Western North Dakota Man Camps, Poetry, Literature, and Immigration

Media outlets have picked up on our study in western North Dakota that brought archaeological, anthropological, sociological and architectural models to bear on documenting man camps. The study was led by University of North Dakota’s Bill Caraher and Bret Weber, and they charged me with collecting interviews from the camp inhabitants (Weber also collected interviews). I thought specifically about two laborers I chatted with in a type II man-camp, a type of trailer park. They, Polo and José, identified themselves as Mexican-Americans, and their scuffed work boots, coarse hands, and sturdy frames reflected a life of labor they had already put in. José offered me a chair and hospitality, and Polo offered me a beverage. They did not care to waive their right for me to digitally record their stories (mainly because they wanted to read an information waiver, but in Spanish — I only had English on me, and no one wanted to try translating legalese English into Spanish), but we sat and chatted for almost an hour. Their families are back in the American southwest, and Polo and José labor on the northern Plains and occasionally make it back to their families to visit.

I was thinking about Polo and José this last weekend at the Four Souls Symposium, specifically at a talk put on by Luis Alberto Urrea. During his talk and while fielding audience questions, Urrea said we might all visit or revisit our country’s immigration law which can be found in legalese hypertext here. This 21st-century hypertext link stands in stark contrast to Emma Lazarus’s nineteenth-century sonnet, “The New Colossus,” mounted inside the lower level of the Statue of Liberty. In any case, check out Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway (2005). It humanizes the legalese, and captures the flesh-and-blood stories of a borderlands area.

Here is the 1883 Emma Lazarus sonnet in full:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


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