The only thing harder than talking about what you do is talking about how you got there. Looking back on three years of organizing, I feel like I’ve been everywhere but home. I spent the first 21 years of my life in Northeast Georgia. Then, in the summer of 2010, I started my work in the small piece of Central Appalachia found in East Tennessee. I had never been to Tennessee before and, if you had asked me then, I had never been to Appalachia either.
My parents are both from Central Mexico and came to the US with my older sister. When I was just a few months old, we settled in Habersham County, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No one had to tell me I grew up in the South. This was Georgia; you just knew. I don't think people know they're Appalachian until they hear it from someone else. Doubly so when you don't look like everyone else. Habersham was rural to me, but the real mountains always seemed somewhere else.
My county was and still is dependent on manufacturing. I don’t know how this borderless string of small towns was able to draw so much industry, but about a fifth of the residents in Habersham are employed by plants such as Fieldale Farms, a poultry processing plant that employs about 1400, and Globaltech, a candle factory known to me as “las velas.” Looking at all the families we came to the US with, it seemed like everyone we knew worked at one of these plants.
In every house, you would see the same work trimmings: big rubber boots, heavy cloth gloves, hair nets, and ear plugs. While my father and I worked on farms for most of my life, I keep farmers’ hours because my mom worked the night shift for 20 years at the same chicken plant I ended up at after graduation. Stepping into someone’s house, you could tell what kept the family fed. Was there a towel by the door to ward off the thick seam of chicken grease brought home night after night? Was the house filled with a punch of fruit or cinnamon from the candle factory? Maybe sawdust choked up dirty jeans and the spaces between worn fingers.
This is how I understood the American South: half a dozen families crossing the Mexican-American border and moving to Northeast Georgia pulled by the call of machines and shift changes for the sake of children that would never never know a life anywhere else. Living in La Jolla (spanish for “the jewel;” otherwise known as Pear Valley), I could identify with the people around me. We all grew up in that half-space of not knowing how to be, reconciling skills inherited from thousands of miles away with the demands of a life in the US. The shame of an egg-bean lunch brought to school in a plastic Walmart bag balanced with the love of a community. These images seem vibrant and clear now, but at the time were just unstated parts of my experience. It wasn’t until I spent time living someone else’s rural that I could really see the place and people that made me.
- Tom Torres