Last year I was fortunate to meet a number of wonderful people while spending two months in Russellville, Alabama for my book about immigrant labor. I had relocated to the rural town, about thirty miles east of the Mississippi border, to get a job in a large poultry plant. At the same time, I knew that the plant, which opened its doors in 1989, had attracted thousands of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants and served as the catalyst for a profound transformation of the area. So not only was I excited—if that’s the right word—about finding out what it was like to slice up chickens all day, I was also curious to see how the Latinos and Anglos were (or weren’t) getting along.
On that front, I just heard from one of my favorite people in Russellville, the town librarian. She informed me that the students at Russellville High School had just elected their first Latina homecoming queen. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to a homecoming event, but in my mind they represent everything I disliked about high school: popularity, vapid speeches, school chants (a true eye-roller—teenagers are not supposed to have school spirit), capped off with kids in the bleachers getting buzzed off the beer their buddy’s older brother purchased for a fee.
At my high school, plenty of folks ignored homecoming, but in Russellville the homecoming queen elections are a Big Deal (compared to that other grand Russellville beauty pageant, and ranking in importance somewhere between “Precious Miss Watermelon” and “Miss Watermelon Queen”). For one thing, homecoming is wrapped up in football; and football, if you didn’t know, is pretty important to Alabamans. “It’s just about all we got,” one coworker at the plant told me. “So we take it damn seriously.” This same co-worker was almost always silent during breaks, content to flex his frozen hands and eat in peace. One night (I worked the graveyard shift) I saw him from across the break room as he argued—red-faced and loudly—with a portly man seated at one of the booths. Some time later I asked him what had been going on. He let out a loud sigh of displeasure. “That guy sitting on his ass was being so fucking pessimistic about Alabama’s [University of Alabama] chances this year. I was setting him straight.”
That same well-known passion for Alabama college football carries over to high school. In Russellville a free paper was delivered to my trailer each week. From the sports pages I learned that one high school started practice for the fall season at an odd hour: one minute after midnight on the very first day that practices were permitted. Parents, students, teachers, band members and at least one member of the press turned out in the dark to witness a high school football practice.
Followers of Russellville’s Golden Tigers, whose shirts are on sale at the local Wal-Mart, were if anything more fanatical. During my stay, the school became the first in the state to purchase a Jumbotron video scoreboard, enabling fans to watch replays on the 10’ by 18’ screen. “It’s going to be pretty nice,” explained the football coach. “Visually, it’s really going to enhance the game experience for the fan.” The scoreboard’s price tag was $281,745. I never heard anyone suggest that this might not, you know, be worth it.
So however one feels about an event like homecoming, the election of the first Latina homecoming queen was a noteworthy development. Since the town is dry, the library is the closest thing to a bar, and my librarian friend says that the election has caused some grumbling among her customers, but that most people are taking it in stride. It’s simply one more reminder that things are changing; it’s also a reminder that things are staying the same. Latino immigrants, many who fled civil war or extreme poverty, settled down in Russellville to make a new life. Some locals freaked out, worried that the end was near. Brown-skinned folks who didn’t speak English were living next door! But now the children of these “exotic” immigrants are speaking English with a southern accent, wearing the tiaras of the homecoming queen, and even playing fútbol americano.
My next door neighbors were a Guatemalan couple who had picked tomatoes in Florida before finding work in the chicken plant. Their oldest son spoke English, Spanish, and Quiché—an Indian dialect—and played on the football team. When I told him that I liked soccer more than football, he shrugged. “Y’all might like soccer, but for me, it’s all about football.”