Bracero Stories

Last week, Hector Tobar wrote an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times on one man’s history as part of the “Bracero Program.” As Tobar adroitly concludes, “Many things have changed in half a century. And many things have not.”

Latino History Month #2

It’s time for your weekly “Hispanic Heritage Month” history lesson, something with a little more significance and less sponsorship than this.  Plus, you get for free what hundreds of students have to pay a high-priced college for, and I don’t even jack with your transcript when we’re done!

With the debate over Mexican immigration raging, 2010 is a time like no other in our history…or is it?  I wish.  History is a wheel of reoccurrence, a condition which is frustrating for noble-minded historians like myself, but a condition that is so nonetheless.  Among the many instances where this “debate” reared its racially-marked head in the past was the decade of the 1920s.

Back then, a swarm of xenophobes had manged to legislate the most restrictive immigration system in US history, framed by racial quotas which remained the “law of the land” until 1965.  These quotas made it easier for you to immigrate to the US if you were “white” and Northern European than if you were “swarthy” and Southern and Eastern European.  While support was diverse, both in constituency and the interests they sought to protect, a widespread base of support came from those whose goal was to limit the attack on “pure Americanism” which resulted from the infusion of so many not-quite-whites into the US.

Where were Mexicans in this formula?  Well, thanks to the political leverage of agribusiness, among other factors, they were left out of the quota system.  This didn’t sit well with the xenophobes who saw their presence as seasonal pickers in the Southwest as just as much a threat as the Jews or Italians in the East, if not more so.

The result was a regular attempt by some elites to extend the quota to Latin America and an accompanying attempt by other elites to stop them.

That’s the quick and dirty shaping the larger context of this piece, an op-ed written in 1928 and published in the LA Times (Feb. 18, 1928).  Penned by a representative of the agricultural industry, it is titled “Hands Off!” and reads, in part:

Putting up immigration bars at the border to keep Mexicans willing to perform manual labor from securing employment on the ranches and in the orchards of this country is a proposal that would bring injury to many and benefit to none. The Mexicans are good workers, the best as a class we have ever had in the Southwest. Under the present permit system, they come in when they are needed, and go back when their work has been done.

They are not wastrels, are not troublemakers. They create no race problems. They are neither political disturbers nor social menaces.

We of the Southwest know the Mexicans. They are god citizens. Many now living in Los Angeles recall when more than 70 per cent of the population was Mexican born or Mexican descent. Many of our most useful citizens are descendants of the second of third generation of the Mexicans who lived here before California was an American State. There are more than 100,000 persons of Mexican birth or descent now living in Los Angeles. Most of them are American citizens, and good ones.

California’s representatives in Congress asked for the exclusion of the Chinese and Japanese, but they have not and are not asking for the exclusion of the Mexicans. Agricultural, commercial and industrial organizations throughout the State are practically unanimous in their protest against restricting Mexican immigration to the 3 per cent quota…

…Relations between the United States and Mexico are cordial. The good will shown by the last two administrations has aided very materially in the restoration of peace and the promotion of good will in Mexico. Restriction of Mexican immigration would be regarded south of the Rio Grande as inhospitable, as unfriendly, as a reflection on the Mexican people which the Latin blood would be certain to resent

There have been no disturbances, no clashes between class and class, no general protests from California communities against the presence of Mexican laborers in any part of the South or West. Where the Mexican are employed they are welcome. They take part in cultivating and picking the cotton in California, Arizona and Texas. They pick the peaches, oranges, lemons and apricots and prepare them for shipment. They cultivate the beet fields of California, Utah and Colorado.

They are as necessary to our ranches and orchards as are the farm laborers at harvest time in the Middle West. A law prohibiting the movement of farm laborers from one State to another in the season of the wheat harvest would be about as reasonable as one preventing Mexican laborers from coming at seasonable times into the West and Southwest. These Mexicans are accustomed to life in a semitropical climate. They are children of the sun, and they perform a service for which those born in colder climates are neither suited no inclined…

If you’d like to think as a Latina/o historian, then you might want to consider the following questions to begin:

  • What are some of the reasons the author gives for not including Mexican workers under the quota system?
  • What can we infer from this argument regarding the opposition? That is, what does this tell us about how the “other side” is arguing?
  • How do ideas about racial fitness continue to frame the position here? What are those ideas? How do they benefit the argument?
  • How are Mexicans “naturalized” as part of the agricultural production process?

This position was a common one in this era, as it is today.  You might think about the ways this argument resonates with some of the ideas and positions you hear in our current public debate.

Happy Labor Day

Every Labor Day, I try to keep in mind those that work so that I may live.  This includes everybody who performs what are generally “invisible” tasks in our daily lives, from the workers who pick up my garbage to those who make sure our house has running water.  It also includes those I think of as “producers of life.”

There are over two million people in this nation right now who work planting, growing, harvesting, and processing the food you and I consume on a daily basis.  They are overwhelmingly from Latin America, poor, and subject to gross inequities in their daily work lives.  From pay to the provision of something as simple as shade, their rights in the workplace are not only consistently violated but they are not always even assured by the “laws” of the nation within which they work.  And, in a very literal and symbolic way, they are the people whose labor assures the reproduction of the human race.  They are “producers of life.”

Today, from the advocacy organization Farmworker Justice comes this Labor Day news relating to the Department of Labor and “guestworkers,” many of whom toil in the fields and processing plants so that we can eat.  As posted on their blog, Harvesting Justice:

The Labor Department today announced new proposed rules for the nation’s agricultural guestworker program which would largely reverse the Bush Administration’s harmful changes which slashed wages and vital worker protections in the program.

The H-2A agricultural guestworker program is supposed to ensure that U.S. workers are offered decent wages and working conditions before employers are permitted to hire foreign guestworkers based on claimed labor shortages, but the Bush Administration’s changes gave agricultural employers access to cheap foreign labor with little government oversight. The new proposal would restore the guarantee that US workers will be hired before foreign workers; a protection that was weakened under the Bush regulations.

The new proposal would also restore the wage system used under the previous regulations which will overcome wage cuts that US and foreign workers experienced during 2009 due to the Bush Administration’s changes; many workers lost about $2.00 per hour under the Bush rules. H-2A workers in North Carolina, for example, earned $8.85/hr last year under the old regulations. This year under the Bush rules, they are getting only $7.25/hr. Under the wage rate calculation of the previous rules, these workers would be earning $9.34/hr this year.

You can read the full post here. You can download the Farmworker Justice statement (in MS Word) on these changes by clicking here.

Happy Labor Day.  May there come a time when the value of everyone’s work is appreciated and recognized for the role it plays in our daily lives.

Racism in the strawberry fields

Most people in the United States don’t think racism is a problem. While they’ll agree it was a “problem of the past,” the lack of formal segregation (the only kind of racism people were taught to understand) suggests to them not only have things gotten better, they’re pretty good overall.

This perspective is rooted in the post-Civil Right Era debates between the Left and the Right, a debate the latter largely won.  When Reagan seized the rhetoric of “personal responsibility,” he worked from the assumption that people were unencumbered by any formal structural kinds of impediments to their own progress and, so, if they were poor, it was their fault.

The lack of recognition of racism in our present-day is ultimately linked to our lack of understanding regarding how “race” actually operates in our society.  As I suggested above, that is not surprising considering the historic contest of the last thirty years over ideology and interpretation, a struggle of public policy and accountability as much as anything else.  But our condition is also expected when you consider the complexity with which race actually does operate in our present moment.

Take strawberries.

In 2007, over the objection of 50 medical and scientific experts, the Bush Administration’s EPA approved the use of the pesticide methyl iodide.  The chemical is promoted by the strawberry industry, despite the fact it “has been found to cause thyroid toxicity, neurological damage, and fetal loss in lab animals.”

The letter written by the group opposing its approval in 2007 said, in part, “We are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farm workers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”  The EPA approved it anyway.

You and I and anybody else who might ever eat a strawberry is at risk because of this chemical.  Honestly, we have been for a long time.  Strawberry production is reliant on a host of chemicals, not to mention systemic labor abuses, some of which were detailed in Eric Schlosser’s 1995 exposé of the industry.  The long and short of it is, none of us should at strawberries, for both health and moral reasons.

The most disturbing part of this, however, is the way racism is at play.  Brown bodies toil in those fields, almost without exception. Those brown bodies are not valued by government or society as embodying the same kind of human being as do white bodies.  Their cancer rates are irrelevant; their wombs are collateral damage.  Their humanity is dismissed as an appropriate risk and loss in order for us to have big, red strawberries.

The use of methyl iodide has been banned by the State of New York. The decision on whether to scrutinize its use in California is currently in the governor’s hands. In the next two weeks, Schwarzeneggar will make his decision: to be a pawn of agribusiness or to recognize the humanity of poor, brown workers.  We will see.

A tremendous h/t goes to Barry Estabrook and his coverage of this issue on Gourmet.  Their “food politics” coverage is almost without rival.


The “Border Beat” (June 24, 2009)

Time for another run-down of some of the Latino-themed stories you might have missed in the last two weeks.  Damas y caballeros, the BORDER BEAT!

• “Sotomayor & Identity Politics” (The Nation)
Just a taste, really, of the buffet that is the blogosphere and the chatter about Sonia Sotomayor and “identity politics.” Along with the frequent discussions about Sotomayor and affirmative action, they generally help us to see the chronic ignorance of the mainstream on issues of race and power.  Here, we get some links to an alternative and the proof bearing pudding, so to speak.

• “Third year of fewer illegal immigrants caught” (Houston Chronicle)
For you “data queens” out there: some figures on the declination in the immigrant flow measured by border apprehensions. For you humanists, the comments offer proof that “border-militia radicals” are not “data queens.”

• “Border Companies Thrive on Mexican-Americans” (NY Times)
A rabid form of racial nationalism (like we have here in the U.S.) is not very compatible with free-market capitalism (like we have here in the U.S.).  Oh, irony!

• “Payments for Injuries to Workers Here Illegally” (NY Times)
Unauthorized immigrants face a host of legal barriers which discourage the protection of the rights they do have.  As workers, for example, they are more prone to abuse, physical injury, discrimination, and a violation of labor laws.  This story, from New York, describes the successful defense of the rights of “illegal” workers using the U.S. Courts as a tool for justice.

• “Utah Latinos learn details of new immigration law, SB81” (Salt Lake Tribune)
I’m prone to posting articles dealing with Latinos in Utah. Someday, when they takeover the state and overcome the minor theocracy they’ve established there, I want to be remembered as one of those visionaries who saw it coming. Right now, fodder for the future takeover as Utah decides to racially profile Latinos.

• “Sotomayor Shaped By Her ‘Nuyorican’ Roots” (NPR)
Well, it’s a bit strange to me, but a lot of people still don’t see Latinos as “people.” Stories like this background piece on Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor help with that, to be sure. Of course, I’m more interested in the word ‘Nuyorican’ becoming part of the mainstream.

• “Court backs LAPD immigration policy” (SF Chronicle)
A recent court decision defends the practices within local law enforcement agencies which do not comply with federal laws on immigration as part of their law enforcement duties. This has the potential to translate into precedent defending the right of cities to declare themselves “sanctuary cities.”


• “In the Coachella Valley, hope withers on the vine” (LA Times)

And the “can’t miss” story of the week comes from the Los Angeles Times and details the continued injustice in the fields of the Coachella Valley.


Everyday violence and labor rights

In the United States, the mainstream culture tends to think of itself as free from major forms of violence. We may have murders, abuse, and other manifestations of the violent, but they hardly define the everyday experience of most Americans. In a wealthy nation with relative stability, we see these instances of violence as aberrations, departures from the norm.

One of the painful truths we must learn to confront is that this is not the experience of many people in this country. My own experience with daily life in this country had less to do with this negation of violence than the stark confrontation with it and its effects. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t grow up in a war zone. I didn’t see a dead person until my teens, and even that experience was powerful for its uncommonness.  I am talking about the kinds of everyday violence more appropriately thouht of as subliminal, like white noise.

This is the kind of violence we often ignore because its confrontation is too overwhelming to deal with.  But people do deal with it.  Its the violence of poverty, of struggle, of exclusion, of inadequate funding, of inequity, of uncertainty.  It’s the kind of violence that translates into frustration, anger, and physical violence for some, but emotional exhaustion and stress for many more (if not all).  Its the violence of not knowing if you will have enough money to feed yourself or your family.  For others, it might be the self-inflicted violence of alcohol or drugs used as an escape from this reality.

Lately, I’ve been thinking how the current economic crisis is offering more and more Americans an avenue into understanding this kind of trauma.  At the same time, government bailouts of corporations will, inevitably, lead to a declination in actual labor protections for workers.  Kind of perverse, when you think about it.


Got food? Thank a farmworker.

March 29 – April 4, 2009 is National Farmworker Awareness Week.

We demand just living and working conditions for farmworkers and an end to unfair treatment under the law. We demand fairly harvested food.

Farm work is the third most dangerous job in the U.S., yet the people who plant and harvest our fruits and vegetables lack many of the basic worker protections that most of us take for granted. Things like overtime, unemployment insurance, even protection when joining a union are not guaranteed under federal law.

We are connected to farmworkers everyday because we all consume food– much of it planted and harvested by farmworkers, yet farmworkers remain largely invisible and continue to live and work in unacceptable conditions.

For more information, visit the campaign website.

Debugging the Silicon Dream

The California Studies Association is having their annual conference on April 24, 2009 at De Anza College, in Cupertino.

The CSA has been around for over 20 years.  A lively mix of academics, activists, and public servants, it brings together people with an interest in California issues as it seeks to nurture a progressive agenda on the same.


This year’s conference theme–“Debugging the Silicon Dream: Real Life in a Virtual World“–promises to be a stimulating exploration on the gulf between the California “tech dream” and the lived realities it both relies upon and produces.  I will be chairing a panel on immigration to the region, probing the ways California’s present and future continue to rely upon immigrants while not providing for their human needs.  We’ll be looking at how immigration shapes identity; how immigrants participate in local labor politics; and how local service providers create meaningful ways to better meet immigrants’ needs.

Admission is FREE to all students with a valid I.D. and with a suggested contribution of $35 to all others. I know for a fact nobody will be turned away, however, that $35 paid in advance via pre-registration will guarantee you food for the day and one year’s membership in the CSA (normally $35).  Nice deal, no?

Hilda Solis is the Secretary of Labor!!

It is finally official!  After two months of delays by the Republicans, Hilda Solis has received the required votes from the Senate to become to head of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Testament to her regard within the progressive labor movement–and to her support for “card check” legislation–the Solis appointment has received an uncharacteristic amount of attention by the minority party in Congress, resulting in the two-month delay.

This is the first time a pro-labor advocate (and a Chicana) has been appointed to the post.  Solis is a real progressive, somebody who will keep the interests of the working poor and middle-class at the forefront of her efforts.

The Oppression We Condone

Imagine a young, college student loading a bong and taking a hit. Then, imagine somewhere else, another person bites into a salad and swallows a small tomato. Neither person thinks they are hurting anyone by their actions. Neither thinks for a moment their action is connected to other people.

But both are wrong.

Two tragic articles bring this home. The first is a piece on the drug war in Mexico, featured in the latest issue of Foreign Policy.

“Mexico’s hillbilly drug smugglers have morphed into a raging insurgency. Violence claimed more lives there last year alone than all the Americans killed in the war in Iraq. And there’s no end in sight.”

It is a sad reminder of the brutal human cost that comes with the criminalization of drugs and drug use, yes, but it is also damning of U.S. consumption.  Even if marijuana and other drugs were legal in the U.S., the scale of our consumption would still create and nurture many of the power dynamics currently at play in the hemisphere.

If you doubt that, read this article on the production of tomatoes in South Florida. Featured in Gourmet magazine, it details the presence of modern slavery in the U.S.

“If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery. “

This perfectly legal food is  produced in ways which view their Latino laborers as nothing more than an ingredient to production, like dirt, water, or seed.  While this situation is both simple and complicated, the suffering is undeniable.

Halting our consumption of items which produce human suffering is a small change anybody can make.  Consumption feeds the continuation of the systems in question, both of which exact immeasurable human costs.  But that won’t do much to change the real problem.

James Baldwin once wrote of the indifference of whites to black suffering saying “It is their innocence that constitutes the crime.” What he meant is that “not knowing” isn’t a sign of innocence. Not when we live in a world where suffering is so easily evident.  Instead, it’s a sign of our guilt because it is the product of effort–effort to not know, effort to not associate yourself as linked to another you know is in pain, effort to preserve your need (for whatever) at the cost of others’ needs for human dignity and life.

When we open our eyes and see that the suffering of others is our suffering, then we are prepared to begin the hard work of creating the kinds of change called for in these situations.  What would you do to stop the abuse of your brother?  What would you do to save the life of your sister?

The article in Gourmet came to my attenton via Harvesting Justice, the wonderful blog of the non-profit advocacy group Farmworker Justice.