Mississippi Organizing for change
Mississippi’s Latinos have not been able to use the traditional bases of Latino political power in the United States. No national Latino advocacy organization has offices there, and until Hurricane Katrina the state received little attention from these groups. Furthermore, in this right-to-work state, the labor movement historically has been weak, limiting Latinos’ possibilities for gaining power through organized labor as they have done elsewhere. Thus, Latinos’ political strategies have been uniquely Mississippian that is, based on religious institutions, limited union activity, and attempts at alliance with African Americans.
Churches were Latinos’ first and only line of defense in the 1990s. Though church workers, some themselves Latinos, sometimes chose to intervene in particular troubles with bosses or landlords, on their own they could do little to address the systemic concerns of this newly arrived, largely undocumented migrant population.
In 2000, church groups joined forces with union, African American, and social service groups to form the Mississippi Immigrants’ Rights Alliance (MIRA!). MIRA! has focused largely on state and local policy advocacy on behalf of migrants. As rallies in favor of immigrants’ rights swept the United States in 2006, MIRA! worked with religious and African American leadership to organize rallies in Jackson, Gulfport, and Laurel. Approximately 500 people attended each event. Casting the rallies in the tradition of the state’s history of civil rights struggle, organizers led marchers in a Spanish-language version of We Shall Overcome Juntos Venceremos.
Though Jackson is the state’s capital, central Mississippi has been the locus of an equally dynamic migrant workers’ movement centering around the concerns of poultry workers. Given traditional poultry unions’ initial failure to reach out to Latinos, organizers have created alternative strategies. Helping Latino and African American workers find common ground has been a central concern of MPOWER (formerly the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center), in Morton. Working in collaboration with civil and immigrants’ rights organizations, religious leaders, labor unions, and other community groups, MPOWER focuses on worker education. It works across race lines to build a climate of political consciousness among central Mississippi’s poultry workers. In part because of these efforts, Latino migrants in the area responded in large numbers to the national call for an immigrant strike on May 1, 2006. Sanderson Farms’ poultry plant in Laurel, for example, became so short-staffed on that day that it had to cut back from two production shifts to one.
In other parts of the state, middle-class Latino professionals have improvised as needed to provide basic services, advocacy, and translation for newly arrived Latinos. In 2002 middle-class Latino leaders on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast founded the Gulf Coast Latin American Association, whose goal is to help the poorer, more recent arrivals from throughout Latin America to the coast.