'So often they're seen from a distance, bending over the rows, and we don't know who they are,' says Rachel Goodman. 'I just wanted to bring them up close, and say, hey, what is it like, and move up and down the state with the harvest?'
From the Landscape Into the Forefront
'Pastures of Plenty' radio program focuses on the history, lives and achievements of migrant farmworkers in California
By Laura Mattingly
A shadow workforce. Illegals. The people the agriculture industry of California was built on the backs of. Immigrants. Job thieves. Those folks way-the-hell-out-there-in-the-rows, stooping. Highly skilled gardeners. Tough motherfuckers. An unofficial workforce. An episodic infusion of energy and vision into the United States.
Whatever you call them, and whatever way you look at it, they grow and harvest our food.
And they weren't always Mexicans. The first agricultural labor force in California was Native American until the 1860s. Then it was Chinese. Then it was Japanese. Then it was Filipino. Then came the Okies of the dust bowl era. Then the Mexicans. But not just Mexicans: many people currently in California's fields come from Central America as well; some are Mexican Indians from indigenous communities that do not speak Spanish.
These people know, or come to know, a lot about food. And constitute a very skilled labor force. But who are they?
Rachel Goodman, Peabody Award Recipient from Santa Cruz, Calif., produced a radio program series to answer just these questions. Pastures of Plenty: a History of California's Farmworkers will air around the country this month, as well as locally on KUSP-FM (88.9), April 23-26 at 10am. The program is hosted by Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino and writer and producer of Zoot Suit and La Bamba, and the program features historian Sandy Lydon of Cabrillo College.
"So often they're seen from a distance, bending over the rows, and we don't know who they are, they're just these people, way out there," says Goodman, explaining her objective for the radio project. "I just wanted to bring them up close, and say, 'Hey, what is it like, to get up every morning, tend crops, and move up and down the state with the harvest?'"
Goodman spent over a year doing research, much of which was inspired by "The California Agricultural Workers History Center: Feasibility Study" put together by Sandy Lydon and Geoffrey Dunn, making a case for developing a center within the Watsonville Public Library focusing on the cultural history of California's migrant farmworkers, the first ever of its kind in California. The library is currently under construction and its anticipated date of completion is November 2007.
In the course of assembling the program, Goodman sought out interviews with both farmworkers and their descendants, as far back as third- and fourth-generation. "I didn't find anybody that didn't want to talk to me; some people are more shy than others, you know. But everyone was happy to tell their story. They were proud. They were actually flattered that anybody wanted to know. A couple of them were like, 'Why do you want to know about farmworkers? We're nobody,' and [Goodman had replied], 'No, that's not true. That's the whole point.''"
The program functions not only as a history, but as a celebration of the aspects of immigrant agricultural workers that can be overlooked. "We kind of think of them as just being manual labor, but it's really not. I mean, anyone who's gardened and tried to grow anything knows that it's actually not that easy to grow something and have it come out as food on the other end. We think of that as a miracle of technology but it's also a miracle of people's sleight-of-hand, of particular techniques, of knowledge of plants. There's a lot that goes into it that's not just [stoop] labor," says Goodman. "That struck me listening to everybody tell their stories, and going out into the fields of a farmworker who's cutting artichokes, and he's like, 'Here's a good one, here's a bad one, then you do this to the plant.' ... I mean he was just going a mile a minute, and obviously he knew how to grow food. He had been doing it for 30 years and he understood plants. So we owe these people a debt in a lot of other ways, and I wanted to bring that up. After all, we all have to eat, right?"
The knowledge of growing fruits such as peaches came entirely from immigrant populations. Chinese immigrants were the developers of the major orange industries of Southern California, and also brought with them the Bing cherry. Other agricultural experiments throughout the years included mulberries and silkworms.
According to Lydon, immigrants not only have brought various farming techniques with them, including the introduction of fruits and vegetables into an area that was formerly used only for the production of wheat, but are also responsible in some cases for the significant physical transformation of whole sections of landscape.
"Another thing that they did, these groups, and I could put the Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos in this group, is that they did reclamation," says Lydon. "They turned marginal ag land into production. They took swamps--I know we don't say swamps anymore, we say wetlands--but they took swamps, drained 'em, got the brush off, and turned it into field. The Pajaro Valley as we see it today, that was a marsh, that was a swamp. That's all reclaimed land done by Chinese or Japanese farm laborers."
But regardless of the contributions of any group, the nature of California's immigrant labor force historically has been entirely episodic. A group very much encouraged by the agriculture industry and by the U.S. government to come in can just as quickly be discriminated against and pushed out.
"In the early stages when a group loses its edge, its necessity, when it stops fulfilling this need, and becomes expendable, or becomes too familiar, or becomes too organized, or starts trying to date your daughter, or whatever it might be, there's that tendency to look for another source," says Lydon. "I've often seen it as a series of faucets. Almost like a soda fountain, but nobody knows what a soda fountain is anymore, but a soda fountain with all the different flavors. And what agriculture did was they would turn on the faucet until something happened, until maybe the majority community decided that those people were causing trouble, like the Chinese were blamed for the depression of the middle 1870s, though they had nothing to do with it. And then, 'Oh dear, oh dear, well that didn't work out, they didn't speak English, and they seemed to get argumentative, and they didn't know their place,' and all that stuff. But you have to identify another faucet first."
Lydon explains that "the faucet" is often screwed down with the use of immigration restrictions, or with policies directed specifically at a specific ethnic group, for example the Anti-Chinese movement's Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, not repealed until 1943. The Chinese immigrant workforce was replaced by a Japanese immigrant workforce, later forced into internment camps during World War II, at which point the U.S. government enticed trainloads of Mexican immigrants across the California border, constituting the Bracero Program, lasting from 1942 all the way into 1964.
Luis Valdez began his life as a California farmworker himself, eventually went to college and merged political activism with theater, bringing educational and politically charged performances into the fields 42 years ago with the development of El Teatro Campesino.
"I find that there's a lot of confusion around the immigration issue, because of a lack of honesty in respect to what the border is or has been or has not been over the last century or so. And the fact is, is that the relationship between the United States and Mexico is symbiotic," says Valdez. "One of the things that dismays me is that I can look around within a couple of miles of here, of San Juan Bautista, and see conditions that are no different than they were when I was a child. And there's been, at that level, no noticeable progress. And no noticeable deepening of understanding. The United Farm Workers had a lot of support with the grape strike and the grape boycott, and I was part of that as well, and we were grateful for that, but there's been a sliding back. The conditions have slid back to where they've always been, they're terrible; where is there housing for farmworkers?"
Despite the persistence of ill conditions for California's migrant farmworkers, Goodman sees the chapter of U.S. involvement with Mexico as the "crowning moment" of the historical trajectory, pointing out that conditions for farmworkers since the grape strikes and ethnic movements of the '60s has been better than for other immigrant groups.
Valdez speaks of his involvement in those social movements.
"In 1966, when the farmworkers marched from Delano to Sacramento, it was a march of 340 miles, it took us 25 days," says Valdez. "We took the back roads throughout the whole the east valley, but there was a point there beyond Fresno on our way to Sacramento, where we actually started marching on Highway 99, which is that main artery in the middle of the valley, and just the sight of all the union flags, you know, these red thunderbird flags that we were carrying, marching alongside the freeway with these semi trucks going by, was a dramatic statement, because thousands of people driving by on that freeway saw us marching. And they had never seen anything like it. So what we did, just with the presence of flags and musicians, and so forth with the march, was we theatricalized our struggle to such a level that it transformed a landscape. That freeway was no longer just a freeway. It had become a plaza of public expression. It had become a stage from which we were able then to express our social needs and our need for change, specifically."
Lydon sees the changes and varied fields of knowledge that immigrant populations bring to the country as a major strength and driving force for the country, agriculturally, economically and socially.
"That's why immigration is so important to us, is that you get these just incredible infusions of just energy, vision, optimism, and it's happened historically in the United States--the wheel starts to slow down, third-, fourth-generation, we get a little lazy, we get a little lumpy, and then wham, here comes another group to kick the wheel and get it going again," says Lydon. "God, look at Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley wouldn't exist if it wasn't for India and the highly trained people coming in from India. Immigration is, when you look around and you see the vision that they bring--what to you and me may appear to be an abandoned building or a dead gas-station or something, they see a restaurant. 'Hmm, maybe we could do that.' Always pushing."
Rachel Goodman's radio program series, 'Pastures of Plenty: a History of California's Farmworkers,' airs around the country this month, as well as locally on KUSP-FM (88.9), April 23-26 at 10am.
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