I saw The Help and liked it. It’s about a woman (called “Skeeter”) who collects the stories of black maids in her town. Movies like it should be made, and more movies need to deal with the working class. Also, I hate criticism that we white people shouldn’t write about people from other backgrounds. If we can’t then I think we’re leaving out a lot of stories. Still, the movie got me thinking. My thoughts had less to do with the movie and more with movies in general and the idea of helping.
There’s a whole genre of “helper” movies from Hollywood. Movies in which a white person goes in to a non-white community to help them and succeeds. The Help doesn’t really fit in this category, as we don’t see Skeeter victoriously ending discrimination. Instead it ends with her damaging the relations between people around her, even if she does bring out the non-racist side of her mother. Also, her goal is not to help so much as sell her book, so she’s a little more complex than your average Hollywood helper.
Helper movies split into two types: Helper dramas (The Blind Side,Music of the Heart) and warrior helpers (Avatar, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia).
Ironically, given the focus on action, the warrior helper movies seem to have more dynamic helper characters (they often switch sides). Helper Dramas are usually about characters who start out right and end just as right. Again, The Help just barely fits here, but there’s one side it doesn’t show, and that’s struggling at first. To be fair, she does struggle at first, but none of it is her fault, more to do with the risks of the time period.
I worked with migrant farm workers in South Carolina, signing people up for a health program and then recording an interview with one worker about his life. You can read more about my memories of that time at this blog. When I started out I was asking people what they ate for breakfast, who cooked for them and other weird awkward questions as icebreakers. I took notes even when I was just making light conversation, making me look like a census taker. People had to point these things out to me for me to change them. Usually these people were Latino. Why are there are no stories about people who try to help but start out doing it all wrong? Or even more importantly, a story of a helper failing?
I may, in the future, write the story I’m describing, although I have other projects at the moment. Right now I just thought I’d throw the questions out there and see what people thought.
Some people call the country life slow. In some ways it may be slow. People do talk slower, and nothing is a block away. Evenings and time off from work can be slow too. Too slow. If you can’t drive anywhere, you are stuck sitting around in the evening, watching TV, listening to music, or trying to strike up conversations. I sat with the workers in one camp, on a plastic bucket like them, as the light died down. As far as work goes, though it’s as fast as any factory or holiday-season checkout line, only with heat thrown in to make it worse. They do get breaks for water, but there’s nothing slow about the work itself.
Before I go any further about South Carolina, I should mention that most of the time I wasn’t alone. Like all Student Action with Farmworkers interns, I lived and worked with another intern. My intern partner was Pedro. He grew up in Georgia and cut tobacco for a living. He was now in college preparing for a career in medicine, possibly nursing or medical translation.
In college I had always traded on self deprecating humor and nervous stuttering apologies to get what I wanted or needed. Pedro was the complete opposite. He traded on deadpan bragging humor and measured words. If I had to sum Pedro up in one word, it would be “driven.” He was always figuring out ways to make our projects succeed. “I don’t like being told I can’t do something,” he told me.
He wasn’t driven in a nervous way though, or at least he did not show it. He was able to relax in his time off, even if his idea of relaxing was to go to Charleston or Burlington or check out Columbia’s nightlife rather than just spend the night at home.
Many of the SAF interns like Pedro had come from similar situations to the people we were helping. Throughout my time in SAF, I spent time with people who had worked in fields or greenhouses and had now moved on to college. It struck me that what we were seeing was not exotic to them at all. It was life. It wasn’t just about wanting to see the conditions of farmworkers. It was about giving back while moving ahead. It was about being driven.
“Don’t take notes so much when you talk to them,” said Carmen to me in Spanish as I walked back to the van.
“But if I don’t take notes,” I said, “I won’t remember.”
“It’s just too official looking, like a census. It gives the wrong idea mi hijo.”
Carmen was my supervisor at South Carolina Primary Health Care. She was a native of Honduras and liked to call me “mi hijo,” meaning “my son.”
“Take notes after you talk to them, if you need to, but don’t just write things down while they’re talking,” she said.
It was a reminder for me. I was not here to take as many notes as possible and write an amazing story to rival John Steinbeck. I was here to be helpful.
Student Action with Farmworkers put me here with South Carolina Primary Health Care’s Migrant Health Program to register as many patients as possible and drive them to appointments and pharmacies. We registered documented, undocumented, and guest workers alike. Our program hardly covered anything beyond checkups. Farm managers never had to pay insurance, and our program was just there to fill the gap.
If I learned anything from that summer, I learned that I am not an expert and should never claim to be one. Still, I can say what I saw. I saw entire worlds in South Carolina that I barely knew existed.
As South Carolina Primary Health Care interns, we had come to the Wal-Mart pharmacy because it was the cheapest around. We were there to help a woman get some medications. Because it was lunch time though, we stopped at the Subway restaurant inside that same Wal-Mart.
She shared stories about her life. She had worked at a bottling plant and at other factories along the border. Now, she was a guest worker who picked vegetables in the hot fields. “Which work was the hardest job for you?” I asked. “The one that I have now,” she said.