Each year some 120,000 trucks haul $2.5 billion worth of produce across the U.S.-Mexico border for consumption in U.S. and Canada. Over one-third of that produce—most of it grown in the states of Sonora and Sinaloa–comes through the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
The industry has had a significant economic, cultural and social impact on the town and Santa Cruz County. Some 3,000 residents of Santa Cruz County work directly with the produce industry, with an additional 1,400 others employed in associated occupations such as gas stations and retail. Many produce brokers are involved in multigenerational, family-based enterprises. In part because of this industry, Nogales has become a culturally diverse community with influences from Mexico, Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, and African American populations.
While much research has been done on economic environmental and social effects of the maquiladoras on Mexican side of border, there is relatively little documentation of the produce industry on the U.S. side. Seeking to change that, this project documents the experiences and histories of people working in the industry, from produce brokers to truck drivers to customs inspectors. It focuses on personal experience narratives, occupational technique, and local industry traditions, examining the impacts—past, present, and projected—of social and economic changes in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.
The research comes at a timely moment. The rise of new shipping routes through Texas may jeopardize the prominent of Nogales as a produce hub with potentially difficult consequences for the local industry. Increasing drought, rising food costs, and increasing food insecurity create further socioeconomic concerns in Nogales.
The study will in part serve the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA) through the creation of an archive of occupational narratives of elders in the industry. The FPAA has shown tremendous support for the project.
The project is being carried out by Nicholas Hartmann, the folklorist in residence at SFA, with executive director Maribel Alvarez as the main mentor and coach. It expands upon initial research carried out by Alvarez, Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, Jeffrey Banister, and Regina Fitzsimmons for the University of Arizona Southwest Center’s Kellogg Program in Sustainable Food Systems, which resulted in the publication Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance.