disease, or … ?
Garate: That disease, uh, it comes down to surprise to our community, and that years, I remember that was something that you—you are afraid that you have that with you.
Longoria: What were people calling it?
Garate: (Laughs, but not as lightly as usual.) “El dengue de marano.” The pig disease. I know a person that got sick with that disease, but what it is, I don't know. I asked him to talk to you guys. Let me see if he answers, okay?
(A phone rings.)
Longoria: That’s after the break.
(The guitar plays for a few beats more, then disappears. The break.)
(The winding-through of a few radio stations, static, then quiet.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
And we’re back to the story of a medical mystery that began to unfold among workers at Quality Pork Processors.
Longoria: Y ¿Puede presentarle? ¿Cuál es su nombre? (Can you introduce yourself. What is your name?)
Berbey: Wait, can we sit …
Berbey: After Miguel introduced us to the worker he knew who got the disease, we asked this man if he could meet us at our hotel.
Berbey: This is better.
Longoria: Entonces ¿cuál es su nombre? (Okay, so what is your name?)
Preciliano Valle: Okay. Mi nombre y es Preciliano Valle. (Okay. My name is Preciliano Valle).
Longoria: ¿Quiere presentarle? (Do you want to introduce yourself?)
Longoria: Mrs. Valle came with him too, but didn’t want to be identified.
Longoria: ¿Podría contar cómo se como se conocieron? (Could you tell me the story of how you met?)
Longoria: But when I asked them both how they first met—
Preciliano: En el trabajo. (At work.)
(His wife laughs.)
Longoria: ¿Ah, si? (Oh, yeah?)
Longoria: —she opened up a bit.
Mrs. Valle: Entonces no nos separamos. (And then we were inseparable).
Longoria: They met at work at a bodega in their hometown of Coahuila in Mexico.
Longoria: Qué atractó a … ? (What attracted you … ?)
Longoria: They were instantly attracted to each other.
Preciliano: Que estaba muy bonita. (That she was very beautiful.) (Laughter.)
Longoria: She was beautiful.
Mrs. Valle: Pues que era muy serio y guapo. (Well that he was very serious and handsome).
Longoria: And he was serious and handsome.
Mrs. Valle: Sus ojos. (His eyes.) (Laughs.)
Longoria: She liked the way he looked at her.
Mrs. Valle: Muy pronto nos casamos a los seis meses de conocernos … (Very quickly, after six months of knowing each other …)
Longoria: Within six months of meeting, they were married.
Preciliano: Treinta y siete … (37 …)
Longoria: They just celebrated their 38th anniversary.
Preciliano: Éramos muy bailadores. Empezábamos el baile. (We were big dancers. We would start the dancing.)
Longoria: ¿Los primeros? (You were the first ones?)
Mrs. Valle: Sí. (Yes.)
Longoria: Whenever they went to a party, they were that couple. The dance-floor pioneers.
Preciliano: Cinco hijos. (Five kids.)
Longoria: And their first child—out of five—was born in Mexico in 1984.
(The phone rings.)
Luis Valle: Hello?
Longoria: Hello? Hi! Is this Luis?
Longoria: His name is Luis. He lives in New York City now.
Longoria: Are you the oldest?
Luis: I am.
Longoria: I’m the oldest child too. So you get me. Oldest children for the win. [Laughs.] And where were you born?
Luis: In the city of Moncloa in northern Mexico. I grew up without indoor plumbing, uh, hated going outside [Laughs.] to the outhouse. I—I don’t want to say we lived in abject poverty, but we were—we were very poor. And so the American dream was the pull factor.
Preciliano: Me vine solo 2 de enero del ’90. (I came alone January 2, 1990).
Luis: My father swam the Rio Grande.
Longoria: Preciliano swam across the border alone, without his family, in the winter of 1990. He ended up in Austin, where an aunt had been living. And his family followed him a few months later.
Luis: It was exciting for me as a child, uh, coming—coming here. It was exciting. Especially, when, you know, when it started snowing. And the cars were new, and people smiled at you, and—and, of course, everyone is white. Every single person.
Longoria: The Valle family was part of the first wave of Mexican families to come to Austin after the 1986 strike.
Luis: Once I got over my excitement, it was—it was pretty lonely. From being surrounded by hundreds of relatives to just essentially being my parents and my brother and me. So—yeah, it was, um—it was just essentially me hanging out with my mom.
Every Saturday morning with my mother, she’d wake up early and wake us all up and we were—you know, she would, uh, put the music up really loud and play all these old Spanish power ballads. (Both laugh.)
(A lush chord, worn by the distance of time, opens up.)
Longoria: Like, which one?
Luis: “No Tengo Dinero” was a favorite of hers
Longoria: “No Tengo Dinero”?
Luis: “No Tengo Dinero,” yeah.
(“No Tengo Dinero” plays, upbeat and warm, with a whole chorus of men singing.)
Longoria: It’s a song about not having any money to give to your loved one.
Luis: Probably because we grew up poor, and so, like, it’s just [Both laugh.] emblematic of, really, her relationship with my father.
(The music continues: “No tengo dinero y nada que dar. Lo unico que tengo es amor para dar,” which means “I don’t have money and nothing to give. The only thing I have is my love to give.” Then the music fades out.)
Longoria: But over time, Preciliano did have money. After working a few jobs around Minnesota, he landed a job at QPP.
Preciliano: Y me gustó el trabajo. Me gustó. (And I liked the work. I liked it.)
Longoria: He really liked the work.
Preciliano: Y el olor. (And the smell.)
Luis: My dad would smell every time he came home.
Longoria: Even though he smelled bad.
Preciliano: Feísimo. (So ugly.) (Laughs.)
Longoria: Because he worked in slaughter.
Preciliano: Matanza—“kill.” Que hay que saber hacer los cortes bien. (In slaughter—kill—you have to know how to do the cuts well.)
Longoria: You had to know how to do the cuts well without hurting yourself.
Luis: My dad was only making a little over $12 an hour. It was physically demanding. But with that salary, he took care of five kids and—and a wife. We were comfortable. Like, it was—it was understood: Dad has a really hard job, but that job allows us to have insurance, to put food on the table, to have some gifts during birthdays and—and Christmas. And so that was our life for many years.
(Soft music plays.)
Longoria: ¿Le gustó el trabajo? (You liked work?)
Preciliano: Sí. (Yes.)
Longoria: ¿Algo cambió en algún momento? (Did that change at some point?)
Preciliano: No, todo estuvo muy bien. (No, everything was very good.)
Longoria: Everything was great, Preciliano says.
Preciliano: Hasta el día del problema ese de la bacteria—2007. (Until the day of that problem with the bacteria—2007.)
Longoria: Until 2007, 13 years later, when something strange started happening.
Luis: We would talk once a week. You know, phone conversations.
Longoria: By then, Luis was away at college.
Preciliano: Empecé yo sentir dolores en los pieces. (I started to feel pain in my feet.)
Luis: He would say that the soles of his feet felt like they were burning.
Preciliano: Se me calentaban. Luego se me dormían. (They would get hot. Later they would fall asleep.)
Luis: And then that burning sensation would move up to his—his knees.
Preciliano: Me cansaba mucho caminar. (I would get really tired walking.)
Luis: He had difficulty walking.
Preciliano: No podía usar zapatos. Me puse chanclas, sandalias. (I couldn’t wear shoes. I would wear flip-flops, sandals.)
Longoria: He could only wear soft-soled shoes like flip-flops.
Preciliano: Todo me molestaba. (Everything bothered me.)
Longoria: And out running errands?
Mrs. Valle: En Walmart o íbamos al mall, no caminábamos mucho, y luego se sentaba. (At Walmart, or we’d go to the mall, we wouldn’t walk much, and he would sit down.)
Longoria: He'd just run out of steam and need to sit down.
Mrs. Valle: “Aquí les espero.” Y se levantaba de la cama media noche o en el día. (“I’ll wait for you all here.” And he’d get up from bed in the middle of the night or in the day.)
Longoria: He'd wake up in the middle of the night with the pain.
Mrs. Valle: Y en sus en sus chamorros de él en los pies se le levantaba así como …
Longoria: (Translating.) His wife said calves would tense up, it felt like there were snakes or something, moving inside.
Luis: And it, you know, it just stayed.
Longoria: ¿Tenía alguna teoría de …? (Did you have some theory about …?)
Longoria: Maybe he was just getting old?
Preciliano: Sí, ya yo estoy viejo ya no, puedo caminar. Soy un viejo. [All laugh.] ¡No! ¡Estoy jóven! (Yeah, I’m getting old already, so I can’t walk. I’m an old man. No! I’m young!)
Longoria: But he was still in his 40s at that time.
Preciliano: Pensé que era el trabajo. Eh, el trabajo. (I thought it was from work. Yeah, work.)
Longoria: By then, he’d been working at the plant for 13 years. Maybe that’s what it was.
Luis: That it was just the wear and tear of doing that kind of job. He tried any remedy he could think of—every type of ointment.
Longoria: Oh my gosh. Did he put Vicks VapoRub?
Luis: (Laughs.) Oh, of course. Yeah, of course! I mean, that’s—you have to. It’s a staple in Latino culture. [Longoria laughs.] You put VapoRub on everything.
Longoria: But he would not go to the doctor.
Preciliano: Tengo miedo. (I’m scared.) (Laughs.)
Mrs. Valle: Tiene miedo—tiene miedo al hospital. (He’s scared of the hospital.)
Preciliano: ¡Es que nos meten agujas! (It’s that they stick us with needles!)
(Mrs. Valle continues to speak.)
Longoria: He’s scared of needles. But his wife insisted and got him an appointment at Austin Medical Center, where they were greeted by—
Mrs. Valle: Intérprete.
Longoria: —the interpreter.
Preciliano: Carol. (His wife echoes him.)
Berbey: Carol Hidalgo.
Hidalgo: They all came in with “I'm weak.”
Berbey: The pattern person.
Hidalgo: “I can’t do these things. I don’t have energy. I want to go to work. I can’t work. I can’t get up the stairs at work. I can’t hold my equipment at work.” It just was on me, like that—I got to say something. I have to say something.
Berbey: Finally Carol did do something about it.
Hidalgo: I went to the providers who worked ER and cardiology.
Berbey: She told the doctors about this strange pattern she was seeing in their patients across the hospital.
- James Dyck: There did seem to be a definite pattern that was occurring.
Berbey: Dr. P. James Dyck and the other doctors all had the same question.
Hidalgo: “What do they have in common?”
Dyck: Many of these workers were Spanish-speaking. They all worked at Quality Pork Products in Austin, Minnesota, and so we then took this information and went to the Minnesota Department of Health and reported it to them.
Berbey: They went to State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield.
Ruth Lynfield: We didn’t know for sure whether it was an infection or if it was an exposure to a toxin, so I did feel pressure to set up a visit with the plant as soon as we could.
Berbey: And she went straight to the QPP plant to investigate.
Lynfield: We followed the swine along. You see the—the pigs hanging, and they go to different stations …
Berbey: One specific station caught her eye. And—just a heads-up—this next description is very graphic.
Lynfield: Where people are removing pieces of meat from the head.
Preciliano: Era la que sacaba los—los sesos de la cabeza era. Con aire. (It was the one that took out the brains from the head with air.)
(Unsettling music plays.)
Berbey: Preciliano worked in this area.
Lynfield: The head table. As you approached, you could see bits of the swine present on people’s gowns—you know, what they were wearing, their protective [Hesitating.] garb—and that there also were pieces in the air.
Berbey: The bits of matter floating in the air?
Lynfield: Was bits of brain.
Berbey: Pig brain.
Lynfield: And they would put a tube through the swine skull.
Berbey: A machine would release a burst of pressurized air into the skull of the pig through a tube to liquify the brain and push it out.
Lynfield: And so the brain then would get somewhat liquified and sucked into this hole that would then go into a bucket. There was material that was [A beat.] in the air and on people.
The closer you were to that device, the more likely you were to have become ill.
Berbey: Do you remember what you were wearing?
Preciliano: Todo blanco. (All white.)
Lynfield: I don’t think they were wearing masks. Some of them did not have protective sleeves.
Preciliano: Pues sin saber, nosotros lo respiramos. (So, without knowing, we breathed it in.)
Berbey: Without knowing it, workers near the pig-brain machine seemed to be breathing in the blown brain matter.
Dyck: So these foreign proteins are coming in through your lungs, through your mucous membranes. And the problem is, those pig proteins and human proteins look very similar.
Berbey: So when pig-brain matter entered the workers’ bodies, the workers’ antibodies began to attack the pig brain as a foreign invader. But because pig and human proteins have a really similar structure, the workers’ bodies also started attacking their own nerves.
Preciliano: El anticuerpo de nosotros. (Our antibodies.)
Berbey: The workers were having an autoimmune response, which is when a body, in trying to protect itself, ends up self-destructing.
Preciliano: Están batallando allá dentro. (They’re battling in there.)
Berbey: We went to QPP for comment, and they didn’t answer a lot of our questions, but they did say they reached out to the Minnesota Department of Health when workers got sick. And they told us that once they learned the disease was linked to the machine, the company stopped using it immediately. And they haven’t used it since.
Longoria: But there was still one question. The company had been harvesting brains this way, periodically, for around a decade. So why were workers getting sick now?
Lynfield: That was—We had heard that the line speed had gone up.
(Sporadic bass notes play over a persistent beat. Intrigue.)
Berbey: One of the doctors told the press that an increase in line speed was their best guess of why workers were getting sick now.
Longoria: Preciliano told us that while he worked at QPP, he noticed the line getting much faster. The journalist Ted Genoways reported that over the decade that Preciliano was at QPP, the line got 50 percent faster, from 900 pig heads per hour to 1,350 heads an hour.
Lynfield: That may make it a little harder to have full control over where the brain is going. You know, there could be more spillage; things speed up, and you don’t have enough time to get it exactly where you want it.
Berbey: Line speed, you might remember, was one of the key complaints in the 1980s Hormel strike.
Jim Guyette: Chain speeds were incredibly fast. You were working faster and harder, and more people were getting injured.
Peter Rachleff: Workers who had once had a lot of control over the pacing of their work were now being forced to work at a breakneck speed.
(The music grows louder and louder, oppressive now. Then it reverberates into silence.)
Preciliano: Yo veía a varios compañeros que se sentían igual. (I saw several co-workers who felt the same.)
Luis: My dad and other affected colleagues were already putting two and two together because, you know, they were seeing each other at the doctor’s.
Preciliano: Todos los que estábamos enfermos trabajamos aquí. Que eramos cómo unos 19 más o menos. (All of us who were sick worked here. About 19 of us, give or take.)
Longoria: There’s no way for us to know just how many people got sick. The Minnesota Department of Health cites 15. A different medical journal cites 21.
Longoria: ¿Y ustedes no se pertenecieron a una—al unión? (And didn’t you belong to the union?)
Luis: Sí. Nosotros fuimos al unión. (Yes, we went to the union.)
Luis: They brought it up to the union.
Preciliano: No nos ayudaron. (They didn’t help us.)
Luis: The union is not very strong anymore. Since the strike in the ’80s, the—the union really has become pretty powerless. They don’t have the same representation and power that they used to.
Preciliano: La unión no se podía entrar en ese problema. (The union couldn’t get involved in this problem.)
Longoria: The union told Preciliano they couldn’t get involved—
Preciliano: Dijo, “Yo pensé que tenías papeles?” No, no tengo. (They said, “I thought you had papers?” No. I don’t have them.)
Longoria: —because of his legal status. At that time, Preciliano was among several undocumented workers who got sick.
Preciliano: Por eso no querían meterse. “Porque ustedes son indocumentados aquí.” Ya no. Ya. (That’s why they didn’t want to intervene. “Because you’re undocumented here.” And that was it.)
Longoria: When asked about this, the union president at the time, Rich Morgan, told us that he didn’t specifically remember Preciliano, but that the union did take action to help get sick workers compensated. He added that the union helps workers regardless of their immigration status.
Luis: As someone who’s undocumented, you try to alleviate, uh, certain circumstances that are, you know, under your control. Not very many things are, um, but the rest—you try to [A beat.] continue working. I mean it’s—we came here to work. And for your kids, study. If you’re not going to study, you’re going to work. But we came here—we left everything we had ever known, we came to this country and we came to work to provide a better life. And you don’t complain. My parents realized that they needed to start speaking up.
(Music with movement plays, growing fuller as a waterfall of synthesizers adds in over time.)
Longoria: ¿Qué decideron hacer? (What did you all decide to do?)
Preciliano: Hicimos—hicimos varios reuniones. (We held several meetings.)
Longoria: Preciliano decided to fight back. He started attending organized meetings with the other sick workers.
Preciliano: Antes había una institución que se llamaba Centro Campesino. (There was an organization called Centro Campesino.)
Longoria: They got a local Latino advocacy group involved. Even as an undocumented person, Preciliano started talking to the press about his story.
Preciliano: Una entrevista aquí. (One interview here.)
Longoria: You can see his image in the press.
Preciliano: Entonces no había otra manera más que buscar un abogado. (Then there was no other option but to find a lawyer.)
Longoria: They hired a lawyer to try and get workers compensation.
Mrs. Valle: Podia tener compensación. (They could get compensation.)
Longoria: Preciliano says, just like the union, when the lawyer found out he was undocumented, he encouraged him to back down.
Preciliano: No estamos peleando la situación migratoria. Esto es parte del trabajo. (We’re not fighting our migratory situation. This is part of our job.)
Longoria: Preciliano said, “This isn’t an immigration issue. This is a work issue. I’m sick.”
Preciliano: Seguimos un tiempo. (We kept at it for a while.)
Longoria: He says the company had offered him and the other workers a settlement. By this point, he says, many of the workers were sick, they were scared, and they were tired.
Preciliano: Cómo todo esto es muy—muy largo ya la gente no quería. (As this all takes a long time, people didn’t want to anymore.)
Longoria: He says each of the other workers signed the settlement. Preciliano held out for three years, hoping to get the full workers’ comp he felt he was due. But eventually he signed too. When we asked QPP about this, they didn’t respond directly, but they said that all confirmed cases of the disease were paid workers’ comp.
Longoria: ¿Y que paso después? (And what happened next?)
Preciliano: Dos mil nueve. (2009.)
(The music fades out.)
Luis: They fired him because he was undocumented.
Longoria: In 2009, Preciliano says the company let him go, saying it was because he was undocumented. QPP told us that once they find out a worker is undocumented, they have no other choice but to fire them. At that point, Preciliano had been working at the company, undocumented, since 1994.
Preciliano: Y yo fui de los primeros por andar hablando. (I was one of the first they let go for being out there, speaking.) (All laugh.)
Longoria: He jokes he was one of the first to be let go for being undocumented, because he was being a loudmouth, talking to the press about his story.
Mrs. Valle: Queriendo pelear la causa. (For wanting to fight the cause.) (More laughter.)
Luis: He’s always been very fair. And he’s always been against any kind of injustice. That—that situation really, uh—really forced him to come out of his shell and become an active voice in the—in the community, despite the fact that the consequences were that it affected us economically. Um, I hope that if I ever have to make that decision, that I would also follow his example. [A beat.] As challenging as that would be.
(Soft, sparse music plays.)
Longoria: Y de dónde salió ese espíritu así? (And where did that spirit in you come from?)
Longoria: I asked Preciliano where that fight in him came from.
Preciliano: No, no.
Mrs. Valle: El defender los derechos de las personas. (Defending the rights of people.)
Preciliano: Porque a mi me ha gustado siempre. (Because I’ve always liked that.)
Longoria: He said he’s always had it.
Preciliano: Siempre. Yo no hablo mucho, pero gracias a Dios entiendo. Estudio lo que me gusta estudio es que, o sea, si me gusta algún documental, eso lo estoy viendo. (Always. I always read. I don’t talk much, but thank God I understand. I study. I like to study. I like watching documentaries.)
Longoria: He says he doesn’t say much but he reads. He watches documentaries on YouTube.
Longoria: ¿Y sigue ahora mismo eso? (Does [the pain] continue?)
Preciliano: Sí, todavía sigue. Si. (Yes. It still continues.)
(The music fades out.)
Longoria: After QPP removed the brain machine, no more workers reported getting sick. Many of those who did get sick improved over time. But Preciliano says he still feels the pain in his feet. It still hasn’t gone away.
Preciliano: Sí, eso ya quedó. (Yes, that stayed.)
Mrs. Valle: Mhm.
Preciliano: Ya ahorita con mucho tiempo ya se acostumbra uno. (Lately, with time, you get used to it.)
Mrs. Valle: Se acostumbra a la enfermedad. (You get used to the disease.)
Longoria: “You get used to it,” he says.
(A beat, then, plucked music, sweet, from a ukulele, or something with metal strings, plays in a void. A xylophone adds to the mix, just as sweet, just as tender, just as distorted over time.)
Longoria: In many ways, the behind-the-scenes story of how SPAM is made is the story of American meatpacking: a story of unions losing ground in the ’80s, of plants shuttering, meatpacking wages falling, and production lines speeding up.
Today in meatpacking, more than half of workers in those lower-paying, faster jobs are immigrants. QPP told us that, today, about a third of their workers are Hispanic.
Just a few months ago, the USDA announced a plan to let some meatpacking plants try out even faster line speeds than before.
And this story isn’t limited to meatpacking. Across U.S. manufacturing, fewer workers belong to unions, and wages have stagnated.
But here’s where the story of SPAM is different than the national meatpacking story: In the 1980s, the strikers at the Hormel plant fought back against a movement crushing American workers, and fought for their families.
Those workers lost.
But the ideas they fought for never really died in Austin, or in the workers there, decades later.
(The music ends on a solitary xylophone note.)
Longoria: If you had to distill it to, like, the ideals, what do you think your dad was fighting for?
Luis: (A pause.) Justice, fairness. [Another pause.] Accountability. I think it was—it was triggering for him, coming from a country that is very corrupt, uh, where there is very little accountability on corporations and the government.
Longoria: Do you think that he, um, expects more of the U.S.?
Luis: (After a beat.) Yes.
Longoria: Do you?
Luis: (Another beat.) I think we can be better. Yeah, I think we can do better. Damn. This … [Laughs sadly.] Um, yeah. I have to, in my line of work. I am a trained epidemiologist and biostatistician, and I work for the New York City Health Department. Actually, the last five years, I’ve been working in immigrant health policy. I have to believe that—that we as a society can—can do better.
Longoria: Do you think that everything that happened to your dad—the disease and his fight—do you think it affected what you chose as your line of work?
Luis: I think, actually, that the connection is there. Yeah. The—bringing justice into these communities. Moving away from, you know, from the injustice and errors of the past in public health and the medical field, where we’ve blamed these populations for, you know, for their bad health and, uh, health outcomes, without really, really looking and studying into the actual possible effects of what is causing them: you know, high unemployment, it’s racism, it’s lack of housing, lack of, uh, access to—to care. We didn’t have a voice—I didn’t have a voice for many years. Took me a while to get my voice. [Laughs.] My parents are still, you know, trying to get their voice back.
(After a beat of quiet, a solemn piano line plays. Whether it’s hopeful or somber is unclear—but it plays on.)
Longoria: Before we left Austin, we had a final question for Preciliano.
Berbey: Why did you stay?
Longoria: (Translating.) Si, ¿por que—por se quedó aqui?
Preciliano: Yo? (Me?)
Longoria: Si! (Yes.)
Preciliano: (After a beat.) Oh, no¡ Me gusta aqui! (Oh, no! I like it here.)
Longoria: He says he likes it here.
Preciliano: (All laugh lightly.) Me gusta aqui. No quise volver. (I like it here. I didn’t want to go back.)
Longoria: He’s not going anywhere.
Longoria: Cool. Yo creo que ya. Muchas gracias. (Okay, I think that’s it. Thank you!)
Longoria: And as we were packing up …
Longoria: He said, “How nice that you remembered us.”
Longoria: (Composing herself, then speaking with emotion.) All right, bueno. ¡Muchas gracias! (Okay! Thank you.) (Laughs lightly.)
(The piano plays for a moment more, then, with one final chord, the pedals release and the song ends.)
(After a beat, “SPAM on the Range” plays back up, a ukulele song performed by Noella Levy and the theme of this three-course meal.)
Salman Ahad Khan: This episode was produced by Gabrielle Berbey and Julia Longoria. Editing by Kelly Prime, Emily Botein, and Katherine Wells, with help from Scott Stossel.
Special thanks to Alina Kulman.
Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by David Herman and engineering by Joe Plourde.
Music by Tasty Morsels and Alexander Overington.
Our team also includes Peter Bresnan, Tracie Hunte, Natalia Ramirez, and me, Salman Ahad Khan.
(Levy messes up the song, pauses, and restarts in the clear before the credits resume.)
Ahad Khan: This episode is the final installment of our three-part series “SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned.” And if you enjoyed, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thank you for listening.