Sarah Blanton (MA ‘16) is a Ph.D. student within the Department of Romance Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The department is housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. She has been awarded the Thomas E. Sox Summer Research Fellowship as she researches transnational labor economies and farmworker narratives in rural communities. Prior to attending UNC-Chapel Hill, she attended Buffalo State University, where she studied Spanish language and literature. She received a Master of Arts in romance languages and literatures from Carolina in 2016.Support graduate students like Sarah
Tell us about your research.
I explore the cultural production, artistic contributions and personal accounts of the farmworker community while considering the waves of social consciousness regarding transnational labor economies. We all depend on food to nurture us, but what we don’t always remember is that the food comes from the hands laborers who cultivate and harvest it. My project focuses on the stories that are behind the produce purchased in grocery stores. Here in North Carolina, as well as across the nation, laborers who harvest produce often come from Mexico and other Latin American countries to work in the agriculture sector, especially during the peak season. This project seeks out their stories. Each laborer has a family, history, talents and longings. By looking at farmworker narratives in literature, music, photography, ethnographies and unanticipated materials I find in the field, I hope to shed light on how lived experiences are communicated and the ways farmworkers exert agency and resistance in larger bureaucratic modes of labor and food production.
Why are you interested in this topic?
After teaching high school Spanish and living abroad after I received my master’s degree, my husband and I ended up in Caswell County when we purchased a farm. I had no real intention of going back to graduate school, but I suddenly found myself immersed in a rural community of farmers and laborers where families had carried on agricultural legacies for generations. Being in this community brought up a lot of questions for me. I noticed trailers tucked away on the highway and tobacco fields full of laborers that became quiet when winter hit. I was driven to learn about my community at a deeper level, so I started seeking out farmworkers’ stories starting in the summer of 2019.
How are you researching this subject this summer?
I returned to graduate school in 2020 while the world was in chaotic flux because of the pandemic. Due to the shutdown, I wasn’t commuting to campus, which meant that I had the time and opportunity to get more involved in my community. I sought out work assisting as an interpreter, translator or facilitator. I ended up at a health clinic on a migrant farmworker outreach team, where I worked part time with a team of colleagues providing outreach and health resources across seven counties for farmworkers, many of whom came from Mexico. That was hugely formative in the early ideation of my project. This summer I am still involved in farmworker outreach efforts. I’ve also been spending a lot of time in the Student Action with Farmworkers archive housed at Duke University, which is an incredible resource with a wealth of different materials. Going through the archive has been a highlight of my summer. These materials complement in a lovely way the literature, music and ethnographic research I’ve already done. The archival work has been stunning because it echoes many of the accounts I’ve personally had with farmworkers, and it has been fascinating to see these accounts across several decades. The ultimate goal is to weave all these pieces together in different chapters of my dissertation, using real materials to draw attention to an essential yet invisibilized community.
What have you learned from your research?
I’ve gained an awareness of details that are often overlooked and more appreciation for things that are taken for granted, such as being able to get fresh produce even in the dead of winter. Having food readily available in that way is not a small feat. It’s something I thought I was aware of before, but the more I research the more complicated purchasing food becomes. The way that I move in my own community has been challenged. I’ve also realized the importance of having the boldness to go into situations that I may not be immediately comfortable in, then find out where I can do my small part by asking questions and being curious. I followed one initial question about trailers while driving on my rural road and it led to the formation of my entire dissertation project.
What do you hope comes of your research?
The ultimate goal I have for my project is to open a dialogue. The community I live in and many other rural communities have incredibly deep agricultural roots that are dependent on transnational agricultural labor to function. I hope that drawing attention to these invisibilized realities will open new possibilities for classroom and community discussion, understanding, appreciation and integration.
How have you built community since you’ve come to Carolina?
What I’m most excited about regarding my community involvement at Carolina is the Carolina Translation Collective, which I founded with my friend and colleague Sarah Booker. We meet virtually every month. Translators of all languages, regardless of skill level or affiliation, are welcome to join. We’ve hosted book launches, invited speakers and published translators to discuss their work, workshopped translations and held social justice panels to discuss interpreting in the community and issues of language access. We’ve been doing this for three years now, and every month when we meet it’s like seeing a group of friends. I am also a Spanish instructor at Carolina, and I find that building relationships with students helps create a sense of community.
How do you balance teaching and being a graduate student?
It requires time management and patience. Keeping balance is crucial, and I find that as I delve into the writing phase of my dissertation it is increasingly important to set aside sufficient time for that. Setting small goals has been key. Even just writing a page a day adds up in spades. I genuinely believe that teaching enlivens my research. I find that what I’m researching drives my teaching, but it’s a symbiotic experience where my teaching drives my research as well.
What would you like to do after graduate school?
I plan to stay in the Piedmont and continue cultivating my farm with my husband. I would like to continue to do the kind of work I’m doing now in supporting outreach efforts and access to basic things like healthcare and education. I love to teach, and I think that teaching will always be a part of my life. Regardless of whether it’s working at a non-profit, educational institution or other organization, I would like to continue teaching in some capacity. Teaching is part of who I am and something that I am passionate about.
What does this funding mean to you?
This funding has given me the opportunity to focus my energy on my research, archival work and community involvement. It also gives me a very real sense that the University is prioritizing shedding light on these under told stories and underrepresented realities. It has made it possible for me to be completely immersed in generating the first chapter of my dissertation, volunteer in outreach efforts, and pore through illuminating archival material.
What does it mean to have generous donors who support your research?
A passion for research and believing that there is something important to say is what keeps graduate students going. Being able to dedicate myself completely to my research and focus on it without needing to do extra teaching to afford basic life is incredible. This fellowship has benefited my research in profound ways. I am thankful to the donors, and I see it as a responsibility and a privilege to use this time to work. It’s an honor and a challenge.