Feb. 8 2012 12:00 AM

Lolita Hernandez writes about living and working in the Rust Belt


“Rust Belt” is a termed coined to describe a region that is characterized by old, rusty and derelict motor vehicles and the factories that turned them out. It’s derivative of “Corn Belt” and “Bible Belt,” but it’s not to be confused with rustic.

If the Rust Belt had a capital city, it would be Detroit, where people have been making cars for more than 100 years. That may sound like a Clint Eastwood Super Bowl half-time ad, but Lolita Hernandez, author of “Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant,” insists, “The factory is the city.”

“The factory is a city of itself and permeates it,” Hernandez says. “You can’t get away.”

Hernandez, who worked more than 30 years in automotive plants (including 21 in Detroit’s Clark Street Cadillac Plant) before retiring, joins four other speakers in discussing race, class and labor at the second installment of Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters’ “Community Conversations” series Feb. 22. The first program in the series featured novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell discussing her book, “American Salvage” and Michigan’s crystal meth epidemic.

Ned Watts, MSU Professor of English and associate chairman and organizer of the event, said the program’s goal is to show the importance of working-class writing and to stimulate community discussion.

Michigan literature has deep roots in the worker culture, reaching back to the experiences of iron ore and copper mining workers in the Upper Peninsula and to the factory represented in Harriet Arnow’s “The Dollmaker.”

You can find the industrial heritage of the city in the poetry of United States Poet Laureate Philip Levine and the more modern “Punching Out” by Detroiter Paul Clemens.

Hernandez, in an interview from her Detroit home, said that factory life and the “sequential bonding nature of industrial work still permeates the city,” even though factories have closed.

“You develop a whole family in the plant,” she said. “Everyone knows who you are; you rename each other and develop your own language. It’s like a secret society.”

She believes that because of the loss of industrial jobs, “we are losing a part of our culture that is significant.”

Hernandez chronicled that culture in her critically acclaimed “Autopsy,” which portrays life and work in an auto plant through 12 interconnected stories. She said writing about work is important because “that’s what people do.”

“Very few people don’t work,” she said. “They are defined by their work.”

Since retiring, Hernandez has been committed to writing about and teaching working-class literature and writing.

“Our stories are not being told,” she said. She tells her students in creative writing at the University of Michgan’s Residential College who believe that “their lives are not literature-worthy” that the issues and lives of the working class are rich with potential. Hernandez also believes that Detroit’s industrial plants helped create a different atmosphere between the races.

“After Jim Crow, everyone was able to work on the line,” she says, “and there was a sense of family and a sense of unity.”

She said she still resents it when she hears the word “diversify”: “It’s almost as if we’ve been kicked to the curb,” she says.

Hernandez, who has also written two books of poetry with working themes, said that when “helicopter journalists” describe the city of Detroit as being empty, the description doesn’t work.

“It feels as full to me as ever. The city doesn’t feel any different to me. There is a sense of community.”

And she believes that there is more attention being paid recently to worker writing and worker art. 

The final Community Conversations program takes place March 22 (time and place are yet to be determined) and features mystery author Joseph Heywood, discussing his books about a Michigan “woods cop.”

But that won’t be the last chance area residents will have to hear about working-class writing. On March 27, “Rivethead” author Ben Hamper speaks at MSU’s Main Library. Hamper, who is originally from Flint, was a columnist for Michael Moore’s Flint Voice newspaper.

Hernandez said that Hamper was genuinely grounded in the plant. “He had been there for a long, long time and it made him a sojourner in that situation,” she says.

An excellent way to keep in touch with programs about worker culture is to subscribe to the e-mail alerts on the weekly Brown Bag programs sponsored by Our Daily Work, Our Daily Lives. The programs are organized by John Beck, associate professor and director of the Labor Education Program. He can be reached at beckj@msu.edu.

Lolita Hernandez

Part of the “Community Conversations” series

7 p.m. Feb. 22

United Auto Workers  Local 652

426 Clare St., Lansing