Two Students Investigate Cultures Through the Lens of Food

Two Bowdoin students have academic grants from Bowdoin this summer to conduct research relating to food. While their topics are quite different — one is examining the possible impact of farm workers’ rights on small-scale farmers and the other is looking at an immigrant group’s assimilation — both are investigating areas in New York state. Charlotte Dillon ’16 is researching agriculture in the Hudson Valley, while Emily Kushner Salitan ’16 is investigating a Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan.

charlotte dillonCharlotte Dillon
A battle is being waged in New York to pass a bill that would give more rights and protections to farm workers. “Right now in New York and other states, farm workers aren’t protected, don’t get a mandatory day of rest, overtime or bargaining rights,” Dillon explained.

Two summers ago Dillon received a Preston Public Interest Career fellowship from Bowdoin to intern for the Rural and Migrant Ministry, an advocacy organization in New York that is fighting for farmworkers’ rights. This summer, Bowdoin awarded her a Christenfeld Summer Research Fellowship to research the issue from the farmers’ side. “Farmers are against the legislation for economic reasons,” Dillon said, “but I am trying to dig deeper…I am genuinely interested in understanding the farmers’ side. I’ve only heard the advocates’ side.”Dillon hopes to use her summer research as the basis for an honors project under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Sociology Marcos Lopez.

Her area of focus is the Hudson Valley, an active farming region. Dillon describes the valley’s farms as relatively small, compared with farms out West, with smaller workforces. Increasingly more of the valley’s farms are transitioning to speciality and organic crops to meet growing demand, and more young farmers are entering the industry. Dillon said this shift could lead to an improvement in the treatment of workers.

The issue is complex, however, and several farmers have told Dillon that they worry they won’t have enough money to pay their workers overtime. “But I think that there are other causes,” she argued. “One of those is that the majority of workers are undocumented immigrants.” Farmers hire undocumented workers out of necessity. “The work is not appealing to people who have the privilege of U.S. citizenship,” she said.

In addition, she is interviewing farmworkers, as well as people who work more broadly in the agricultural world “to tease out the diverse set of challenges that agriculture in New York faces when it comes to labor relations,” she said.

Dillon, an anthropology and Latin American studies major, said she became interested in immigration after traveling to El Salvador and meeting people migrating north. Her father is from Panama; her mother from New York. Her love of farming began in high school when she attended a Vermont boarding school that has a working farm. “I think farming is very important and I want the farming industry to thrive, and that is partly why I wanted to do the research in the first place,” she said.

Version 2Emily Kushner Salitan

If you stroll through Washington Heights, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan, you can pop into a grocery store or bodega and find plantains, yucca, cassava — any ingredient needed for an authentic dish from the Dominican Republic. Bachata and merengue music from the D.R. pulses out of storefronts, and groups gather around tables on the sidewalk to play dominoes. Spanish is heard as frequently as English.

The neighborhood has been a popular destination for Dominican immigrants since the 1960s, when many left their country following the collapse of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship.

Bowdoin awarded Kushner Salitan with a Lifson Family Summer Research Fellowship this summer to conduct social science research in the community. She is interviewing first-generation Dominicans — from age 32 to 80 — and talking to them about their assimilation to the United States.

While her honors project thesis is not yet set in stone, she said she wants to explore the process of acculturation and to consider how this is affected by a move into an already well-established Dominican enclave — with all the benefits, drawbacks and stereotypes that go along with that. She’s doing background research on Dominican immigration to the U.S. at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. She is being advised by Professor of Sociology Nancy Riley.

The sociology and Spanish major is approaching her subject through the lens of food, because as a subject it is a way of getting people to talk about their Dominican identities and their sense of belonging. Though food is mostly a neutral topic, it can lead to deeper themes. “I am particularly interested in how food signals connection to one’s country of origin and/or characterizes one’s entry into a new community,” she notes in her research proposal. She adds, “food presents a way to enact and maintain identity in an attempt to ameliorate a challenging situation.”

Some of the questions she asks her subjects include, “how often do you cook? What kinds of food do you cook? How did you learn to cook? Is it important to you to teach your children how to prepare Dominican dishes? On average, what do you wake up and eat?” she said, explaining that “a traditional Dominican food for breakfast is not as quick or on the go as American breakfasts. Some people consider it comfort food. Others eat it every morning.”

Kushner Salitan said her academic interests extend from food and farming to social justice issues. If her future included graduate school in sociology, she’d be happy. “I would love to keep doing research and going to school because I really enjoy those two things,” she said.

thumb: