Category: Pub: Article / Paper
Details: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2009)
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ICTs and the Backstretch: an Ethnography of the Backstretch Employees of the Saratoga Race Track and their use of the Backstretch Global Communications Center

As Ellen McHale points out in An Ethnography of the Saratoga Racetrack, “the backstretch of the thoroughbred racetrack at Saratoga Springs, New York, is an ‘intentional’ community, a voluntary community forged through a common occupation – the care of the racehorse.” From May to October, around 1,500 workers descend upon the backstretch (Hornbeck & Martinez) to work as hot walkers, exercise riders, grooms, and other positions. About 90% (Cooper) of these are migrant workers and the majority of them are Hispanic, coming from Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Peru, Chile and other Central and South American countries (Tapp, 9). In 2008, the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), installed a Global Communications Center (GCC) for use by the backstretch employees. This ethnographic study, examines the role and overall impact of the GCC in the lives of the backstretch workers.

The GCC is, in other words, a telecenter. Telecenters have “been implemented in development projects for the past two decades, most notably with a boom in the past ten years” (Rothschild, 4). Why the notion of telecenters and development should be brought up in an essay about employees at a historic racetrack in a wealthy Upstate New York town requires some explanation. These next sections introduce background and information about the backstretch environment, the nature of the employees and their work, and specifics about the GCC in an effort to provide a context for understanding.

Living and Working in the Backstretch

The backstretch is a closed, guarded area spanning over 200 acres, housing a practice track and dozens of buildings: shed rows, dormitories, the blacksmith, restaurants, a laundromat, medical clinic, among others. In many ways, it is an insular village with distinct mores, interests, and habits. Security keeps others from coming in without an official badge, and the lifestyle keeps those on the inside from wandering too far from the roost. Walmart and Price Chopper are two of the most common destinations outside of the backstretch – for shopping, of course, but also for returning recyclable bottles and wiring money back to families via Western Union.

Money is another reason folks don’t venture far from the backstretch. Summer rates are exorbitant in Saratoga Springs and $200-$500 a paycheck per week (depending on one’s job) doesn’t provide enough to live like the tourists. The low pay was recently compounded by a recent lack of pay. In 2008, as many as 80% of backstretch workers were underpaid due to several “widespread violations of labor law” (Novak). Maria Roma, a 49 year old groom relates another reason to keep to the backstretch: “As soon as we go outside the gates we are made to feel we do not belong, especially in Saratoga. You should see how they look at us, like dogs” (Hedges). The barriers between the “front side” world of year-round Saratoga residents and summer tourists and the “back side” realm of the backstretch are as much cultural as they are physical.

Living conditions within the backstretch community vary within narrow degrees: although some women live in newer buildings, the majority of the workers live two, three or four to a room in 12×12 cinder block dormitories. Some dorms have beds, most do not leaving occupants to use cots, air mattresses or bedrolls on the cement floors. Such close quarters can be the source of health concerns. For example, the Belmont track has had problems with bedbugs which travel to Saratoga by way of bedrolls. In the spring of 2008, a “bed drive” resulted in volunteers creating 400 bed frames which has helped but not alleviated the situation.

A brief driving tour of the backstretch conducted by BEST social worker, Judy Beck, revealed that many of the buildings are in disrepair. The doors to all the stables have all been chewed by the horses, an occupational inevitability, yet somehow symbolic of the larger picture of decay evidenced by peeling paint and wear. Inside the sparse cinder block dorm rooms, the walls are bare with the exception of a single shelf affixed high on one wall, two high windows and an electrical outlet, nothing more.

These spartan conditions are tempered by other aspects of the community: well-worn soccer fields, several restaurants serving authentic Mexican cuisine, a coin-operated laundromat facility, and covered gathering areas with gas grills. There is also a Recreation Center with billiard tables and vending machines. Small consolation for the difficult work done in the backstretch.

The hours are long, the work is tough. In response to a query on the The Chronicle of the Horse web site discussion forum, one respondent gave a clear report regarding the daily routine:

“Can be hard labor. IS fun and rewarding. My day does and always has started really early. I kind of love being at the barn before anyone else (other than the night watchman). I love to see the horses doing whatever they do, whether it be flat out sleeping or munching quietly. Time to think and just be. Grooms get to the barn (depending on the barn) at 4 am. Pull bandages, hotwalkers rake up and fill haynets, poultice is washed off, horses that worked or ran jog on the road, temps taken, legs checked. Then the work begins.

After training there may be schoolers, horses treated or shod, the barn tidied and raked up. Tack cleaned, race equipment set and re cleaned. Maybe time for lunch before the races start. Then schoolers of in horses, runners, etc… at 2 or 3 grooms and hotwalkers that aren’t running or schooling show back up and pick stalls, pull bandages, hose and ice, jog workers, treat horses, mix feed, walk the ones that require it….. in the evening, waters are topped off and blankets put on. and repeat” (Blinkers On).

The arduous nature of the work was recognized in a 2005 USA Today countdown of the worst jobs in sports, Racehorse Groom being the worst one of them all. Days off in this line of work are far between: “Most work seven days a week. Few receive overtime. Nearly all have been kicked, crushed or knocked over by the horses” (Hedges).

Physical demands aside, the emotional toll of working the backstretch is also high. Because one’s life revolves around the horses, one’s fate can shift at the drop of a hat – or the snap of an ankle. People come and go in the backstretch, following their horses to the next destination, with such random regularity a sense of anxious detachment results:

“You can have the top horse in the country and he can take one misstep out there and suddenly after all that work you have nothing. The problem with living like this is that it makes people fatalistic. They believe they do not have control. They merely react to what happens. There is a very fine line between learning to live day by day and giving up on life and letting things happen. And this fatalism shows itself in alcohol abuse and drug use” (Hedges).

Along with this fatalism comes the implicit acknowledgment that the horse is more important than the human: “It has a tremendous impact on self-esteem. If a horse limps out of a stall, everyone gets excited and upset. If a groom limps, no one cares as long as he can make it around the shed row” (Hedges).

One constructive response to the negative consequences of the working conditions is the official backstretch recreation of futbol (soccer). The Backstretch Soccer League is serious fun for the 80 players whose teams are grouped by ethnicity (such as the Peruvian team, Monterrico) or by stable (such as Los Warriors from Asmussian Stable or Invasores from the stables of Kirian McLaughlin) – as well as for the hundreds of spectators. One of the players remarked, “I love to play soccer because I work seven days a week. Here, I relieve stress so I can give a hundred percent tomorrow” (Goldman). The soccer league is not only a great way for players to blow off steam, but “but for those on the sidelines the games are a great social outlet” (Goldman).

Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad. Gang activity is high during the games. At the end of this last season, a Chilean employee punched a Mexican employee causing some tension among the workers. Judy Beck says, “It’s where we get a lot of the gang stuff. A lot of fights.”

The financial strife, cramped living quarters, health concerns, substance abuse, devaluation of human life, sense of helplessness – these are comparable to the conditions one might expect to find in the poorer areas of a developing nation. In this way, the backstretch at the Saratoga Race Track is like a miniature Fourth World population. It is politically powerless, socially excluded from the dominant society, resource poor relative to the surrounding community, and “almost all are isolated by cultural and language barriers” (Hornbeck and Martinez).

The Backstretch Employee Service Team

The Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), was established in the early 90s as a referral service for workers seeking drug and alcohol counseling. Over the years it has grown in scope to include a full range of health and human services to support workers in the backstretch. The goal of BEST is to “draw upon strong connections to resources in the racing industry and extended community so that we can all help backstretch workers lead healthy and full lives” (BEST website).

BEST offers free health coverage – and affordable medical services with low co-payments are available through a network of local service providers. The organization “provides on-site, therapeutic counseling and treatment for individuals and groups” (BEST website). As well, they offer assistance, advice and training on financial, vocational and educational matters, including legal issues such as entitlement programs and immigration. BEST also operates a “free store” filled with donated shirts, jackets, gloves, boots and dishes that workers may choose from at no cost.

The importance of BEST to the backstretch workers cannot be overstated. Julie Cobello, BEST’s Community Liaison serves as the “crucible through which many backstretch people are given a hand to navigate the nuances of a bureaucratic world with an unfamiliar language” (Gonick). She coordinates a cadre of several interns and nearly 120 volunteers (Post) who help in a variety of capacities: helping to cook and serve breakfast for the workers, making van runs to Walmart in the evenings, overseeing the operations of the GCC, and so on.

The Global Communications Center

The BEST GCC was established in 2008 with the assistance of the Information Technology Director for neighboring Schenectady County who was able to get six PCs operating Windows XP donated. Coupled with money from local sponsors, they were able to purchase the cabling, headphones and webcams which are staples of the telecenter model. Born from a movement in Europe during the 1980s, “in which community access points known as telecottages brought computer technology to the underserved, telecenters are now arguably the most common type of ICT4D [information and communication technologies for development] project” (Rothschild, 6). Telecenters are defined as community centers that offer:

“shared access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for the purpose of community level development and poverty reduction. Telecentres are being promoted as an answer to the problems of the digital divide, whereby large sections of society do not enjoy access to ICTs and are therefore at risk of being excluded from the socio-economic benefits that such access brings. Typically, telecentres contain computers connected to the Internet, along with a variety of other technologies, and they are located in communities where domestic ownership of such equipment is not affordable” (Telecentre 2.0, 1).

The GCC is similar to the kind of telecenter found in urban areas in Latin America which consist of “premises stocked with several computer terminals and simple furnishings consisting of chairs or classroom desks for users and regular desks or tables on which the terminals sit. The main service offered to the public is access to the Internet and often also to elementary software” (Proenza).

What sets the GCC apart from other similar telecenters is the fact that its users are a diasporic intentional community – which in this case means that although they have a unified focus through employment, they come from many different countries and speak different languages and dialects. This provides challenges for training and customization of system options. Until now, basic training has been delivered in Spanish by volunteers at the GCC, however, the default language for the computers remains English.

The GCC is housed in a separate room within the Recreation Center building. There is just enough room for the six terminals, a bookshelf, filing cabinet, and a small desk near the door where a volunteer is posted with a sign-in sheet. Visitors to the GCC are able to sign in for 30 minutes of computer use which might include calling home via Skype (the GCC buys Skype credits allowing users to call long distance at no charge), checking e-mail messages, using social networking web applications such as Facebook or Twitter, or watching Spanish language music videos on YouTube as well as general web surfing. Each terminal is equipped with headsets and a web cam in various stages of operability.

The small space remaining in the middle of the room is typically filled with three or more people waiting for their turn at a terminal. Even though the headsets offer a modicum of privacy, the room is small enough for every conversation to be heard by anyone in the room. As several of the headsets are broken, the line waiting for an open working terminal can get quite long. At the time of my visit (the end of the racing season), the supply of working headsets was very low. Only three of the terminals had them.

Recently, Cobello and her volunteer staff of one IT-knowledgeable person had to install content filtering software on the computers to restrict users from visiting illicit sites. Viruses contracted from some users visiting music download and pornography sites had decimated the number of working terminals. This caused frustration not only for users who were not able to sign in due to the shortage, but to Cobello and her volunteer who spent countless hours working to get the systems operational again.

Over the course of a two-week period, I interviewed nine employees (two social workers, one volunteer, and six backstretch workers) about the GCC, their use of it, and its effect on their lives at the Saratoga Race Track. Because I do not speak Spanish, the dominant language of the backstretch workers, I had the help of Judy Beck who has worked as a BEST social worker for several seasons. The interviews were conducted informally on location at the backstretch at the tail end of the 2009 racing season. At that point – early October – only 150 or so of the 1,500 workers remained. Each morning they gathered at the kitchen outside of the Recreation Center where chef Roger Sousa and a team of volunteers made breakfast. After pulling a shift together helping to prep breakfast, Judy and I set up at a table outside for the interviews.

The Interviews

The six workers I interviewed came from a variety of backgrounds and positions:

Table 1: Backgrounds and Positions

The respondents visited the GCC an average of 3.8 days a week, not including Hilario who, although he does not use the GCC, wished to be included in the interviews. Hilario’s input was valuable and will be introduced below. The visits, per GCC operational guidelines, are for a duration of 30 minutes. Only during periods of low use, when there are not others waiting in line, can a user have more than the allotted 30 minutes.

Across the board, Skype was the most popular application used during the visits. Because the GCC purchases credits on Skype, users are able to call landline and cell phone numbers in their home countries at no cost to themselves or the receiver. Aside from the free calls available through Skype, another benefit of the application is its extensive language options. Users can choose from 138 different languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, and Quechua. This means that even users with low technical proficiency can read the instructions in their own language and learn the necessary steps to operate Skype.

By far, the usage of Skype revolves around family and loved ones: mothers, fathers, siblings, children, and girlfriends. Only one respondent, José, mentioned using the application to talk with friends. The importance of being able to talk with family is underscored by the duration many of the backstretch workers are away from home. Beatriz, who has been in the horse business for over ten years, makes regular visits back to Mexico. She was last there six months ago. However, José, who hasn’t been back to Peru in five years visits the GCC upwards to five times a week to call his mother, siblings and daughter. Dante and Hilario visited home a year ago, but Rudy and Henry haven’t returned home in three and four years, respectively.

Before the installation of the GCC, the main method for communicating home was either a cell phone or the pay phones installed at the Recreation Center coupled with the use of pre-paid international calling cards. This mode of communication is still used to supplement the calls made via Skype at the GCC. During especially busy times, when the sign-up list is very full, many workers opt to call using the phone. Four of the respondents have their own cell phones. Dante and Rudy do not, but will make calls using the pay phones if necessary. José, who remarked, “I have a cell phone, but I can’t call long distance with it, only local. The long distance card can be pretty expensive,” chooses instead to make free calls home at the GCC.

Several of the respondents use other applications besides Skype when they visit the GCC. Henry and José both use AOL Instant Messenger for a more immediate synchronous form of connection, and José and Dante both have e-mail accounts for asynchronous communication. Only Henry and José mentioned using the Internet for surfing and watching YouTube, however during my participant observation period, I witnessed several users enjoying Spanish language music videos and looking at pictures instead of using communication applications.

During my interview with Julie Cobello, she mentioned, “You have no idea how many of these guys don’t know how to set up an e-mail account. And they want to learn.” Based on this statement, I decided to query the respondents about their prior computer experience. I received a mixed bag of responses. Rudy answered, “I learned from friends, but also the people that sit there.” After Judy, who was translating, asked for clarification, Rudy indicated that he meant the volunteers who are stationed in the GCC. Aside from friends and volunteers, there hasn’t been an official indepth training program established. Such a training program would rely greatly upon the quality and commitment of the volunteer staff. When asked about training, Henry stated, “They should teach computer classes … because a lot of people don’t know how to use the computers, they get a lot of viruses.” I asked him if he would take computer classes if they were offered in English. He replied, “No, they would have to be in Spanish. A lot of new people come each year that speak no English at all.” The volunteers responsible for conducting training would need technical know-how as well as the ability to speak Spanish. Hilario’s response demonstrates the need for such programming: “I would like to use the computers. I would be interested in learning how to use the computers with the web camera on top. I am hoping to make enough to buy my family a computer next year and we can communicate that way.” Beatriz expressed similar sentiments: the volunteers “taught how to use the computers to call my mom, but I’d be interested in learning how to use them for other things.”

One option in response to the need for training might include enlisting the help of the few backstretch workers who have their own computers. Cobello mentioned that several backstretch workers bring their own laptops and sit outside the GCC after hours using the Center’s Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. This indicates a degree of proficiency that could prove helpful if there was sufficient motivation for them to want to volunteer their services as computer trainers.

Through the course of the interviews, several of the respondents identified ways that their experience might be improved at the GCC. Namely, the addition of more terminals and an increase in the amount of time each user is granted: José said, “I wish they had more computers so it would be easier to get on. Maybe [give] an hour, instead of a half hour.” Beatriz echoed this in her reply as well. The main problem with such requests boils down to systemic issues such as low funding and lack of space. The GCC is already crowded with little room for growth.

Based on the participant observation I conducted, it was clear that the users of the GCC appreciated being able to use its resources. Although a few of the employees tried to stay at their terminals longer than the allotted half hour, most were very conscientious of others who were awaiting their turn. One of the women who sat in a spare chair next to the volunteer desk while she waited for an available computer told me that the GCC was the only way she communicated with her family and without it she would feel very alone at the track. She was thankful that “somebody cared enough to bring the computers here for us.”

Conclusion

Overall, I am pleased with the outcome of this ethnographic study. I am appreciative of both Julie Cobello’s willingness as administrator to open the doors to my efforts and Judy Beck’s willingness to serve as guide and translator. Such a study would not have been possible without their gracious support. At the beginning of our conversations, Julie suggested I spend some time volunteering in the kitchen where breakfast was prepared and served for the 150 or so backstretch workers still remaining at the track. Through that experience I became a familiar face which helped to make a smooth transition into the interviews. Because of my physical appearance, several of the backstretch employees initially thought I was a police officer or an agent of a State program and were mildly distrustful of my presence. By my volunteering, they were able to see me as somebody who was there for a benign purpose.

Although the fact that I do not speak Spanish was a potential hurdle, Judy’s ability to translate – and perhaps more importantly, to help respondents feel comfortable while talking with me – was invaluable. She not only selected good respondents, but she also gave me helpful suggestions about questions to ask and specific words to use. If I were to continue this study or broaden its scope, I would spend some time learning Spanish to facilitate conversation with the backstretch employees. Doing so would help me understand better what they are saying and it would serve to gain their trust in me as a researcher.

For this study, I conducted interviews and engaged in participant observation. The interviews bore the most fruit. The participant observation on the other hand almost had a negative impact on my research as it put me in a position of authority in which I had to marshall individuals in the GCC and in a few instances I had to assertively ask people to vacate their terminals so that others could use them. Such potentially abrasive situations could have worked against me in future interview sessions. My only saving grace in this regard was the fact that I had completed my interviews prior to the participant observation.

I come away from this experience knowing that the GCC is a valuable and critical component of the Backstretch Employee Service Team’s mission to improve the quality of life for the backstretch workers. As such, it fulfills the expectations one might have for the successful operations of a typical telecenter. Yes, it would be nice to see it grow in both size and scope, and I have confidence that it will as its impact is felt throughout the backstretch over the coming seasons. I would be honored to be a part of its continued success and growth and I plan to offer my services next season as a volunteer as part of that process.

Works cited

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