A quilted map of the American-Mexican border with manilla and orange morgue toe tags sits in the main lobby of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts
The Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition is displayed at UNL’s Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts in Lincoln during its stay from Sept. 30 to Oct. 10. Nearly 3,200 morgue toe tags, normally used to identify corpses, are geolocated on a quilted map of the U.S.-Mexican border to mark where immigrants have died since the mid-1990s. The manila tags represent known identities, while the orange tags represent unknown deaths. Courtesy of Hostile Terrain 94 Nebraska. Photograph by Jonathan Gregory. https://go.unl.edu/ht94

Just like in many other states, meatpacking plants were an early epicenter of Nebraska’s COVID-19 outbreak.

The pandemic has raised awareness of the working conditions of meatpackers and other essential workers—people who often have no option to work from home during the ongoing public health crisis—and it has spawned a national conversation for greater labor protections. 

Lourdes Gouveia, professor emeritus of sociology and Latino/Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is not optimistic these conversations will continue after the pandemic subsides.

“The clues offered by the meatpacking [industry]…do not appear to give as much hope for a resounding yes,” she said in a virtual lecture on Oct. 15. “The basic issues in the industry are going to be the same, pandemic or not.”

Gouveia spoke via Zoom regarding the rights of essential workers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. She analyzed the meatpacking industry in Nebraska as a case study for understanding the challenges essential workers face.

According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, “As of Oct. 16, there have been at least 41,000 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 455 plants in 40 states, and at least 197 reported worker deaths in at least 51 plants in 27 states.”

Nebraska is faring the worst, with the most cases—5,267—associated with meatpacking plants of any state, as well as the second most deaths—22—associated with the industry, according to the Center.

Cristián Doña-Reveco, director of the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at UNO, explained why meatpacking workers lack visibility for most Americans.

“It is a 3D job: dirty, demeaning and dangerous,” he said.

The plight of Nebraska meatpackers has recently been given greater coverage after an Oct. 2 BBC story highlighted Omaha Senator Tony Vargas’ failed efforts to pass greater protections for meatpacking workers through the Nebraska Unicameral in late July.

According to the BBC article, Nebraska may represent one of the worst racial disparities for Hispanics in the country regarding COVID-19 cases.

Gouveia’s lecture reinforced the racial disparities in the American meatpacking industry when it comes to COVID-19.

“Somewhere around 90 percent of meatpacking workers infected with COVID-19 are classified as racial and ethnic minorities by the U.S. Department of Health,” she said. “More than 60 percent of these workers are first- and, to a lesser extent, second-generation immigrants and refugees.”

Gouveia’s lecture was a part of the ongoing Hostile Terrain 94, or HT94, exhibition in Lincoln and Omaha. HT94 seeks to shed light on the deaths of approximately 3,200 undocumented immigrants in the Sonoran Desert since the mid-1990s.

Sponsored by the Undocumented Migration Project, more than 90 pop-up participatory installations are taking place around the world. At most locations, the exhibit consists of a large map of the U.S.-Mexican border with morgue toe tags identifying the locations of known immigrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert.

The Nebraska exhibit took the form of a quilt, though, according to Jonathan Gregory, assistant curator of exhibitions at UNL’s International Quilt Museum and one of the coordinators of the Nebraska exhibition. He said this was due to quilting’s association with warmth and comfort and its long history of social advocacy.

“Women…used quilts for political speech before they received the opportunity to vote,” he said. “They were used to advocate for certain social causes, such as the abolition of slavery [and] the temperance movement.”

Effie Athanassopoulos, an associate professor in UNL’s School of Integrative Global Studies and another coordinator of the Nebraska exhibition, said the medium was also chosen for its mobility. The exhibition toured four locations in Lincoln during September and October and will be on display at Amplify Arts Gallery in Omaha from Nov. 5 to Nov. 29.

“That medium of the quilt made it possible to create an exhibition that would have a much greater impact,” she said.

The organizers wanted to bring the exhibition to Nebraska because of the state’s relationship with Latin American immigration, Gregory said. Certain industries, especially meatpacking, rely on immigration.

“In Nebraska, we depend upon immigrant labor,” he said. “That’s just to say that migration from Latin America is a relevant topic to Nebraska and the Nebraska economy.”

According to Claire Nicholas, an assistant professor in UNL’s textiles, merchandising and fashion design department and the third organizer of HT94 in Nebraska, more than 300 students, faculty and community members in Lincoln and Omaha were involved with creating the exhibit over the course of several months. Their involvement primarily consisted of writing the information supplied by the Undocumented Migration Project on the toe tags at socially distanced gatherings. Nicholas said they called these sessions witnessing and remembrance workshops.

Nicholas also said many pieces of digital programming associated with the exhibition, such as Gouveia’s lecture, have sustained the conversation in light of restrictions on large gatherings.

“Having the programming to accompany it has sustained an interest and provided a lot of nuance and context and scholarship that connects with the themes of the exhibition,” she said.

While the organizers were not able to estimate the foot traffic generated by the exhibit, they are confident that it is an impactful exhibition.

“You can’t help but be impacted when you start to encounter the particular details of a particular death,” Gregory said.

Doña-Reveco, who has liaised between the Lincoln organizers and Omaha, said the exhibit is heart wrenching but needs to be seen.

“It shows things like they really are,” he said.

I am a senior political science and journalism double major from Beloit, Kansas. I am passionate about educational access, and I enjoy covering the education sector. After completing my undergraduate degrees, I plan on attending law school. Find me on Twitter @JaredPaulLong.