My Polish Grandmother Speaks to Every Pancake House Employee in Williamsburg

In Edwards’ cursory analysis of the dynamic between Williamsburg’s economic and social contexts, he appropriately emphasized the importance of several grand, historic institutions (Colonial Williamsburg, William and Mary) to shape our cultural landscape. However, I felt that he, like most of Williamsburg’s residents, had a quite myopic view of which economic entities this town actually relies on. This is why, for my research project I would like to highlight a hidden transcript of an essential labor force that provides what seems to be one of the cornerstones for the economic vitality of this colonial city. Rather than the primary, public performances of labor and capital in this city, I want to study the history of a labor force, which supports the infrastructure of the tourist/hospitality industry in Williamsburg: seasonal guestworkers.
This temporary, transient population, just from what limited personal interaction I have had with them, seems to arrive from countries around the world as disparate as Poland, Brazil, and Thailand. They stay for only a few months in varied contexts—some stay in hotels while others have houses, some perform their ethnic/racial identity quite publically at Busch Gardens while others are encouraged to hide it. And there has definitely been a dialogue between the town and this population, resulting in bars such as Alizé, which has European and Caribbean themed nights. This leads to many questions as an impetus for research. When did this phenomenon start? Who encouraged it? What economic entity brings these workers here and what sort of structure is provided for their stay? What are the cultural representations/reactions of the hegemon to these guestworkers? The legal reactions? What is the background of the young adults who choose to spend a portion of their lives here? And, most importantly, how do these workers feel about their time here and the unique cultural “place” they have been dropped into?

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As for sources for research, I feel like most of the information I would be collecting would have to be primary. I think oral interviews could be a great jumping off point, as I could ask people about their responses to Williamsburg and what brought them here, which would necessarily lead to more information about the larger forces governing this practice. I also think archival newspaper research, such as the archives of the Virginia Gazette, would yield valuable timeline information about when this invisible institution was established, who was pushing for it, and how it expanded. Also, following the advice of Professor Knight, I would like to talk with Cindy Hahamovitch about the history of guestworkers more generally and academic responses to their situations, specifically regarding eastern Europeans. Luckily I also know the head bartender at Alizé, which should be a big help getting interviews lined up.


About

The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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