Carlos Tobón arrived in the United States 1970, far from his home in Medellin, Colombia, to work in a textile mill, and work he did—so long and so hard that hearing about it decades later nearly brought tears to the eyes of Furman Professor of Spanish Sofia Kearns.
“He told us he worked 12 hours per day, six days a week, for more than 30 years, and never took a break. Never,” Kearns said. “He was able to raise his family … but with an incredible sacrifice. The type of work that they did—standing up and walking around those machines—for so many hours year after year after year—I have never imagined that. For me, that was the most surprising. And it broke my heart a little bit to hear it.”
Tobón’s is one of 20 life stories Kearns and Ingrid Ramos ’20 recorded over the summer during the first phase of their research project into Greenville’s unusually large but largely unacknowledged Colombian community. Sponsored by a fellowship from Furman’s Undergraduate Research office, supported by Furman’s Collaborative for Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) and sparked by Kearns’ curiosity, “Oral Histories by local Colombian nationals on their participation in the Greenville Textile Industry during the 1960s and 1970s” ambitiously seeks to document for the first time as many of those lives as possible.
As of 2016, only Mexico and Germany had more foreign-born residents in Greenville than Colombia’s 619, and Kearns, a native of Colombia herself, simply wanted to know why.
“When I came to Furman 24 years ago, I heard that there was a very big Colombian population here. Then I heard they were connected to the textile industry” she said. “This last spring, talking with (executive director for community-engaged learning) Mike Winiski and (Furman director of undergraduate research) Erik Ching, I said ‘I really want to do something with this. Would you support me?’ And they said absolutely.”
But she couldn’t do it alone, and this wasn’t a project for any undergraduate researcher. It was exactly the project for Ramos, however.
“I was super excited. I was a freshman trying to figure lots of things out, but if you get an opportunity you don’t miss it,” Ramos, a Greenville native, said. “My goal is to work with Hispanics in the future, in any way, just to participate and know more about them. This was a perfect mixture for me.”
“Ingrid came highly recommended to me by two colleagues, but I wasn’t really sure about her because she was so young. Usually for these projects we want seniors,” Kearns said. “So I thought, ‘OK, let’s see how it goes.’ And it turns out it was absolutely wonderful, because she’s Hispanic but from another group. She’s of Mexican origin, so her perspective and mine–we have to put them together and learn from each other.”
The two spent much of the summer driving around the Greenville area, often to Simpsonville, to video record interviews that sometimes were more than an hour long.
“Ingrid would set up the camera. We used some of the questions, but the most important thing was allowing the person to tell their own story,” Kearns said.
Like many of his countrymen, Tobón was recruited to help American companies revive their dying mills. Eventually dubbing themselves “los pioneros”—the pioneers— they were expert weavers and loom technicians, and those skills made them a bit of a hot commodity.
Tobón worked first in Rhode Island before moving to Greenville to take a job at the largest textile mill under one roof in the world, the Woodside mill, where he stayed for 18 years until it closed. He went on to work for more 16 more years at two other mills in the Upstate until they, too, were shuttered.
Los pioneros stayed because they made far more money than they would have made back home, but not without tradeoffs. Families were often separated for years, and they lived in social isolation compounded by language barriers, racism and fear of deportation until most achieved citizenship in 1986 thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act.
“Once they were here they were given a visa for one year. When that was up, (the companies) said ‘there’s plenty of work for you,’ but they didn’t do anything about their visas,” Kearns said. “They did get overtime pay. That’s how some of them actually made quite a bit of money. Sometimes they didn’t want to work overtime, and the director would come and knock on their door on a Saturday morning and say, ‘we need people.’”
The overtime was lucrative, but it added another barrier to integrating into society. No free time and never being around anyone but each other made learning English difficult. It also turned seemingly simple things like vending machines into vexing challenges.
“They wanted to learn English, but they worked so many hours they’d fall asleep in class and finally said ‘forget it,’” Kearns said. “We heard many funny stories of linguistic confusion. Due to total lack of experience with vending machines, they were afraid to use them. One day someone went to the machine to try to get a coke and saw the word ‘dime.’ Because this word means ‘tell me’ in Spanish, this person got close to the machine and told it in Spanish that he wanted a coke.”
The Colombians are still are much more comfortable communicating in Spanish. Ramos being bi-lingual was critical to the project.
“I have this perspective of what life in Greenville is like and the hardships that my community faces, so I wanted to learn the perspective of another Hispanic group,” she said. “A lot of the stories they told about not being able to understand or feeling like they were isolated, I related to that from having a Mexican perspective. There’s a lot of differences, but sometimes both communities don’t acknowledge how similar the history is.”
Kearns and Ramos settled on oral histories after consulting with the history department on the best approach, and the first step was contacting the Colombians to request interviews. They asked Carlos Puello, the editor of local newspaper La Nación Hispana, to post a message on social media, and the response was encouraging to say the least.
“In a matter of a week we had 50 names … We were a little overwhelmed,” Kearns said. “We noticed right away the Colombians were really super eager to tell their story, and when we came in the name of Furman and said Furman is interested in this, they were very, very thankful to the institution that somebody recognized their presence and contributions to Greenville because nobody has.”
Ramos, a Spanish major on a pre-law track, is still editing the recordings, and the hope is to interview at least 20 more Colombians before ultimately producing a bilingual documentary. Kearns estimates the project could take three years, but there have already been lasting results.
One is a newly forged relationship between Furman and the local Colombian community that was strengthened by a luncheon for interview participants over the summer in Daniel Memorial Chapel’s Garden Room. Another is a history documented for the first time.
“We think that we can complete the story of textiles in Greenville and the history of the participation of Hispanics in town,” Kearns said. “I had heard for years how important the textile industry was here, but I couldn’t have cared less. I just didn’t pay attention, and suddenly this story is opened up to me and I am fascinated.”