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They Saved the Crops

They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 576
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  • Book Info
    They Saved the Crops
    Book Description:

    At the outset of World War II, California agriculture seemed to be on the cusp of change. Many Californians, reacting to the ravages of the Great Depression, called for a radical reorientation of the highly exploitative labor relations that had allowed the state to become such a productive farming frontier. But with the importation of the first braceros-"guest workers" from Mexico hired on an "emergency" basis after the United States entered the war-an even more intense struggle ensued over how agriculture would be conducted in the state. Esteemed geographer Don Mitchell argues that by delineating the need for cheap, flexible farm labor as a problem and solving it via the importation of relatively disempowered migrant workers, an alliance of growers and government actors committed the United States to an agricultural system that is, in important respects, still with us. They Saved the Crops is a theoretically rich and stylistically innovative account of grower rapaciousness, worker militancy, rampant corruption, and bureaucratic bias. Mitchell shows that growers, workers, and officials confronted a series of problems that shaped-and were shaped by-the landscape itself. For growers, the problem was finding the right kind of labor at the right price at the right time. Workers struggled for survival and attempted to win power in the face of economic exploitation and unremitting violence. Bureaucrats tried to harness political power to meet the demands of, as one put it, "the people whom we serve." Drawing on a deep well of empirical materials from archives up and down the state, Mitchell's account promises to be the definitive book about California agriculture in the turbulent decades of the mid-twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4401-0
    Subjects: Population Studies, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Maps
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: “Reality Soon Caught Up with Us”
    (pp. 1-14)

    Octavio Rivas Guillen arrived in Stockton, California, on September 29, 1942, to work in the sugar beet harvest. He was among the first trainload of Mexican National workers to arrive in the United States in an emergency wartime program of agricultural and railroad labor importation. Eventually known as the bracero program, the systematic importation of Mexican agricultural workers long outlasted the war. By the time Congress finally ended the program in 1964, some 4.75 million short-term contracts for braceros had been issued.* Rivas was impressed with his reception. A welcoming party met the train; a banquet was organized in the...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Agribusiness Landscape in the “War Emergency”: The Origins of the Bracero Program and the Struggle to Control It
    (pp. 15-48)

    By the end of the 1930s, according to Carey McWilliams, the great critic of twentieth-century California, California agriculture had been thoroughly shaped as an industrial and capitalist landscape. Now, as war was gathering in Europe and the Pacific, perhaps it was on the cusp of being transformed into a rational and maybe even a just one. Forged in the fires of class and race violence, “farms have become factories in California,” marked by “typically capitalistic patterns of industrial operation.” The “pattern [was] cut,” as McWilliams put it, in the well-known transformation of California agriculture from an extensive, booming (and already...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Struggle for a Rational Farming Landscape: Worker Housing and Grower Power
    (pp. 49-74)

    The fpc was composed of seven leading agriculturalists. George H. Wilson, from Clarksburg (in the Delta), was a director of the National Beet Growers Association, the California Asparagus Growers Association, and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Camille Garnier was president of the Los Angeles Farm Bureau Federation and a grower of vegetables. Loren Bamert was president of the California Cattleman’s Association and a cattle rancher from Ione at the edge of the Sierra foothills. John Watson, a dairy farmer from Petaluma (and president of Consolidated Milk Producers in San Francisco), was rapidly replaced by Joe Hart, a dairy farmer in...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Dream of Labor Power: Fluid Labor and the Solid Landscape
    (pp. 75-102)

    The dream of perfect control of labor power is never far from California growers’ minds. Even as he was lobbying the secretary of agriculture for the creation of a farmer-controlled, California-only system of labor importation from Mexico, C. C. Teague was also drawing up incorporation papers for a proposed Sino-American Agency, Inc., whose mission would be “to investigate and bring about the formation by the Government of the United States of America of a Chinese Labor Corps, to be run on semi-military lines, and to be employed for the duration of the war only, in relief of this country’s severe...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Organizing the Landscape: Labor Camps, International Agreements, and the nflu
    (pp. 103-134)

    C. c. teague’s subcommittee went to washington in January 1947, and with national farm organizations drafted what became (with not many changes) House Resolution hr 3367. hr 3367 included all that growers wanted and added to the list a proviso that all federal “labor supply centers, labor homes, labor camps, and facilities and equipment pertaining thereto … shall, as determined by the Secretary [of Agriculture] be available to … State agencies … until liquidated, and such liquidation shall proceed as expeditiously as possible and be completed not later than December 31, 1948, and … in the liquidation of such properties...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The Persistent Landscape: Perpetuating Crisis in California
    (pp. 135-170)

    Despite no real legislative authority to do so (though with much support from members of Congress), and despite Mexican displeasure with the border opening at El Paso in October 1948, the uses began negotiation in January 1949 in Mexico City to forge a new international agreement governing the importation of Mexican National labor. In advance of these negotiations, the federal government established a Special Advisory Committee on Farm Labor, made up entirely of “prominent farmers” and charged with counseling “the Employment Service on matters pertaining to agricultural manpower.” The uses also held a series of meetings directly with employer groups...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Imperial Farming, Imperialist Landscapes
    (pp. 171-202)

    The governor’s committee to Survey the Agricultural Labor Resources of the San Joaquin Valley submitted its 405-page report to Governor Warren on March 15, 1951. Bowing to strenuous grower opposition, the report lacked recommendations in key areas, especially minimum wages and inclusion of farm workers in the National Labor Relations Act, two reforms that perhaps would have had the most effect on the stability of farm labor and might have done the most to reestablish its reproduction on a plane approaching one that was healthy for the workers. And it made no direct recommendation on the advisability (or not) of...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Labor Process, Laboring Life
    (pp. 203-232)

    On december 4, 1949, the Los Angeles Times reported that a “new monster” lettuce-harvesting machine was then at work in the Salt River Valley (Arizona) harvest. Invented in Salinas, the machine—essentially a series of conveyer belts on wheels—stretched across twelve beds (twenty-four rows) of lettuce and commanded a crew of thirty-four (including machine and truck drivers). Twelve workers—one to each bed—walked ahead of the machine cutting lettuce heads and placing them in the center of the beds. Eight workers followed behind, picking up the heads and placing them on one of the belts. Another eight workers...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Operation Wetback: Preserving the Status Quo
    (pp. 233-260)

    Operation wetback was heralded into being on June 9, 1954. Announcing that by June 17 they would move 491 more Border Patrol agents from elsewhere in the country to the region along the United States–Mexico boundary in California (where currently there were only 256), the Department of Justice and the ins vowed to search for, apprehend, and deport illegal immigrants in a program the attorney general promised would “not be a hit and run project.” As the California border region was swept clean, the agents would move inland and up through the valleys of the state, shift their focus...

  15. CHAPTER NINE RFLOAC: The Imbrication of Grower Control
    (pp. 261-286)

    In 1954, as operation wetback moved into high gear and the number of braceros imported concomitantly increased, the compliance staff in Region X of the bes (covering California, Nevada, and Arizona) was decreased from 14 to 12. It jumped back up again to 15 in 1955 and 16 in 1956, before dropping down to 13 in 1957. With a newfound commitment to compliance in the program beginning in 1958, the number of officers increased to 20 in 1958, 22 in 1959, and 24 in 1960. Compliance staff was “directly responsible for enforcement of and punitive action against employers who will...

  16. CHAPTER TEN Power in the Peach Bowl: Of Domination, Prevailing Wages, and the (Never-Ending) Question of Housing
    (pp. 287-312)

    On may 20, 1958, lawyer James Murray wrote to Edward Hayes requesting “copies of all the information you have compiled including statistical tables on crops and crop areas ‘dominated’ by Mexican nationals.” Murray’s letter followed up an earlier one from Galarza to the fps, which had received no response. In turn, Galarza’s letter followed one from Anthony Rios, of the Los Angeles chapter of the Community Service Organization (cso) (which was beginning to undertake serious community organizing efforts in Mexican American communities), also asking for information about domination. Rios’s letter had drawn a response from Hayes that was fairly remarkable...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN Dead Labor—Literally: (Another) Crisis in the Bracero Program
    (pp. 313-340)

    In august 1957, even as the naacp was investigating appalling conditions in the Peach Bowl, even as public health nurse Ann Hollingsworth was describing the “bullpen”—El Carralon—for braceros in Yuba City, and not long after the bes and growers were publicizing their new feeding standards and code of conduct, reports began appearing in the California press of a series of “mystery deaths” among braceros. Depending on the article, either fourteen or twenty Mexican Nationals had died in their sleep since 1955. According to Dr. Irma West of the California Department of Public Health, “the pattern in nearly all...

  18. CHAPTER TWELVE Organizing Resistance: Swinging at the Heart of the Bracero Program
    (pp. 341-370)

    In 1952, as pl 78 was taking effect, farm labor wages in California were 41.5 percent of industrial wages, according to an analysis conducted by the newly chartered awoc in 1959. By that latter year, they had sunk to 28.6 percent. In metropolitan San Diego, industrial wages rose from index 100 to 152.4 over the same period. In San Diego and Riverside counties, farm wages stayed at a flat 100 (though wages in San Diego avocados did rise from 100 to 114, and miscellaneous vegetables and strawberries from 100 to 103).¹

    Awoc was born in February 1959 amid some controversy,...

  19. CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Demise of the Bracero Program: Closing the Gates of Cheap Labor?
    (pp. 371-400)

    On the road, prospects for domestic workers were not very good. At the end of 1961, there were 8,145 farm labor camps in California; only 18 of these were farm labor supply centers operated by local phas—the old fsa camps. According to an in-depth 1961 report by the DoH, all but one of these eighteen camps had shrunk in capacity over the preceding decade; most reported turning away families seeking shelter in the previous year; all were at least partially in violation of the Labor Camp Act code; some seriously so. DoH concluded that though “designed initially to provide...

  20. CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Ever-New, Ever-Same: Labor Militancy, Rationalization, and the Post-bracero Landscape
    (pp. 401-418)

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about the bracero era is how little the California landscape changed over its twenty-two years. Though they were occasionally militant, arriving in California with Octavio Rivas Guillen on September 22, 1942, were workers who were—to a degree unprecedented in the state’s agricultural history—captive. Arriving on that first train was in essence a whole new era in labor relations, a new way of deploying labor on the land. Braceros provided “labor market insurance” of a kind and degree growers had never had access to before. If landscape theory is to be believed, then, with...

  21. CONCLUSION. “They Saved the Crops”
    (pp. 419-422)

    Just about a year after the bracero program began, Carey McWilliams penned a propaganda piece extolling its virtues. Despite whatever private misgivings he may have harbored, he argued in the August 1943 pages of The Inter-American(a mouthpiece for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy) that the program had been a “major stroke of good luck.” It was good luck because it had been administered by the fsa, “an agency capable of handling mass importation on a planned, intelligent, and scientific basis.” It is hard, now, not to read this piece as delusional given that it was published four solid months...

    (pp. 423-428)
    (pp. 429-430)
  24. NOTES
    (pp. 431-502)
    (pp. 503-514)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 515-530)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 531-531)