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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Ethnicity

Watson Machine's work force has become truly multicultural as well as multinational. Since World War II, a group that once consisted mainly of men of German, Italian, and Eastern-European descent has given way to representatives of ethnic groups with roots in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and a number of Spanish-speaking countries. Because of seniority, ethnic enclaves have developed in the shop. For example, workers whose background is European have become concentrated in the lathe, tool, and assembly areas; and significant numbers of Hispanics and African Americans are found in production and support positions.

Group photo of Watson Machine employees.
Willie Reed and Clifton Peadie in the paint booth at Watson.

For virtually everyone at Watson Machine, ethnicity is, as Michael M. J. Fischer suggests, both a private and a public project.1 For example, Rafael Nivar, a Dominican-American, Willie Reed, an African American, and Omar Abukharma, a Palestinian-American, all make choices about the personal and public representations of their ethnic identities. On the shop floor, most discussions of ethnicity are anecdotal and stereotypical and often result in joking behavior linked to such things as food, media depictions of a particular ethnic individual or group, or actual ethnic jokes. The more serious, private aspect of an individual's ethnic concerns are played out in Paterson's ethnic clubs, restaurants, and churches, and it is there that one must go to determine the primary collective concerns of the city's ethnic subcultures. Perhaps the most pragmatic view of ethnicity in a workplace such as Watson Machine is that as long as daily tensions and ethnocentric impulses are aired in a public, joking manner, a kind of collective equilibrium can be maintained.

1. Michael M. J. Fischer, "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory," in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (New York: Verso Press, 1986), 195-6. (Return to Text)

Omar Abukharma works on machine.
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