Roberto Ortega tried to make a living slaughtering pigs in Veracruz, Mexico. “In my town, Las Choapas, after I killed a pig, I would cut it up to sell the meat,” he recalls. But in the late 1990s, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened up Mexican markets to massive pork imports from US companies like Smithfield Foods, Ortega and other small-scale butchers in Mexico were devastated by the drop in prices. “Whatever I could do to make money, I did,” Ortega explains. “But I could never make enough for us to survive.” In 1999 he came to the United States, where he again slaughtered pigs for a living. This time, though, he did it as a worker in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
His new employer? Smithfield—the same company whose imports helped to drive small butchers like him out of business in Mexico.
David Ceja, another immigrant from Veracruz who wound up in Tar Heel, recalls, “Sometimes the price of a pig was enough to buy what we needed, but then it wasn’t. Farm prices were always going down. We couldn’t pay for electricity, so we’d just use candles. Everyone was hurting almost all the time.”
Ceja remembers that his family had ten cows, as well as pigs and chickens, when he was growing up. Even then, he still had to work, and they sometimes went hungry. “But we could give milk to people who came asking for it. There were people even worse off than us,” he recalls.
In 1999, when Ceja was 18, he left his family’s farm in Martinez de la Torre, in northern Veracruz. His parents sold four cows and two hectares of land, and came up with enough money to get him to the border. There he found a coyote who took him across for $1,200. “I didn’t really want to leave, but I felt I had to,” he remembers. “I was afraid, but our need was so great.”
He arrived in Texas, still owing for the passage. “I couldn’t find work for three months. I was desperate,” he says. He feared the consequences if he couldn’t pay, and took whatever work he could find until he finally reached North Carolina. There friends helped him get a real job at Smithfield’s Tar Heel packinghouse. “The boys I played with as a kid are all in the US,” he says. “I’d see many of them working in the plant.”
North Carolina became the number-one US destination for Veracruz’s displaced farmers. Many got jobs at Smithfield, and some, like Ortega and Ceja, helped lead the sixteen-year fight that finally brought in a union there. But they paid a high price. Asserting their rights also made them the targets of harsh immigration enforcement and a growing wave of hostility toward Mexicans in the American South.
The experience of Veracruz migrants reveals a close connection between US investment and trade deals in Mexico and the displacement and migration of its people. For nearly two decades, Smithfield has used NAFTA and the forces it unleashed to become the world’s largest packer and processor of hogs and pork. But the conditions in Veracruz that helped Smithfield make high profits plunged thousands of rural residents into poverty. Tens of thousands left Mexico, many eventually helping Smithfield’s bottom line once again by working for low wages on its US meatpacking lines. “The free trade agreement was the cause of our problems,” Ceja says.