ENFIELD, N.C. (AP) – Urbano Ramirez Miranda died in the earth-scented shade temple of a majestic magnolia tree his second day picking tobacco.
That late-June afternoon was a typically humid 87 degrees in this corner of North Carolina’s verdant coastal plain. Ramirez was built sturdy, but the wet heat here was nothing like his native Mexico.
When Ramirez complained of a nosebleed, the field supervisor instructed his new hire to quit early. That was the last anyone saw of Ramirez for 10 days, when another worker found his body propped against the tree.
One clue to its identity: the 22 orange tags that recorded how many buckets of pickling cucumbers Ramirez picked starting at 6 a.m. the day he died. Between cucumber and tobacco work, he would have been paid about $50 that day.
The disappearance wasn’t reported, the tobacco farmer told state investigators, because he figured it wasn’t work related.
One medical examiner concluded Ramirez died of natural causes, but state officials ruled the cause “undetermined.” His body was too decomposed to establish whether heat played a role.
Ramirez was one of 11 Mexican-born workers who died in 2001 in North Carolina, which helped make the South the nation’s most dangerous region for these immigrant laborers, according to an Associated Press investigation. Deaths rose along with the Mexican-born population; in cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh, Hispanic populations grew approximately sevenfold during the 1990s.
“We’re working really hard to communicate to folks in their language that … people deserve a safe workplace,” says Regina Luginbuhl, the state official in charge of agricultural safety and health.
Urbano Martinez’s brother Luis stands under the solitary magnolia where his hermano died. Its branches arc out 20 feet until they touch the sodden ground.
“At least he died in a place where there was shade,” Luis Ramirez says, rubbing his eyes with construction-callused hands. “A good place.”
The brothers arrived in North Carolina four months before Urbano Ramirez died, riding faith and a 1995 Ford Escort. After crossing the Rio Grande River, they had walked about 150 miles over five days to the Texas town of Mathis, where they pooled $3,500 for the car.
They took turns driving, the talk often turning to what work here would be like, how much money they might wire home. Urbano Ramirez had a pregnant wife, three boys and a girl.
It was a slow start. With no construction jobs open, Urbano Ramirez turned to the fields. The work bored him, but it was familiar. Growing up, he had tended subsistence plots of corn, beans and squash.
Someone mentioned that Jake Taylor Farms was hiring. Ramirez showed up June 24, 2001 at the farm’s migrant worker housing outside Durham. He gave a fake name and was hired, state accident investigators found.
Two days later, Ramirez was one in a 45-man crew handpicking tobacco. When Ramirez started bleeding, the field supervisor prescribed shade rest.
The supervisor did not offer to take him to a doctor, investigators found. “He ignored him,” Luis Ramirez says.
The state later cited Jake Taylor Farms for failing to supply water cups. The field supervisor said he sold beers on the side. Both were “substantial violations that may have contributed to the fatal event,” investigators said.
Taylor declined comment for this story through the lawyer who represented him before a state worker’s compensation panel that determined he owed $86,000 to Ramirez’s family.
Luis Ramirez helped raise $3,800 to fly his brother’s body from Raleigh to Guadalajara. Because he too was undocumented, he didn’t return for the funeral.
SIDEBAR: Fatalities follow regional patterns
By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press Writer
The federal government catalogues work accidents and hundreds more each year in a growing roll call of dead Mexican workers.
The AP’s investigation focused on 1996 through 2002, the most recent set of worker death data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those were years when the economic boom coaxed about 1 million Mexicans beyond the border states, according to the best government estimates, which may be low because of the difficulty in counting undocumented workers.
During these years, the analysis showed, Mexicans were increasingly more likely to die on the job than U.S. workers of any race.
The annual death rate for Mexicans increased to the point that about 1 in 16,000 workers died. Meanwhile, for the average U.S.-born worker, the rate steadily decreased to about 1 in 28,000.
Mexicans now represent about 1 in 24 workers in the United States, but about 1 in 14 workplace deaths.
On-the-job fatalities had distinct regional patterns:
California and Texas: These states, where generations of Mexicans have developed strong support networks, still rank first and second in the annual number of Mexican worker deaths – but the numbers have steadied or fallen recently. Though the death rate for Mexican workers in California is far less than in Western and Southeastern states where they have arrived in large numbers only recently, it is still greater than the average for U.S.-born workers, the AP found.
South: In the bloc of states from Louisiana to Maryland, the Mexican death rate averaged about 1 in 6,200 workers – four times that of native-born workers and more than double the national average for Mexicans. Florida, North Carolina and Georgia were consistently among the deadliest states. Total deaths more than tripled from 27 in 1996 to 94 in 2002 in the South (excluding Texas), where some states saw Mexican populations triple to more than 100,000 workers.
West: Outside California, deaths in Western states increased from 41 to 58, and death rates hovered well above the national average. Colorado and Washington stood out with consistently high rates.
Midwest: The number of Mexicans killed annually doubled between 1996 and 2002, from 19 to 38; death rates were slightly above the national average for Mexicans.
Northeast: In the region with the fewest Mexicans, death rates still far exceeded American worker averages. Total annual deaths rose from eight to 17, with New Jersey seeing a recent spike.
Construction was the deadliest industry. Across the nation, about 1 in 3,100 Mexican construction laborers died on the job, a rate one-quarter above that for native-born whites working the same job, and one-third above that for native-born blacks, though more in line with that for native-born Hispanics.
Unlike an American worker who may have apprenticed in a trade such as roofing or welding, a new Mexican worker might not anticipate dangers – or might ignore them, said James Platner of the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, a union-funded research institute.
“I think people find it easy to rationalize the hazards in their jobs,” says Platner, “if their family really needs the money and they really need the job.”
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