Maverick journalist and author Dick Reavis is a Texas pioneer of another sort: As a senior writer for the prestigious Texas Monthly, he covered a plethora of subjects, including motorcycle gangs, politicians, convicts, coal miners, and the undocumented. His investigation into the Branch Davidian aftermath in The Ashes of Waco is considered both evenhanded and authoritative. His Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant is an important contribution to the literary canon of the immigrant experience, and his thoughtful memoir If White Kids Die recounts his days as a volunteer in the 1960s civil-rights movement.
I worked with Reavis at the Express-News, and earlier at the underground newspaper The Rag and as co-members of Students for a Democratic Society at U.T.-Austin.
His obsession and passion for his work has defined him over the years.
“Reavis has stuck to his principles as much or more than any writer I know,” author and colleague Rod Davis told the Current. “He has endured a number of professional upheavals to try to keep his voice and his writing honest and meaningful.”
And yet, despite the romantic aura of a latter-day John Reed (interestingly, both men lost a kidney while on assignment), Reavis remains a soft-spoken yet unsentimental chronicler of a world he deeply cares for.
Now a professor at North Carolina State University, Reavis’s new book, Catching Out: The Secret Lives of Day Laborers narrates his adventures as a man for hire. Mario T. Cuomo has said of the book: “`Reavis` does what Barbara Ehrenreich did for women in Nickel and Dimed.”
The Current caught up with Reavis at a book-signing sponsored by the San Antonio Club of the Communist Party USA. Legendary activist John “Juancho” Stanford introduced Reavis (a member of CP USA from 1970-77) in Spanish: “He has always fought against oppression and against racism in the battle to create a better world. He has always been on the side of the workers.”
What would the late Gus Hall, one-time CP USA president and presidential candidate, think of the situation you write about? Is Hall relevant to today’s working generation?
Gus Hall? I think he would think my book fails to meet the standards of socialist realism. He is dead, and was from another age for at least 30 years before he died. I voted for McGovern in 1972, not Gus Hall, but I don't for a minute think that Hall would have been a more treacherous president than Nixon.
Why focus on manual labor today?
Manual labor is still important to every aspect of our lives. It is always there, even if we consumers don’t think about it. Ignoring or denying its importance is like denying that water-treatment technology is important. Our civilization is based on the products of labor and our daily survival is owed to workers.
Are right-to-work states any worse than states with unions? Are unions ineffective or have they just been demonized out of existence?
Having never lived in anything but the right-to-work states, I don't know how to answer this. Unions have declined because our leaders, from both parties, permitted and encouraged the shipping of manufacturing jobs to low-wage locales.
Joe Hill once said, “Don’t mourn for me, organize!” One feels for the plight of these men, but how do we get them organized?
My theory is that if all of us who work — white- as well as blue-collar — stood up in defense of our own interests, all of us, including the day laborers, would benefit. But most educated people are reluctant to see themselves as workers.
How do you view the Home Depot day laborers? Is their plight different than the men you describe? Are the majority of day laborers in the U.S. the Home Depot type?
In the case of Latino immigrants, according to a thorough 2005 study, 117, 000 Latinos are seeking work on street corners, outside home-improvement stores, etc. According to best estimates from the Labor Department and GAO, 800,000 to 2 million people are working from day-labor halls.
The problems of the Latino immigrant workforce call for immigration reform. If their status is ever legalized, then street-corner hiring, which is already illegal, can be brought to an end. Those workers would then join the labor-hall crowd, which would benefit from the regulation of the whole market for contingent labor.
You don’t name the names of the corporations that run these day-labor halls. Shouldn’t they be exposed?
The labor hall operators are only brokers, middlemen. The root of the problem is corporate hunger for cheap labor. What do you want me to do, hand you the business pages of the telephone book?
What is the theme `that` remains constant in the books you have written and/or co-written and translated?
I am not sure that any theme is constant. I have always tried to write about the life of ordinary people, and insofar as I have done that, this book is a continuation of that body of work.
In your memoir If White Kids Die, you recount your father’s reaction when you decided to join SCOPE in the 1960s. Did that conversation change your life?
No. What changed my life was what I saw while I was in the civil-rights movement. I learned that the great boasts and promises of our nation were not credible. I saw American citizens denied the rights and opportunity that we celebrate, especially at election time.
How do you see the success of the civil rights movement in light of the election of Barack Obama?
The civil-rights movement won maybe a quarter-loaf in the ‘60s. Obama's election gave us another slice. White children will see the First Family on television and in time that will itself abate anti-black racism a bit.
Was the free press of the 1960s another illusion, or do we still see remnants of that spirit in the alt-weeklies?
The underground press movement of the ‘60s was a gasp of fresh air. Before and afterward, our press restricted our intellectual airways. The alt press maintains some of the attitudes of the ‘60s, though often in a residual or attenuated form.
Why haven’t student movements and political protests had an impact on today’s events as in the past?
Times have changed, but tactics have not. Peoples’ daily concerns have grown more diffuse and complex. Political wisdom takes more time and study to develop, and today, time for contemplation or organizing is in short supply. At the same time, corporate influence has grown stronger.
Why the John Sanford dedication `of the book`?
John Stanford helped get me out of jail in Alabama. He provided me and other customers with books that we think helped us understand our world. He has crusaded for peace, economic justice, and equality for more than 60 years. White people like me need role models, too. He is a decent white man and was when people deserving that designation were woefully outnumbered. I felt I owed him respect.
Some have criticized Barbara Ehrenreich for assuming that a middle-class journalist can ever know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes, and for taking a job from someone who really needs it. Did your decision to undertake the day-labor-hall project raise similar concerns?
If you'll look at the last pages of my book, you'll see that once I learned that I could do day labor and be accepted, the `economic` downturn came, and I began to feel guilty for having a job other people may have needed. But I never pretended to walk in another person’s shoes, except on the job.
As a longtime correspondent in Mexico, what changes have you seen over the last decade?
The only difference I've seen in Mexico with the PAN is that today distributing leaflets won't send you to jail, as it did with the PRI.
I never figured you’d leave a newspaper journalism career in midstream. I always pictured you going out in a blaze of glory covering a story. I don’t see you enjoying being a university professor. Am I mistaken?
I left newspaper journalism because I was fired at the Express-News for incompetence. But at my present age, 64, teaching is pretty natural. I am not physically able to do many of the things I did before, and my stamina is gone. I don't think I could return to day labor for long.
Catching Out: The Secret Lives of Day Laborers
Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $23.99