Book Review: ‘Meatpacking America’ by Kristy Nabhan-Warren


by Nicholas Dolan, Little Village (IA) 

Oct 11, 2021


In the popular imagination, the small-town Midwest exists in a state of fixed, unchanging idyll, in which people who have always lived there and always will pass on to their children the rural values and traditions they themselves inherited. For some, often on the political right, these values are hard work, temperance of spirit and a genuine sense of community. This vision is frequently racialized, pitted as it is against notions of urban America as comparatively lazy, intemperate and incapable of sustaining community. Meanwhile for others, often on the political left, the unmistakably rural values in question are a stubborn resistance to change and a backwardness rooted in monolithic white Christian identity.


A key contribution of Kristy Nabhan-Warren’s new book is to critique both of these visions, simplistically deployed by the media, as insufficiently nuanced and ignorant of both recent and historic demographic change. As she emphasizes in Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland (UNC Press), between 2000 and 2017 Iowa experienced a 131.2 percent increase in its number of Latino residents, who now constitute 6 percent of the state’s population (p. 51). This is not a massive number in isolation, but when talking about towns of a couple thousand people, the introduction of a small sliver of that 6 percent can have a significant impact on the makeup and life of the town.


Many of these new residents are migrants from Mexico, as well as the Northern Triangle states of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). The Northern Triangle suffers from high rates of poverty and political and social violence, which are attributable in part to decades of violent U.S. intervention in the region. Because of this violence—and the explicitly stated motives of many of the migrants Nabhan-Warren movingly interviews—she considers all of them to be “de facto refugees” (p. xiii). They are joined by a smaller but growing number of legally recognized refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and elsewhere.


Many migrants to Iowa settle in small towns whose economies are based on meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses, like Columbus Junction, Tama and West Liberty. Jobs in meatpacking plants pay decently relative to cost-of-living (though not nearly as well as they used to, due to the movement of these plants since the 1980s away from unionized urban centers and towards rural right-to-work states). And the brutal, gruelling nature of the work makes the jobs undesirable to middle-class white residents. For these reasons, the settling of migrants in these towns and others has not just revitalized their economies. It has made them genuinely multicultural communities.


Nabhan-Warren, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, documents the complicated and sometimes fraught flux of social and cultural life in and around Iowa meatpacking plants. She does so through hundreds of interviews with immigrant and native-born meatpacking workers and residents, animal agriculture CEOs and community religious leaders...