Portrait of an Organizer: Yanira Merino

September 25, 2007

Yanira Merino is no stranger to trouble. So she has made trouble a kind of teacher, to refine and strengthen her com- mitment to justice. As a highschooler in the 1970s, she helped lead the Association of Secondary-School Students in her home town of Santa Tecla, in the department of La Libertad, El Salvador. Her parents, also politically active, feared for her safety, so in 1974 they sent her to the United States. There, she continued organizing among the growing population of Salvadorans fleeing political violence. But safety was elusive. In 1987, Merino, using her married name of Corea, was abducted as she left a Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador meeting in Los Angeles. Although almost a decade has passed, Merino remembers each detail precisely. "At first, I thought it was a car-jacking, but when the men started to talk to me in Spanish and accused me of being a Communist and a guerrilla, I knew it was something else," she remembers. "There was no doubt in my mind that what they did to me was meant to ter- rorize other Salvadorans and U.S. citizens in Los Angeles who were working for peace in El Salvador and convince them not to get involved." During the six-hour ordeal, Merino was burned with cigarettes and raped. The three men, who spoke with Central American accents, threatened her son, then a year old. They left her, naked, on an unfamiliar street, where she Robin Kirk is a North Carolina-based writer who writes frequently on immigration and Latinos in the United States. collapsed and was later found by police. Less than two weeks later, a Guat- emalan woman who worked with Central American refugees was also briefly abducted, though unharmed. Dozens of Los Angeles-based activists received calls and written death threats over the summer, prompting Mayor Tom Bradley to offer a $10,000 reward for information lead- ing to the identity of the men calling themselves "Death Squad" (Escuadr6n de la Muerte), a group that first made its appearance in El Salvador in the late 1970s. Both the Los Angeles police's anti-terrorism squad and the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened cases, but no suspects were ever apprehended. Although Merino, 31, says she will never completely recover, the experience did teach her a lesson. "Torture is meant to destroy people's will, and I can say that they were not able to do that," she said from her Los Angeles home. "That part of me was made stronger by what happened. The work I do is to empower people to make a change, and the first thing they have to do is believe they can do it, as I did." Once the peace agreement was signed in El Salvador, Merino shifted to issues of economic justice in her adopted country. After moving north, she worked clean- ing houses, a job flexible enough to fit in with her polit- ical work. But with a son to raise, she needed benefits, so took a job at a local shrimp processing plant run by Ore-Cal Corporation. "The workers were people like me, mostly Latinas who were just making ends meet. At first, it was O.K. There VOL XXX, No 3 Nov/DEc 1996 25 VOL XXX, No 3 Nov/DEC 1996 25REPORT ON LATINO LABOR "66The workers were people like me, mostly Latinas who were just making ends meet. At first, it was O.K. There were benefits and overtime pay. But after awhile, I heard the managers calling us stupid, lazy, retarded. They fired people for no cause or for something they made up. So we started talking about a union.,9 were benefits and overtime pay. But after awhile, I heard malans were the managers calling us stupid, lazy, retarded. They fired around them, people for no cause or for something they made up. So we would go into started talking about a union." By the end of 1994, only Latina, an Merino and other workers had contacted the Laborers On the proc International Union of North America (LIUNA), an affil- were no breal iate of the AFL-CIO, and had won the election to union- stood. Trips t( ize. Within a year, they had a contract for 115 employees. Workers claim Merino decided to leave Ore-Cal to organize full time ricated infracti for LIUNA. One of her first assignments, though, sur- impromptu stri prised her. "A group of Guatemalans in North Carolina Case Farms' contacted us to come and talk about organizing a union months later, at Case Farms, a chicken-processing plant," Merino Farms spokesr remembered. "I thought, 'Latinos in North Carolina?' It's and proper" ti impossible." appealed the N Although North Carolina is not known for a large to recognize tl Latino population, it is there and growing rapidly. Fourth Circuit Particularly in the eastern half of the state, urban Latinos this August to as well as Mexican and Central American workers fol- have begun. lowing the tobacco and strawberry harvests have settled Merino belie in and become permanent fixtures. They work in furni- and remain in ture factories, meat processing plants, and construction, just have start where jobs are plentiful. Crime is low and living expens- repair relation es are cheaper than in many cities with large Latino pop- white and bla ulations. While some Latinos are drawn by the universi- During the or ties and high-tech industry, most are working class. One ment that the small town, Siler City, is considered a Latino mecca, Guatemalans a with four Latino-run grocery stores, an insurance agency ers. Among b and even a Latino neighborhood, called "Mill Hill." Latinos will r But strings are attached. North Carolina is a right-to- received limit work state, and in Morganton, the tree-shaded town at American com the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains where the Case "This has be Farms plant is located, there is only one other union. As clearly trouble. Father Ken Whittington, the priest at Morganton's St. "Perhaps we d Charles Boromeo Church explains, for several years, the black comic Case Farms is believed to have purposefully recruited Father Whittin Guatemalan workers because they are cheap, available, Merino to do j hard-working-and easily controlled, as big a heart "Some of the first came to Morganton from Florida, happened, she where Case Farms recruited them and brought them it's clear to im here in vans," he notes. Two of North Carolina's largest forming a union chicken-processors, Perdue Farms and Townsend Inc., reported this year that half of their work force is Latino. Father Whittington estimates that Morganton's Guatemalan population is over 1,500 people, mostly single men from Huehuetenango province. "Among them, we have at least five Mayan dialects. For most, Spanish is their second language." For Merino, the first trip to North Carolina was a shock. "Not only were the conditions they worked in worse than any I had ever seen, but the Guate- completely isolated from the community and got no support. I noticed it when I a store to buy something. I would be the Id I was noticed." :essing line, workers reported that there ks, forcing them to urinate where they o get a drink of water were prohibited. ed they were fired for no cause or for fab- ons. The organizing drive began after an ke following the firing of several workers. 450 workers voted to join the union two on July 12, 1995. In response, a Case nan vowed to "do everything that is legal o keep the union out. The company has rational Labor Relations Board's decision he union, and the case is pending at the Court. Workers held a week-long strike protest. So far, no contract negotiations eves the Guatemalan workers will prevail North Carolina. But the work will only ed. One of her goals is to find a way to s between the Guatemalans and the poor ck workers who also joined the union. ganizing drive, some expressed resent- union seemed to concentrate on the nd ignore the plight of native-born work- lacks, there is a fear that an influx of ob them of jobs. So far, the union has ed support from Morganton's African- munity and almost none from whites. en a big school for me," Merino admits, d by Morganton's multiple racial divides. Didn't put enough effort into outreach to unity, something I plan to remedy." For gton, there is no one better equipped than ust that. "I have rarely met someone with as Yanira," he says. "Despite all that has hasn't lost her dedication to others, and e that her plans go far beyond simply forming a union and leaving. She'll be back."

Tags: Latinos, labor unions, organizing, Yanira Merino

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