By Levi Bridges
Summer carnivals are a quintessential American tradition, an opportunity for families to enjoy time together, eat a funnel cake or two and take a ride on the Ferris wheel.
But there’s a dark side to this summer fun. These same carnivals, which sprout up in cities and towns all over the United States, are the same places where workers from Latin America, mainly Mexico, experience some of the worst exploitation among industries that legally recruit foreign workers.
Walk onto the fairgrounds of most county fairs anywhere in the United States today and you will notice that a lot of the workers are Latino. Many come from Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a bustling town in the southern state of Veracruz.
A U.S. labor recruiter with connections to Tlapacoyan started bringing workers to U.S. carnivals on temporary H-2B visas two decades ago. Since then the business has expanded. Roughly 4,000 workers now come from Tlapacoyan to work at fairs all over the lower 48 states each year.
Foreigners who arrive in the United States on H-2B visas often fall victim to exploitation by employers because their visas do not allow them to change jobs if they are unsatisfied with the working conditions. Wage theft and other abuses are widespread.
Many Mexican carnival workers say they earned about $5 an hour on average and were housed in bedbug-infested trailers.
I witnessed these working conditions firsthand during a summer I spent working undercover as a carnival ride operator with workers from Tlapacoyan. I’m currently writing a book about the experience, a mix of ethnography and reporting from Mexico, as a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Some workers in Tlapacoyan, I discovered, decided to fight back. Three years ago, over a dozen migrant carnival workers in Tlapacoyan filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, Deggeller Attractions, hoping to receive lost wages. Deggeller Attractions is one of the largest carnival companies on the East Coast.
The lawsuit has dragged on for over three years, and although the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, a final appeal by the employer has stalled any resolution.
I wanted to find out what had happened to the Deggeller plaintiffs three years after the case began. With the generous support of a travel grant from the Tinker Foundation and the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies, I traveled to Tlapacoyan in summer 2016.
Back in Mexico, I learned that most of the plaintiffs deeply regretted joining the lawsuit. I spent most of my time with Vicente Guerrero, one of the main characters in the book I’m writing. Like most of the plaintiffs, Guerrero never realized how much the case would change his life. Intoxicated at first with a desire to take a stand against his former bosses, the romanticism quickly wore off. Guerrero and the other plaintiffs were blacklisted by the recruiter in their town from ever returning to work at U.S. fairs.
Guerrero now works driving a taxi. He usually just earns enough money to live day by day. When we met last summer, he had grown desperate. Once a vocal opponent of the carnival industry, he now longed to return to the American fairs.
When his old supervisor at Deggeller Attractions offered him a job if he agreed to drop out of the lawsuit, Guerrero told him that he would even take a pay cut for the opportunity to work with them again.
Thousands of towns like Tlapacoyan are scattered across Mexico. The potential benefits of what work in the United States can provide rural Mexicans back home often makes workers put up with abusive employers. Speaking out frequently results in workers losing the best economic opportunity available to them.
The experiences of workers like Guerrero have unfortunately become commonplace.
Some names in this story have been changed to preserve the identities of those involved.
Levi Bridges is a print and radio journalist focusing on immigration and labor and a current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has reported for Radio Ambulante, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and helped found one of Mexico’s first shelters for Central American refugees during a year spent in the country as a Fulbright Scholar. He grew up on a farm in rural Maine.