The Land That Time Forgot: An Excerpt from “Landscapes of Care”

The following is an excerpt of Landscapes of Care: Immigration and Health in Rural America by Thurka Sangaramoorthy, which available now wherever books are sold.

Sangaramoorthy offers a glimpse into how and under what conditions migrant workers from Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of North America seek, receive, and fashion care. This book provides new ways of reimagining much of the conventional thinking within medical anthropology about immigration and immigrant health.

Adia Benton, Northwestern University

The Land That Time Forgot

Summer in Maryland means one thing: blue crabs. Every summer, residents and visitors flock to Maryland’s coast to get their fill of blue crabs. Famous for its sweet, tender meat, the blue crab is an essential part of the region’s culinary heritage. There are few things more enjoyable to Marylanders than sitting with family and friends, tearing into a bushel of blue crabs coated with the local seasoning, Old Bay, and washing it down with ice-cold Natty Bohs. Eating blue crabs in the traditional manner is not for the faint of heart or for those who prefer eating with utensils and white tablecloths. In restaurants and homes, people pile steamed and seasoned blue crabs in the middle of a table covered in paper. Then, using small mallets, knives, and bare hands, diners break open the hard shells and extract the juicy meat inside. It is a messy experience, one that is quintessentially Maryland.

The Latin word for blue crabs is Callinectes sapidus, meaning “beautiful swimmer.” Blue crabs get their name from their sapphire-colored claws and are one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay. In Maryland, hard shells are steamed rather than boiled, a common practice along the East Coast and Louisiana. Marylanders insist that steaming gives crabmeat its moistness, and the flavor is best appreciated by cracking and eating steamed hard shells or feasting on soft shells. However, suppose you would instead not go through the hassle of picking crab. In that case, it is easy to buy fresh crabmeat by the pound at local grocery stores or enjoy them steamed or sautéed, as Maryland crab cakes or crab imperial, or in crab soup or crab dip at any area restaurant.

In Maryland and elsewhere, eating blue crab is a communal activity and is meant to be enjoyed with family, friends, or large groups. As a result, people often experience picking crab as a pleasurable experience and social exercise. Even those who purchase fresh crabmeat at the grocery store or a restaurant rarely consider how it was processed or who picked and cleaned it. Many people forget or overlook how crab picking is a livelihood for many, mainly poor, women. For generations, African American women from Maryland’s rural, maritime communities did the grueling job of picking crab for crab houses on the Eastern Shore. Today, fewer than ten crab houses are left, and the workforce is exclusively female migrant workers from Mexico.

Like many other places around the world, Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore has come to rely heavily on the labor of noncitizen immigrants. Yet policymakers and the general public often regard their presence as illegitimate, threatening, and a drain on national and local resources, ignoring how their “illegality” and “foreignness” often place them in positions of considerable social risk. In recent years, the national spotlight on border walls, immigration bans, the inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants at detention centers, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on immigrant farmworkers and meat processors has raised some public awareness of the plight of immigrant workers. But immigration remains an increasingly polarized issue among rural Marylanders and Americans more broadly. In Maryland, for instance, comprehensive news coverage of increasing visa caps for migrant workers, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and crab shortages have left many concerned about the fate of the crab industry. Politicians and influential business owners have appealed to the federal government to increase the number of visas the country provides to female Mexican migrants, arguing that the H-2B temporary worker program is vital to the Eastern Shore’s iconic seafood economy. These discussions on the dire need to increase immigrant labor occur in some of Maryland’s most politically conservative areas, where there is strong support for federal and local anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.

Immigration remains an increasingly polarized issue among rural Marylanders and Americans more broadly

Since 1990, there has been a steep rise in immigration to the United States. The increases are highest in rural America. Some rural counties are experiencing growth rates of over 1,000 percent in their immigrant population, who have filled essential roles in the labor force and mitigated the growing decline of rural populations. Yet, despite their valuable contributions to rural communities, immigrants are not necessarily treated well or openly welcomed by local residents. Often, advocates, experts, and policymakers discuss the fate of immigrants in static, oppositional terms—whether society will embrace and integrate them or reject and push them out. In rural Maryland (and perhaps much of rural America), where demographic shifts have been sudden and drastic, the lives of immigrants and rural community relations are highly complex and tenuous and challenge existing either/or assumptions about immigrant integration and exclusion.

Large demographic studies help us recognize the impact of policies on people’s migration trajectories. Yet they tell us very little about how diverse structural dynamics shape rural communities’ reactions to this burgeoning wave of newcomers, especially in regions without large immigrant enclaves. Survey-based work can also overlook important details related to the everyday life of immigrants and the politics of belonging. Landscapes of Care fills a necessary gap in the literature on immigration by attending to policies, organizational processes, and community relations ethnographically. More specifically, the book details the spatial, temporal, and racial dynamics operating at the nexus of immigration and rural health on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—a relatively isolated and rural area composed of nine counties east of the Chesapeake Bay. Jobs and resources are challenging to come by, and the region’s physical remoteness often requires residents to travel long distances to work or obtain care. In addition, many of the available jobs are strenuous and dangerous—farming, fishing, commercial food processing and production, and logging. Work in these industries places people at risk for injury or illness. Landscapes of Care examines how the daily functioning of racial capitalism and white supremacy shapes the shared conditions of precarity among immigrants and rural residents. It attends to how precarity engenders physical suffering and emotional anxiety and generates powerful forms of sociality, mutual obligation, and rural vitality. Understanding immigrant and rural precarity together render visible how people in rural contexts care for each other despite social discrimination, economic precarity, and an often hostile political climate. Such discussions of rural immigration focused on belonging, deservingness, and scarcity are integral to broader national and global debates on migration and health.

Thurka Sangaramoorthy is professor of anthropology at American University.