Sunday, June 29, 2008

"There is no house that is not a mausoleum": Reflections on Benjamin and Latino Workplace Death in America

Les Black has a haunting article on the memorial to Walter Benjamin, one of the members of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, who took his own life in 1940. Benjamin was escaping the Nazis and hoped to leave Vichy France and then on to the United States to join the other exiled members of the Frankfurt School such as Adorno. However, he was denied exit by the Spanish Border guards. He decided to kill himself rather than fall into Nazi hands.

On the memorial is inscribed a line by Benjamin: "It is more arduous to honour the nameless than the renowed."

Black takes inspiration from this passage to reflect on the contemporary tragedy of the beach just beyond the memorial. There, the bodies of African immigrants, trying to make their way into the European Union on makeshift rafts and boats, wash up almost weekly. Since 1993, almost 8,800 people have died trying to enter Europe, many of them from Africa.

Black concludes: "This vision of what Europe is turns away from the dark bodies being washed up on the beaches of Puerto Rosario and the faces behind the fence at Melilla. The enthusiastic proponents of a resurgent Europe, not excluding poets and thinkers, would do well to remember those words carved on Walter Benjamin's grave: "There is no document of civilisation that is not a document of barbarism." There is no beach that is not also a graveyard."

This makes me think of a recent government report that shows that Latinos, being the fastest growing part of the American workforce, are also the ones that die as a result of workplace injury more often than other ethnic groups. The causes of these deaths tend to be highway accidents, falling from high places, or being struck by objects (indicating that many Latinos are working in construction and are falling off buildings or being hit by machinery or flying materials).

Not only is most of the food on our tables being handled by Latinos (and largely Mexicans), but most of the new homes and buildings we inhabit or work in were built by Latinos.

Perhaps the memorial we should raise for all the anonymous Latinos who die this way in America should bear this inscription: "There is no house that is not also a mausoleum."

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