Aug 9 • 48M

Lori Flores Breaks Down Latinx Food and Drink Labor in the United States

An associate professor of history, Dr. Lori Flores digs into the realities of agricultural working conditions—and the invisible labor behind the foods and goods we enjoy.

5
 
1.0×
0:00
-47:50
Open in playerListen on);
Episode details
Comments

A few weeks ago, I asked my friends on Twitter to suggest folks I could interview about coffee and milk. I wanted to learn more about why we put milk in our coffee instead of, let’s say, orange juice, or whipped cream, or any other ingredient used to temper its bitterness.

I’m still looking for that particular answer—but along the way, I was introduced to Dr. Lori Flores, an associate professor of history at Stony Brook University. Lori studies the migration and labor history of Latinx communities in the United States. She also wrote a book called “Grounds For Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement,” which explores the labor history of Mexican Americans and immigrants in the Salinas Valley in California.

In this episode, we talk about how “unskilled” labor is categorized, whose labor is purposefully obscured from public view, and how those in power often use collective action for their own benefit while attempting to quash it among those with less power and access to resources.

We talk a lot about the Bracero Program, a government-supported initiative to bring Mexican workers over to the United States throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s to fill jobs in the agricultural sector, as well as other industries. Many of the workers brought to the United States through this program were vilified—you can probably envision critiques along the lines of “they’re taking our jobs,” or other ugly forms of discrimination. At the same time, workers who were part of the Bracero Program were barred from joining unions or having much power over their working lives due to powerful coalitions and the consolidation of power by agribusiness.

We’re talking about this now because so many of the historical lessons Lori details apply now, as more and more people are engaging in collective action. But there are still a few lessons that haven’t fully landed. Like the misconception that if folks unionize, if their wages go up, consumers will have to foot the bill. Or the belief among some that if a “low-wage” jobs pays $15 an hour, it devalues their own work.

In this episode, we discuss the existence of these false dichotomies, and how taking a moment to recognize that everything you consume—everything you eat, drink, and enjoy—was made by someone else could help us place more importance on fair wages for all. Just a quick note: My recording device died right towards the end of this episode, but I had a backup audio recording—I don’t think it’s too obvious, but you might notice it towards the very end of the episode. Here’s Lori.


Ashley: Professor Flores, I was wondering if we could start by having you introduce yourself.

Lori: Sure. I'm Lori Flores. I'm associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, part of the SUNY system here in New York. And I specialize in 20th-century U.S. history with a focus on Latinx labor, food, and immigration history.

Ashley: Did you grow up with coffee in your life?

Lori: I definitely remember the Folgers can always present in our home. I grew up in a little town in South Texas in a Mexican-American family. Both my mom and my dad were Folgers drinkers. And so that was a daily presence in our household in the mornings, for sure.

And then I remember them having coffee with their friends was always something that my parents enjoyed as a way to decompress from their days. So I remember my dad going and having coffee with his buddies at a Whataburger in Texas and my mom having coffee with her sisters at one of their houses.

Whenever I was lucky enough to get to tag along, I just associate coffee and all the mugs and all my tias at one of their houses, just laughing and gossiping. And even though I wasn't drinking it myself, it just always seemed like something that someone needed in their day. Not only to get it started, but also to end it.

Ashley: That's interesting that you mentioned it was part of ending the day too, because for me, I grew up in a Cuban-American household. I grew up associating coffee with nighttime because my grandmother would make it after every meal.

Lori: Hmm. Yeah. To me, it always seemed funny because I thought, “Well, if it's something that wires you during the day, why are you doing it at night?”

But I think it fueled the conversations because they could go on for hours. So, to my parents, it was no big deal to re-caffeinate at the end of the day. It was very ritualistic for them.

Ashley: Exactly. Same with my family. How did you get—I know this is a big question, but how did you get into academia? What fueled your interest in studying the migration and labor organization [history] of Latinx people?

Lori: I love talking about my path to academia because I could have had a very different life than being a professor.

Like I said, I grew up in a small town in South Texas. It was pretty common for children to stay near their parents and to stay nearby, especially if you were a Mexican-American kid.

I went to a high school in which the counselors basically encouraged us to shoot for a school in state. Or, in my case, when I went to go speak to my high school counselor about my desire to apply to schools out of state, she sort of told me, “I think you should either enlist in the military or apply to the community college down the street.”

“You're a girl. Your parents probably want you to stay close by. You're from a working-class family. It just doesn't seem in the cards for you to shoot further than that.”

But I had a history teacher who taught me from eighth grade to senior year and he really encouraged me to apply to places that were just in my imagination or schools that I had just seen on TV or something.

So I ended up applying to Yale, and got in. And once I saw that big letter in the mail, I knew that I had to take the opportunity. It just wasn't going to come around again. And my parents were not happy about this decision. They, especially my father, he just did not envision his first daughter going away from home, and it took a long time for him to come around.

But in the meantime, I had made the decision to go. And at Yale, it was during my sophomore year that I took a Mexican-American history course, and I just fell in love with the topic. It was the first time that I had ever realized that my background, the background of my parents, the background of my community in Texas, it could be something that you could study that you could read about, that you could write about, that you could teach about. And I was just hooked.

I knew that I wanted to keep on studying in that field and asked that professor of that course to be my advisor, and he encouraged me to go to graduate school. So if I hadn't made that decision that was something that would separate me from my family, both physically and emotionally in some ways, I think I would've gone into maybe teaching, but at a different level or a different group of students.

But I think my decision to pursue an education somewhere far away actually led me back to who I was. Anytime that I can do that for students who don't know much about their own background, but then that lightbulb goes off for them in the classroom, those are the moments where I just love my job because somebody did that for me back then, and I love being able to do that for people.

Ashley: I love that you were able to identify that pivotal moment, and it still seems really clear and salient to you because I feel like on the podcast, I've discussed those moments of when something feels … almost like your life is starting, in a way, if you know what I mean? Like this is the beginning of the first day of everything.

Lori: Right.

Ashley: And we get a lot of those in life, I think—hell, not a lot of those, but we get more than one. I don't wanna say that there's just one moment that that happens, but it's also critical to think about how pivotal just really great advice can be or somebody encouraging you and saying, “You can do this,” in the face of everybody telling you maybe that's not a good decision or maybe that's something you can't do.

Lori: Yeah, it just takes those little micro moments of somebody validating something about you. “You're a good writer,” or, “I like how you said that,” or, “You should really think about the East Coast, think about somewhere different,” or, “Think about envisioning yourself living a life that maybe other people are not prescribing for you. Maybe you can craft something else.”

I think those little moments are so important whether we recognize them or not right then and there. Looking back it's easy to see where you could have taken a very different turn. Not making your life better or worse, but just making it different. So, yeah, it still sticks out to me as one of the moments of bravery I had in my life.

And one of the best decisions I made, both for the people I ended up meeting and then for what I ended up doing with my career.

Ashley: Yeah, it's been really great researching all of the work that you've done and the things that you've been studying.

So let's go back a little bit to talk about your field of research. So you mentioned that you research migration, you research Latinx communities and how this all relates in terms of labor and movement.

So, the way that we got connected is that I am working on this podcast project about different coffee mysteries and trying to answer kind of big questions in coffee.

And one of the questions I was trying to answer is, why do we put milk in coffee? I got connected to you because you study the migration movements and labor of migrant workers working on dairy farms in Wisconsin.

I was wondering if you could set the scene a little bit for like some of the research that you're doing, and then we can maybe dive a little bit deeper into that.

Lori: Sure. What I'm really fascinated by in my research is, when it comes to Latinx history, I think there's still a lot of confusion out there about what “Latinx” means. Which people does that term include and who are we talking about?

Because I think there's still this problem here in the United States, a lot of people equate “Hispanic” or “Latino” or “Latinx” with immigrants, and we lose that profoundly deep and historical mixture of this is a contingent of people of Latin American descent or origin, but who are this mix of citizens, permanent residents, immigrants, guest workers, temporary migrants…

It encompasses a lot of different people with a lot of different citizenship and mobility statuses in this country. So when we say “Latinx,” we can mean people who have been in this country for generations and centuries. And we can mean people who just arrived a few weeks or months ago to live and to work in the United States.

But I think what holds the people together that I study and that I'm fascinated by is work that goes either undetected or is invisible in various ways. And we can see that both within the food industry and the drink industry, including coffee and milk.

So my current research is on the contributions and deep historical roots of Latinx food and drink labor, specifically in the U.S. Northeast, but kind of zooming out to the entire U.S. to sort of make people aware of—there are very intentional ways that these industries try to shield our eyes and our attention from labor conditions that are happening in barns, warehouses, farms, restaurants, these spaces in which labor can be tucked away and that working conditions and the realities of them can be tucked away from our view and from our minds to the point where we take a lot of things for granted in food and drink—milk, wine, these other things we enjoy and ingest on a regular basis.

And really diving deep into what did it take for that product to get on your table, in your cup, in your glass, for your enjoyment, for your leisure, for your routine, for your sociality? What did it cost other people to produce that enjoyment and ritual for us, for others?

I'm really fascinated by what is, intentionally or maybe unintentionally, invisible to us, and making visible those people and those voices and those histories that contain movement, whether they’re from another country in Latin America, in the Caribbean, or whether it's internal here in the U.S.—people move all the time for work and for their lives.

When it comes to Latinx people, it's been a deep history of contributing to economies that often do not thank the very people who helped build and maintain them, but actually villainize them as illegal threats to the nation. It's an incredibly unfair and unthinking sort of narrative to conceptualize Latinx as something perpetually foreign.

Actually, it's been a part of our food and drink industry for as long as we can remember.

Ashley: It seems like there's a duality that comes up a lot when we think about Latinx people and their contributions to labor.

Because as you mentioned, Latinx people often get villainized as immigrants or “they're taking our jobs,” but in “Grounds For Dreaming,” you talked about the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican folks to the United States specifically to do agricultural labor. Like they were specifically brought in by the U.S. government to do labor.

You also talk about the duality that kind of exists with food systems, where people are physically doing this labor. There are people who are picking your lettuce. There are people who are picking your vegetables, and yet on the other end of it, as consumers, we have been taught to expect that certain things must be cheap.

And through that, that's where I think it seems like labor gets erased. This idea that we are owed certain things like milk, which for so long in the United States has been taught to us to be a fundamental food group. Even though I think most people who are not of European descent are actually lactose intolerant in some way.

But we've been taught to believe that this is a fundamental food group or a thing that like, you wake up in the morning and have a glass of milk, or milk is part of the healthy breakfast. And yet, through that, we erase all of the people who contributed to that labor.

And that happens a lot in coffee too. We have been taught to believe that coffee is supposed to be cheap. That is supposed to be something that we can have every morning. And that ignores the countless hands—I think somebody said it's anywhere between 50 and 100 hands touch your coffee before you even get it.

Lori: Mmm. Yeah, totally. Just like you said, it's this kind of contradictory thinking that we hold in our minds that food or milk or other drinks need to be cheap. They need to be fast. They need to be available always—at the times that we want them for the occasions that we want them.

And like you mentioned, the Bracero Program that we had with Mexico from 1942 to 1964 was one of the longest-running guest worker programs in world history.

We participated in it initially because of World War II labor shortages. But the fact that it continued for almost a quarter of a century means that the U.S. got really used to conducting itself in such a way that it could import cheaper, non-unionized foreign labor and use it perpetually in farms and other sectors of the food industry, and get used to this pattern of paying workers a certain wage that employers could collude to and agree upon, a pretty low wage for these workers.

In turn, American consumers, on the other end, in grocery stores, in restaurants, and different venues where we are eating and drinking, we came to get used to a certain price point for these products, but that price point is only possible because the people at the beginning of the process are getting paid very inadequate salaries.

I think another duality, if we wanna add one more to the mix, is what I constantly get frustrated by is this rhetoric about this kind of work being “unskilled.”

That is something that's just infuriating to me because every single job requires thought and learning and training and some sort of skill and craft. Anything from picking apples in an orchard to making a good cup of coffee to producing the milk in the dairy products that get into our markets and restaurants every day, all of that requires skill.

For people to use this discourse of it being unskilled and thus deserving of low wages just keeps people suppressed into this position that they are never able to ask for more or that they're not entitled to ask for more.

I think the ways in which, in the U.S., food and drink has become so hurried in some ways that if you wanna be slow about your eating and drinking, that's actually running counter to a lot of the culture that we have around food and drink—the faster that we expect these to be in our hands and in front of us, on our plates, the less we are thinking about and the less thoughtful we are being about how much time and how much backbreaking labor it took to get that product to you.

Thus, we're not thinking about the types of wages. If anything, we are devaluing workers all the time because the price point has been kept so low for us for decades.

Ashley: Yeah, that's a really good point. The idea that we expect things to be in our hands so quickly—so we often just gloss over the work that it takes to get there. When we slow things down is when we can see, “Oh, these are the steps that it took for a thing to get here.”

But on the other end of that, for a thing to get to us faster requires more skill. I keep going back to coffee obviously, but I think like, “Oh, if I can make 20 drinks in 20 minutes, I am a good barista. That means that I am better at my job.” Versus like somebody who's maybe a little bit slower or still learning—but regardless, both jobs deserve dignity, both jobs deserve fair wages.

But the idea that the faster we go could actually really signifies a bigger skill, but that somehow still devalues the skill because we don't really have to look at it, we don't really have to focus on what's happening in front of us.

Another thing that I wrote down, as I was reading some of your work, is that we seem to vilify or devalue the labor that's required to do a lot of the the farmwork and fieldwork, or really any low-wage skill. But then oftentimes it seems a theme that comes up in your writing is that people seem to think that Mexican laborers are “better suited” for this type of work.

So it seems there's this contradiction in a way. We seem to acknowledge that Americans are not suited for this work or whatever—this is another kind of social conditioning, but we're willing to recognize that it's labor that a certain sect of people can do, but like we won't honor that that should be [paid] a higher wage.

If that makes sense.

Lori: Yeah. I've been nodding really hard at what you've been saying.

I mean, it's exactly it. Because the more that we participate in this kind of talk about, “Oh, these immigrants are just naturally more hardworking. They're faster. They'll do the work better. They're not complaining, right?” The reason that this work is being done harder and faster and with less complaint is because of people's different vulnerabilities.

So that could be, in this precarious economy, somebody banking on the fact that their employer might fire them or give them less hours, fewer hours or worse working conditions if they do complain. If you're an immigrant, and if you have undocumented status in this country, you're going to be more scared of not performing well in the job, being replaced by somebody else, being fired, being reported, deported.

All of these fears are playing into this “hard work” and “fast work” that's going on. It's because people are afraid. And they are well aware of their precarity in different sectors of our economy, but that hard work discourse erases people's attention to this fear that's going on behind this fast pace that doesn't get bathroom breaks, doesn't get shade breaks, water breaks, all these other things in the fields and barns and warehouses in which our food and drinks are getting produced—and the vineyards too, you know, talking about wine as well.

The more that we sort of buy into this binary of that they're doing jobs that Americans won't do, it's like—yes, in one way, that is true. They're in these positions, but they're not working in these positions because they are happily working fast and hard.

They're actually doing it from a very different emotional place.

Ashley: Yeah. One thing that your work has really touched upon, I think, as a theme in general is just how power works.

So at one point as I was reading “Grounds For Dreaming,” you mentioned the growers associations coming together to sort of make almost a buddy agreement between themselves of like, “We're all gonna kind of operate in the same way. We're not gonna try to undercut each other by paying people this or that,” which I thought was interesting.

It's a collective action worked together to quash collective action from the laborers’ perspective. The idea that those in power were able to collectively use their power and say, “This is how we're gonna do this thing. Because these other people do not have that power. They will never be able to stand up against us because they lack the power and the resources to do so.”

I think it's easy to kind of accept the status quo as is, and say like, “Well, this is working,” or like, “Okay, my milk comes to me at like, a dollar whatever a gallon. And that's fine.” But we don't really question how people without agency or voice often can't do much about that.

They can't just quit their job. That's another common trope, I think, that comes up a lot when people complain about their jobs, they're like, “Well just quit your job and go somewhere else.” It's like … how? Or where? With fear of deportation, oftentimes people are held against their will essentially in certain jobs because of lack of agency and power.

Lori: Yeah, exactly. And the reality is when it comes to fruits, vegetable, solid crops, milk, wine, all of these products in our food and drink systems, what's happening is that we are continuing to use different reincarnations of the Bracero Program. We have the H2 visa program.

We have a lot of temporary visa programs in which one of the conditions—or two of the conditions are actually one, that you don't unionize; and two, that you are bound to one employer for the duration of your contract. So when people say you can just quit and go somewhere else, they actually can't in terms of what their contract says that they can do.

So I think it's so smart to think about, like you said, the flip-side of collective action, which is what the associations of employers are doing with each other, and I think it's precisely them recognizing that that works between them. That's what provokes a lot of fear of that happening between workers too, because they know the power of collectivity. They know the power of people gathering in groups, talking about what they have in common and reaching a plan or agenda and a way forward.

And so I think that that is what is motivating a lot of resistance because they do know the power of people coming together. And when it comes to trying to separate or pit workers against each other, I mean, these kinds of tactics are still going on along lines of race, along lines of citizen versus immigrant, along lines of gender, along lines of generation and age.

There are just so many axes along which employers can make employees feel like they're very different from one another or that they should be working in opposition to one another, or regarding others as threats to their own employment. And I think it's precisely because they know what could happen if people didn't buy into those separations and actually came together.

Ashley: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. Something that I wrote down is that oftentimes when we think about solving a problem like this; let's say we're talking about the price of milk and saying that laborers aren't paid enough. We kind of get this false binary of what the solution is—like, “Oh, we're gonna have to raise the price of milk and that's gonna put a strain on families,” or something like that.

I think at one point you even identified in in your book, if we raised wages 40% for farm workers, that would result in a $200 increase—I think that's in a different article, maybe that's not in the book—but it would result in something like a $200 increase per family throughout the whole year, which isn't a lot, but I wonder if that also masks who the real villain is in this situation, because in every industry, there’s money somewhere.

We talk about this a lot in coffee—that there's money in coffee, even though it seems like there never is because coffee shop workers don't make money, but farmers don't make money as well.

It's the people in the middle who are making money. And I was wondering, how can we start to think about these false binaries that we’re often taught? Like, we're often taught that to have a consumer good that's more equitable, we as consumers have to pay more, but I feel like that masks the actual “winners” in this situation, which is corporations and people at the top.

Lori: Yes. And employers in agribusiness make consumers scared of those rising prices in order to deflect from what they could be doing on their end to make working conditions healthier in various ways. And actually the statistic is not even $200. It's $21 that each household would have to pay more per year in order for wages to rise across the board.

So it's an even lower amount, but still this kind of talk of, “Well, you don't want your food prices to rise, do you? If you don't want that to happen, if you don't want to see elevated price points on your menus in your restaurants, then you have to accept that workers only are allowed conditions within these particular parameters. And that's why we're not going to be recognizing unions and everything that they want and all these demands.”

On the other end, when it comes to milk, producers are sort of squeezed by the government sort of setting the price points for milk, and this setting of price points by the government is actually creating a squeeze on milk producers from one end that then justifies the conditions and the salaries that they're giving workers on the other side.

And so the milk industry keeps on saying they are price takers. They're not price makers. And so that is one reason why dairy workers are not able to have particular benefits or have particular rights to unionize or something else because of the way that they're being dictated by the government that they have to keep prices at a certain level, and so their profit margins are very low.

But this again, even if that is a particularity of the dairy industry, it still allows different sectors of agribusiness to claim the same thing: that they are not able to control much. And so then it's the workers who have to get the short end of the stick, at the end of the equation.

That is simply—it's not sustainable. And we saw that during COVID, because COVID just broke open a lot of our assumptions and what we were taking for granted with our food and our drink, that it actually requires workers to sacrifice a lot of different elements of their health: physical, emotional, mental in order for our prices to stay the way that they are.

There's a lot that the government can be doing. We are saving money with these labor programs, agribusiness has enjoyed the greatest subsidy in the world because our government has participated in global labor programs that have brought us tons of people who are working every day and toiling away in these different spaces of food and drink—that's the reason why agribusiness has been able to make the profits that it does, but those just make workers’ own lives pale and comparison.

They are not able to enjoy the very food and drink that they help to make, these workers in dairy are not even able to walk into a cafe and order a cup of coffee with the very milk that they have helped produce, and that reality to me is so disturbing that a worker cannot even enjoy the very thing that they have worked so hard to make.

Ashley: That's a really common theme in coffee too, particularly when you look at farmers. Oftentimes because the best coffees will fetch the highest prices—those coffees are exported out. And a lot of farmers don't ever get the opportunity to enjoy their own coffees, especially because they live in remote areas.

They might not have a roasting facility anywhere near them. So how would they ever get to enjoy it? So that's a really interesting tie that I think both coffee and the dairy industry share. And I think you also identified that dairy is in a particularly unique situation because it is subsidized or regulated by the U.S. government.

How has that shaped the way we view milk in society? I know that we've talked, we've kind of taken for granted that in the United States milk is kind of seen as a fundamental food, but that's not inherent to milk itself.

That's something that we've shaped and created.

Lori: Yes. We have definitely shaped and created that in the United States, because there are so many places around the world that do not enjoy the availability of milk that we enjoy all the time, that they do not enjoy the different alternatives to milk that we have in the United States to drink and to market to others.

The prevalence of not just dairy, cow milk, but also these plant-based milk alternatives. Think about almond milk, for instance, where is that coming from? The almond groves in California—who is working those almond groves? The same farm workers who are working in different kinds of crops all around the country.

And so even if we go to non-cow milk, if we go to plant-based and alternative milks too, we are uncovering the same kinds of labor systems that are keeping workers from having the types of lives that they can only dream about. And I was actually thinking about the title of my book and how it can apply to coffee as well.

These workers have grounds for dreaming of something better.

Just like in any relationship when you are made to feel like you can't assert your needs, your wants, what you hope for, what you would like in your life—when your employer, when society makes you feel like you are unskilled, you do something that's so simple, you do something that's so quick. “Why do you need these particular types of benefits and conditions and wages?”

It's precisely because our interaction with those products is so easy for those of us at the end of the line who are going into a cafe and ordering a cup of coffee and getting milk with that or whether we're purchasing a carton of almond milk at the grocery store.

That is a very quick moment for us. And our sense of time really doesn't allow us to be able to see that there are lives behind those products and people are being constantly made to feel like they can't get included in conversations about what they want and need and dream about and desire.

Ashley: That wasn't lost on me either. When I looked at the cover of your book, I'm like, “There's a lot of coffee connections that could be made here.” But I think what's really interesting too is that I would say maybe barring like bakeries, who probably interact with a lot of dairy too, baristas interact with a lot of dairy.

I would say that I probably, if I had to, by volume, look at how much dairy I interact with versus coffee, I probably interact with more dairy because of lattes, of cappuccinos, of any steamed beverages or ice drinks that are milk-based.

As a barista, I can hand your drink to you, and I know stuff about coffee because that's what we're trained in. That's what we're trained to talk about. And I could maybe convince 10 people that you should consider where your coffee comes from.

Lori: Mmhmm.

Ashley: But I don't get that training for milk. Like, I get some training for milk to make sure that it looks pretty when I pour it, but I often don't know a lot about where my milk comes from.

So I can't do that same kind of advocacy work, or even just start a conversation with a customer on that. Like even as a barista, we're alienated from that value. You mentioning how quickly we can get these products and just not even think about where they come from—that’s really interesting because as baristas, I think that that's a problem we think about a lot when it comes to coffee, and we don't necessarily have the rhetoric or the knowledge to do that sort of work for milk, which is kind of sad.

Lori: Yeah, that's fascinating to me. Because I think when people think about milk, they either are thinking about it as this thing that's very much taken for granted and easily available. Or they might think of milk as coming from a bucolic setting, right? A pastoral setting.

While that is true, that milk is getting produced in these very beautiful spaces, it's actually very ironic to me. And I don't know—I mean, this is something that would be so interesting to talk about with baristas—is how do you balance capturing a customer's attention enough to communicate the beauty of milk and how it gets to us, but also this sense of workers being held and living their daily lives in these very bucolic landscapes and yet feeling so trapped in certain conditions of their living and their working.

So for instance, in these interviews that I've been looking at with Vermont dairy workers who are largely Mexican or from Central America, that they use the same Spanish word over and over again in their interviews, not planning to do so, but it just comes up as the same word, which is en ado—feeling trapped, being hemmed in and not feeling like they can move very much in the very landscapes that they work in, often because the houses that their employers provide them to live in are literally right across the road from the barns that they are going to nine-hour shifts twice a day.

The fact that they can't really move very much between home and work, that you are literally just crossing the road or the street back and forth and just eating and sleeping and going back to work and interacting with the bodies of cows, that is an interesting relationship in itself, right?

It’s this human/animal connection that a lot of these workers are extremely skilled at. That they're able to calm the cows down enough to be able to milk them, that they gain the animals' trust, that they develop this intimacy with these other living, breathing beings. How can we communicate the beauty of that in the small interactions we have with the customers who come in front of you and other baristas, who like the latte art and who appreciate the taste and the sensation and the ritual of coffee drinking with milk.

How can we get that message across that there is this darkness or this reality of feeling trapped within a very sort of beautiful landscape and story that we have around milk?

Ashley: I feel like the only insight I can provide is based on my own experiences, but I find that so much of the work that I've done as a barista often involves building trust with consumers, which we get a lot of opportunity to do, admittedly, because there's not a thing that you buy every day like coffee.

So if there's a consumer coming in and they're a regular coffee drinker, I'm probably seeing them anywhere between three to seven times a week. It may be even more if they come in more than once a day. So there is a really beautiful opportunity for baristas to engage with somebody and build that trust.

“Oh, you like lattes, maybe try this coffee,” or something like that, and build trust kind of in that way, and get people to start asking more questions. I think that's a lot of what we do, but I can't say from my own experience that I have ever done that with milk, just because it's not something that I was ever really trained to think about.

Lori: Yeah, I guess it's about curiosity at both ends, right? The curiosity of the craft, the craft person and then the curiosity of the customer.

So that gets me to think about, oh, maybe it'll take multiple interactions for that relationship to build so that you could, for instance, mention an article you read about what's going on in Vermont with dairy workers organizing or what's going on in the almond industry in California, that that's when you could approach or broach that topic and get people to actually think about milk in a different way.

Maybe that's the key is that the trust isn't something that can happen in one exchange that it needs to happen over the course enjoying the product and coming back for it again and again.

Ashley: So we have talked a little bit about this in passing, but you are currently working on a book about the dairy industry. When can folks get that book?

Lori: Well, the perpetual frustration of academia is it takes a long time to publish anything. Although I do want to make more of an effort to get things out in public, like shorter-form writing. So hopefully that will be happening over time. But my book is tentatively titled “Starved For Respect: The Many Hungers of Latinx Food Workers,” coming out with the University of North Carolina press.

We are shooting for 2024 for the entire book. But like I said, I think I want to be putting out more writing on dairy workers, wine workers, food workers, over time. So I would love if people just kept up with those pieces of writing until the big thing comes out.

Ashley: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it. And just getting to spend this week reading your work and being immersed in the topics that you cover has been such a delight.

Lori: Thanks Ashley. I'm so glad I got to meet you and that we got to have this conversation.

Ashley: Me too.


This interview has been edited for clarity. You can find out more about Lori and her work at her website.

If you liked this interview, please become a paid subscriber. It really makes the difference between this work being sustainable and me sitting over my computer at 8 p.m. on a Sunday trying to get this to my editor as quickly as possible.

Subscribe please!

And if you can’t subscribe, please share this episode with someone!