Fast fashion, slow integration: Guatemalan youth navigate life and labor in Los Angeles

Americans often associate factory work—and the violence and exploitation of manufacturing industries—with distant nations like China, Vietnam, India, and Cambodia. While stories of workers transported like pigs,” trapped behind barred windows and locked doors, and protected from death by suicide nets trigger broad concern, they tend to ultimately be cast off as the problems of “foreign” societies.

The Emmy Award-winning documentary Made in L.A. brought the narrative of garment worker exploitation back to U.S. soil, but the film focuses on the experiences of adult women. My research thus addresses a critical and unexamined space of inquiry: It moves beyond media attention and scholarship on garment workers abroad or adult laborers in the U.S. to center on the experiences of garment working immigrant youth. This project uncovers the conditions these young people encounter and the ways labor exploitation affects the long-term integration of unaccompanied immigrant youth.

My ethnographic research focuses on the integration experiences of Guatemalan young people who arrive unaccompanied in the United States and live and work in Los Angeles. I have spent over 500 hours participating in support groups, church youth groups, cultural events and community garden gatherings, as well as conducting formal and informal interviews.

Telling stories of poverty, hunger, and suffering, youths’ experiences evidence the impact of the expansion of free trade policies on migration. These policies have decreased local agricultural production and manufacturing, increased food insecurity, and undermined the public sector workforce. And while Central American leaders of the 1970s and 1980s attempted to reduce poverty through land redistribution or taxation of foreign companies, the U.S. thwarted these efforts by sending the CIA to remove these leaders, thereby introducing more violence to the region and further spurring migration.

Contemporary Central American migrants, including children and youth, leave their homes in search for families already in the U.S., but also as a strategy to provide for their families who remain abroad. Unfortunately, many youth who migrate in search of educational opportunities and work to alleviate their family’s poverty do not find refuge in the U.S. and continue struggling to make ends meet.

Read the full story on Youth Circulations here.

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