A worker’s death in a Midwest town transformed by immigrant laborers
SCHUYLER, Neb. – Every six seconds or so, another hook-held leg of beef swung down the line, and Jesus Soto Carbajal pounced, knife in hand.
Cutting meat requires precision, and Soto was sharp as he severed the muscle seam to free a round of beef from the hulking hindquarter. Draped in protective metal mesh in the meatpacking plant’s refrigerated air, Soto sang as he sliced.
Privately, he griped about his aching shoulder. He had looked for other work, but the $8-plus an hour he got was as good as a low-skilled Mexican could earn in rural Nebraska.
His task was performed in pairs. One man sliced meat from two passing slabs while the other sharpened his knife. Soto and his partner had a deal – one day you knock off five minutes early, the next day cover for me. Let’s beat the line to the cleaning room, beat the crowd out the gate, get home.
It was a small reward after starting work before dawn. The bosses didn’t object.
So there was Soto on July 25, 2000, alone just before shift’s end, doing the work of two men.
He was the kind of guy who could get away with it. He was 27 and kept fit playing soccer. After five years at the plant, he knew his job. His purple hardhat was proof: It designated Soto a safety monitor.
No one witnessed the exact moment.
Maybe the cuts were taking just that much too long because Soto couldn’t pause to sharpen his knife. Maybe the next slab whacked Soto’s hand as he turned a beat late.
The wound didn’t look that bad. Martin Contreras, still a high-level worker at the plant, had seen gashes gush far more blood. This man will survive, he thought, standing above Soto.
The knife had punctured Soto’s chest just above the protective mesh. Above the left collar bone – where the jugular vein returns blood from the head to the heart.
Within minutes, Soto went from yelling in pain to dazed silence.
Contreras sped behind the ambulance in a manager’s car – past cornfields and the Last Chance steakhouse – to the medical clinic. It turned out there was no need to rush.
Soto’s wife, Gloria Sustaita, arrived with their young sons. In the emergency room, she didn’t flinch, didn’t cry. But this was the boy she knew growing up in Mexico City, the 21-year-old man she married, the father of her boys, the reason she stayed in Nebraska.
Afterward, she told a confidant, she felt as if their trailer home had become her own grave – as if she were “in a coffin, too.”
Excel was not fined for Soto’s death because no federal safety standards covered the circumstances that killed him, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA did make five recommendations: among them, don’t let workers pull double duty.
A spokesman for Excel, owned by Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., said the company has adopted the recommendations and outfitted workers with extended safety tunics.
Two things saved Schuyler, built around a stoplight at one junction of the two-lane lattice that stretches across eastern Nebraska, from becoming another vanishing Midwestern town.
First was the meatpacking plant, which opened in 1968 and came under the Excel Corp. name in 1987. Second was the plant’s move toward a lower-wage, majority-immigrant work force.
Though the particulars are Schuyler’s own, the sketch applies to towns across the Midwest and Southeast. In the 1990s, Schuyler went from equal parts Czech and German descendants to nearly a Hispanic majority. In trailers along packed dirt roads, satellite dishes face south.
The population of Mexican-born workers in the Midwest has doubled since 1996, and Mexican worker deaths have kept pace. Death rates among Mexicans consistently average more than 50 percent greater than those of U.S.-born workers in the region, an investigation by The Associated Press found.
Mexican workers seem to move through Schuyler like ghost ships.
Soto stayed longer than most, and was learning English, even helping to tutor newcomers. In a video of an after-work class at the town library, Soto sits with 3-year-old son Edgar, the little boy all brown eyes and bowl cut and smacking on a golden apple he needs both hands to hold.
Schuyler had a funeral procession before Soto’s wife returned his ashes to the embrace of Mexico City.
Soto was outgoing, but he couldn’t have known everyone who came. They lined up in Schuyler’s brick-street downtown, outside stores that wire money home, that sell old-country ingredients – shops which rejuvenated a dormant business district.
That could have been me, they thought.