Thirteen days after a manager at a Pennsylvania sugar plant – fearing slowed production – removed a safety-device from a massive sugar hopper, Janio Salinas – a temp-worker from New Jersey – climbed in. He and fellow workers needed to continue bagging sugar for companies such as Snapple, and clumps were clogging the funnel hole at the bottom of the hopper. When his co-workers returned from lunch no one could find Janio. He had been buried alive and suffocated in the hopper.
This story was reported by ProPublica and Univision earlier this week. It is the result of a several-months long investigation by Univision, in which they sent producers undercover into temp agencies in immigrant neighborhoods in NJ.
After seeing the closing day of the #KaraWalkerDomino exhibit A Subtlety (read more about it here, here and here) I am struck by gruesome realism of Janio’s death, and the symbolic significance of it.
For those who haven’t heard about this exhibit, Kara Walker, an artist known for provocative pieces about the legacy of anti-Black racism in the United States, was commissioned by Creative Time, an organization that commissions and develops public art pieces, to create an art installation in the soon-to-be-demolished-and-turned-into-condos Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, NY. Walker created a stunning piece that took to task the violent legacy of colonial and industrial sugar production, slavery, and the stereo-typing/objectification of The Black Female Body (more on this in my soon to be published post about the show). To say it was moving/challenging/sad/overwhelming is to not say enough.
Kara Walker used sugar to construct her piece, Janio died with a mouthful of it, and all of our pantries has food packed with it.
A lot of the fallout from the Kara Walker exhibit has been around the furtherance of the objectification of The Female Black Body through disrespectful/obscene/self-involved/expected photos taken and posted to social media by patrons of the show. While the selfiecation of the show caused distress and anger, social media also created a public platform for a messy/vulnerable/important conversation about race, gender, and sexuality.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the opportunity and challenges of emerging technology when it comes to workers. Seeing the social media storm around Kara Walkers piece excited me, it took what is all too often a private conversation and made it public. Here, I believe, is the beginning of change.
So how do we do the same thing for Janio? How do we utilize the possibility to create/influence/change the conversation about workers? How do we not wait another 500 years to see an exhibit where sugar sculptures depict not young enslaved African boys, but young Latino children crossing the border, or former felons , or….
And how do we make the connection so amazingly clear, as Kara Walker did, between the food/products we consume and the violence and suffering of the those who produced them?
Of course these questions go beyond social media and start to ebb into conversations on organizing and of culture (not to mention industrial production, migration, labor law etc).
Regardless of the answers, we need some soon.