Faculty Focus

Global Labor: Prof. Marcos López’ Journey from California to Maine
Interviewed by Javier Cikota in 2019
Marcos Lopez research
Image from the field, courtesy of Marcos López.

Professor Marcos López met me outside of my seminar room on a windy day in late February ahead of our lunch appointment, and we braved the cold as we debated where to eat.  We walked gingerly to Jack Magee’s and found a table near the corner. As I effortlessly reduced a pile of french fries to salty crumbs we began talking about everything from mentoring, to research, to growing up in California’s Santa Ynez valley, to life in different types of academic institutions, to early experiences of labor, and life in Maine. By the end of the ninety minutes, it was clear to me why everyone—from current and former students, to colleagues and alumni—can’t stop raving about Professor López.

In between sandwich bites it dawned on me that his mentoring approach grows out of his own academic trajectory, which built on a series of fortuitous encounters and hard work. Marcos tells me about growing up in the Santa Ynez Valley, a mostly horse breeding valley turned wine-growing oasis tucked in the mountains behind Santa Barbara in the central coast of California, and of a formative moment as a teenager.  His aunt had always invited her nephews and nieces to work with her in a factory in Northern California during the summer of their senior year in high school. He had seen his older siblings go through this rite of passage and anxiously awaited his chance—but the summer before his senior year the factory relocated away from California to North Carolina, where environmental and labor regulations were relaxed.

Marcos still got to join his aunt for the summer but returned home with less money than his siblings had made years earlier. Beyond learning an early lesson about state regulations and worker’s compensations, he brought with him a keen understanding of how his work output was measured on a daily basis.  The way productivity was assessed in the factory revealed a grim reality of modern labor practices: “that workers who were perceived as being slow were sent back to temp agencies, while those that were good workers, fast workers, efficient workers where the ones that stayed on.”  Additionally, the experience placed in sharp relief the racialized experience of the factory: “most of the executives were white and well educated and the factory workers were predominantly black.”  What this revealed to him was “how even in a space as mundane as the factory setting, social inequalities are reproduced in order to allow companies to flourish.”  This experience would shape his research interests in years to come.

After finishing high school, Marcos worked and attended community college in Santa Barbara, before moving further north to the University of California in Santa Cruz. He would discover Sociology, and go on to receive his Bachelor, Masters, and Doctorate degrees from UCSC. That early first-hand experience of social inequality came to inform his later research on labor, migration, and race in the San Quintín Valley in Baja California.

His relationship with the workers in San Quintín Valley is remarkable. He spent years conducting ethnographic research in the region, getting to know the mostly indigenous migrant farm workers and studying the effects of the agro-business on the humans and the landscape of the region. A few years back the farm workers organized a general strike to improve the working conditions, and gained important concessions from their employers. Marcos got to catch up with them during a recent research trip—a reunion of sorts with people he had gotten to know years earlier, and who were now the leaders of a transformational movement. Marcos’ face lit up when he told me that he will be able to include these stories as part of his forthcoming book El Agua Calienta: Agrarian Landscapes, Water and the Undercurrents of Indigenous Farmworker Resistance.