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Back to the Back of the Yards

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: 100 Years Later

by CONTRATIEMPO

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published. Almost immediately, it had an impact on U.S. society that no other book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, had.

A few short months after its publication, The Jungle arrived in the halls of power in Washington and at the dinner tables of the middle class. In the history of the U.S., few books have achieved the social and political impact that The Jungle had.

In the novel, the protagonist Jurgis arrives in Chicago, works in the Packington district and lives in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. At the dawn of the 20th century, and before Jurgis departs for the U.S., he has the choice of emigrating to Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and other countries in the Americas where there is strong demand for labor.

He could just as well have emigrated to Buenos Aires, working in the meat-processing plants in the El Matador district and lived in a rooming house in a working- class suburb. What would have connected the Jurgis living in El Matador to the Jurgis of Packingtown is that both would have worked for Swift-Armour, the meat packer headquartered in Chicago.

Let’s use the story to envision this character’s life. The Chicago Jurgis comes into contact with workers of other nationalities, including Mexican workers and Blacks who have migrated from the South. The Buenos Aires Jurgis would also have met workers of other nationalities, as well as cowboys (gauchos) who had moved to the city from the plains.

Both characters would have found themselves involved in the workers’ movements of 1919 that shook both Chicago and Buenos Aires. It’s very likely that they would have joined the massive campaigns for unionization that took place during the 1930s and 1940s, decades in which unions in both countries attained a certain level of power.

Thanks to that power, the workers of both countries enjoyed 25 years of prosperity and social welfare (1945-1970) before entering a long period of unemployment, falling salaries and decaying social services. It’s very possible that both would have suffered repression against the workers’ movement and rifts with their communities and families. In that way, they would have lost all that they had gained.

This most recent period has lasted to the present day. There’s no sign that it is nearing an end. What has changed is that today Jurgis doesn’t come from Europe, but rather from Latin America. His only destination is the United States, and his name isn’t Jurgis, but José and Maria (Joseph and Mary).

José and Maria belong to a swelling army: "Globalization’s losers." And they are losers by virtue of the legal status that today’s economic model assigns them: Neoliberalism, the economic system that allows the market to select the winners and losers.

In their attempt to survive in the jungle of neoliberalism, José and Maria work under conditions that are very similar to those that Sinclair described exactly a century ago.

In this New Jungle, José and Maria understand clearly that they are needed to work, but at the same time, they are rejected as neighbors. Moreover, they have discovered that politicians, journalists and nationalist groups like the Minutemen use them to sow fear in the rest of U.S. society, accusing them of "tropicalizing the United States."

However, José and Maria begin to realize what their labor represents and what it would mean if this society had "a day without Latinos."

Throughout the month of March, immigrants took to the streets: a half million in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, 40,000 in Milwaukee and New Mexico staged the biggest mobilizations ever.

Although the nationalists attacked immigration and immigrants, above all through the English-language media, José and Maria acted with great dignity during all the marches. They didn’t stay quiet and now they’re part of a new social movement that has spread rapidly around the country. It began last July when more than 50,000 marched in the Back of the Yards, the neighborhood Sinclair made famous 100 years ago.

A century after the publication of The Jungle, it would seem that history is repeating itself. It’s yet another time when the poorest and most oppressed offer a way out of the jungle: demanding dignity, equality and justice for all.

CONTRATIEMPO, A monthly Spanish-language review of political and cultural issues published in Chicago, printed this editorial in its April issue, noting the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s classic novel exposing the meatpacking industry, The Jungle.

Translation by Lance Selfa.