An Allegory of California
In the Spring of 1931, a most unlikely figure could be seen in the new Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange. By all accounts, he went about his business with as much alacrity and stamina as the most ardent trader. But this man did not deal in stocks. A devoted Marxist, he considered such financial speculation the work of “parasitic exploiters.” In any other circumstances, this brown-skinned Mexican would not have gained access to the exclusive club. But his name was Diego Rivera, and he was considered by many to be the second-greatest living painter (and Picasso was not available). In this inner sanctum of an economic system he abhorred, Rivera was covering the walls with his Allegory of California.
Rivera wanted to restore workers to the consciousness of the public. “I painted the fruits of the earth which enrich and nourish because of the productive labor of workers and farmers,” Rivera explained. In the Stock Exchange, an Oz of economic growth, Rivera wished to draw back the curtain to reveal that all value ultimately comes from labor and the earth. He wanted to show the financiers “that what they eat and what enriches them are the products of the toil of workers and not of financial speculation—the natural beauty of California, fertilized by the vigor of workers, farmers, and scientists.”
The Orange Empire
The California Fruit Growers Convention of 1888 would sum up a generation of rhetoric in a pamphlet entitled “Hand in Hand Go Horticulture and Civilization,” which outlined the fruit grower’s version of Manifest Destiny. Under the hands of such an enterprising people, the natural and cultural landscape would be improved by a genesis authored by citrus growers, the Southern Pacific, and other boosters…But instead of fulfilling a script authored by evolution or destiny, these successions were in fact accomplished through a series of “human interventions” that could be called conquests. Each landscape—the horticultural landscape of Indians, the pastoral landscape of Mexican ranchers, the market-oriented gardens of Anglo-Americans—had been a co-creation of a dominant social group and the environment.
By 1890, approximately one million acres of land were being made fruitful by artificial water systems, and the number rose to five million by 1930. More than 500,000 pumps, 46,000 pumping plants, 4,000 dams and reservoirs and 32,000 miles of pipelines an canals were just part of California’s water technology…Massive canal projects turned Owens Valley streams and the Colorado River into tributaries of the Orange Empire. Removed from the paths of natural watersheds and riparian ecosystems, water was rechanneled into the economics of growth, becoming “so many acre feet banked in an account…so many…carloads of oranges could be traded around the globe.”
The Southern Pacific had the resources and incentive to focus powerful newspapers, regional booster organizations like the chambers of commerce, and the state government on growth. The railroad was not just steel and steam; it was also the engine of a growth machine that used representations of the landscapes it traversed to materially change those landscapes… The intensive agriculture of fruit growing would intensify the value of that landscape, a powerful incentive for a corporation that had been granted eleven and a half million acres (or 11.4 percent of the state, as the Southern Pacific was granted).
In 1898, the Southern Pacific sought to reach a larger audience by launching Sunset magazine…Sunset was a vehicle with which to promote Southern Pacific interests by celebrating the nature of California and the West.
“Americanizing” the Labor Force
In 1901, the Sherman Institute, a model school for Indian uplift and assimilation, opened in Riverside, the heart of the Anglo garden. Rather than questioning the legitimacy of conquest, schools like the Sherman Institute trained ideological floodlights on the conquered landscape, making it appear to be an empire of light and liberty. Consider how the school was represented in the Southern Pacific’s Sunset magazine. In this neatly kept institution of progressive education, with its mission-style buildings, Indian children would read from the schoolbook of civilization and absorb the “spirit of Americanism.” The railroad is clearly linked to all this, as a Southern Pacific engine is pictured at the nearby station, which architecturally invokes the Spanish Fantasy Past. Just beyond the border of the institute’s grounds, marked by palm trees and an irrigation canal, the lush orange groves begin. Look at the landscape, Sunset invites its readers. Where once was nothing but “sunshine and sagebrush” now gleams “the largest orange-growing district in the world.” It’s crop was worth $1.5 million. Where once were Indians living haplessly in sage and desert are now Americans in the making.
This was a thoroughly commodified cornucopia. “No trespassing” signs went up all across the empire. As Carey McWilliams observed, the unauthorized picking or an orange “is a perilous activity…likely to invite a blast from a shot-gun, a jolt from an electrically-charged wire fence, or a sentence in jai.” Though they seemed to express nature’s abundance, Southern California gardens also produce scarcity. Fenced in, the garden became forbidden. The gardens naturalized social inequality and sublimated the facts of conquest, proclaiming instead that California’s verdant landscape was simply a manifestation of natural evolution and American destiny.
In 1889, the U.S. Patent Office had decided that allowing patents “upon the trees of the forest and the plants of the earth…would be unreasonable and impossible...That would change in 1930. Indiana Senator Frank Purnell, who had been given a copy of Luther Burbank’s (Southern California horticulturalist and advocate of eugenics) views on the matter by the man who had inherited Burbank’s catalogue of plants, quoted the lionized scientist and pushed for the passage of the Plant Patent Bill. Thomas Edison telegrammed in his support: “Nothing that Congress could do to help farming would be of greater value than to give the plant breeder the same status as the mechanical and chemical inventors now have through the patent law,” he wrote, “This will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks.”
Nature could be transformed into intellectual property.
The Senate ultimately agreed that patenting plants would protect and fortify the body politic. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 codified the notion that people could stake claim to living matter. According to historian Jack Doyle, as a result, “Commercial interests have staked out, protected and perpetuated private ownership of some of the most crucial natural resources available to mankind: food-producing resources governed by genes.” Plant patents, under which living organisms could be stamped as “property,” enabled a corporate colonization of nature.
Pesticides and Machines
Insecticide companies ratcheted up fears of insect infestation with pictures associating natural pests with labor activists. A 1938 DuPont ad for Hydro-Cyanic spray promised that “FUMIGATION WILL CONTROL THE RED SCALE MENACE.” The red scale was pictured as a hooded, snarling simian creature—a King King that embodied the growers’ worst nightmare of both nature and labor out of control. Labor activism in citrus groves had, of course, been portrayed as a “red menace” (and had in part been fought by law enforcement and grower-sponsored vigilante groups with tear gas—one form of which, chloropicrin, was also used as an insecticide). When the Associated Farmers, an organization of growers and industrialists, outfitted a cameraman to record the faces of striking workers, it made sure to purchase a gas mask for him as standard equipment, so that he could keep the film rolling after tear gas filled the air. At the end of the decade, Carey McWilliams, whose book Factories in the Field exposed many of the violet tactics used to break strikes, would be targeted by the Associated Farmers as a member of the insect kingdom: “Of all the pests which the crops of California are infested with, Mr. McWilliams is Agricultural Pest Number One.
Nature’s bounty was thus seen as the product of scientific and technological control, and the groves had become battle zones. It should come as no surprise that the Food Machinery Corporation—which manufactured a long list of machines for the citrus industry, including water pumps, large capacity sprayers and dusters, packing equipment, automatic box makers, fruit graders, and canning machinery—also manufactured instruments of war. During World War II, this company made “Water Buffalos…Big tough, deadly…heavily armed and armored amphibious tanks.” “Water Buffalos,” the May 1944 advertisement in the California Citrograph claimed, “are rough on rats [and] the answer to Pacific warfare!”
The “Green Revolution” (Think money, not nature)
However these technologies were represented, they were part of the amalgamation of forces that led to the global change in agriculture known as the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was a kind of growing frenzy in which millions of barrels of oil—in the form of insecticides, fertilizers, and gasoline-powered farm machinery—were used to create tremendous quantities of food. This revolution was made possible by approaching nature as much from the environmental as the evolutionary front. The new hybrid varieties of grains and other crops that began to be grown around the world depended upon “capital-intensive soul management practices (fertilizers, agrichemicals, irrigation) to create controlled fertile environments for these carefully selected varieties.” Much of the knowledge and technologies that fueled the Green Revolution had been developed in and around California’s citrus industry before World War II. Fabricated in California and in the Midwest, the hybrid creature of agribusiness—composed of improved plants, state-sponsored scientific knowledge, federal farm policies, and agrochemical corporations and their products—was exported to the world. Agricultural yields soared.
But rather than emancipating the world’s peoples and improving nature, the Green Revolution disrupted rural cultures, increased dependency, and degraded environments. The oil-based, interventionist, and imperialistic nature of the Green Revolution, with its drive to conquer nature, is well-illustrated by the logo of “the World’s largest Manufacturers…of Insecticides and Fungicides,” Sherwin-Williams. A bucket of Sherwin-Williams’s product—something it claimed “every citrus grower needs”—is tipped over the earth’s north pole, and a dark sludge drips down the globe. The slogan is “COVER THE EARTH.”
At the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, a very curious figure stood in the California State Building: a medieval knight in armor, mounted on a horse, composed entirely of prunes. As the exposition’s brochure explained, this figure “metaphorically impressed the fact that the prunes of that state are being introduced victoriously into all lands, to the discomfiture of the products of other countries.” Lording it over other exhibits of California’s fertility—such as an “Old Liberty Bell…perfect in shape,” composed of 6,500 oranges—this knight of prunes was a member of a most regular army: one semiotic soldier in phalanx after phalanx of images that intertwined the myth of California with fruit, and molded that fruit and its state of origin into new material and symbolic forms for the nations’s consumption. California fruits became associated with market as well as martial conquest, and with national as well as personal growth and vigor.
Historian Henry Adams, more taken by the machines and “dynamos” on display elsewhere at the fair, wondered if he was witnessing the birth of a modern America whose heart would be “capitalistic, centralizing, mechanical.”
Advertising Pulp Fictions
Advertisers saw themselves as “apostles of modernity.” Instead of controlling nature, modern advertisers developed techniques for getting inside the skin of culture and refashioning it from the inside out. Advertising responded to the crisis in capitalism brought about by the advent of mass production. Though not a manufacturer in the strict sense, Sunkist faced the problem of having a productive capacity that outstripped consumer demand. But its advertising manager, expressing the conventional wisdom of corporations, redefined surplus. Oversupplies were no longer “the result of overproduction” but were “due to underconsumption.” To invent a mass consumption to match corporations’ capacity for mass production, advertisers needed to transform American culture from one that celebrated thrift, self-sufficiency, and restraint” to “a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the circulation of money and goods as the foundation of its aesthetic life and moral sensibility.”
The imaginative use of a range of media, from magazines and radio to billboards and window displays, allowed Sunkist to place oranges before prospective consumers in both the public and the private spheres. Sunkist would leave its mark in all sorts of places and make the simple act of eating an orange into a secular sacrament performed daily across the nation.
The neat trick of absenting the grower and other laborers (from the advertisements) not only heightened the consumer’s sense of communing with nature, it masked the working conditions from which the fruit emerged.
Workers in the Fields
Sunkist, working with other agricultural and industrial employers, influenced federal and state policy on immigration and helped constrict the racial ideologies that would encircle the new peoples as they arrived in California…Indians provided much of the initial labor; Chinese predominated from the 1870s through the 1890s; Japanese from the late 1890s through 1910; Mexicanos from 1910 through the 1930s, augmented by Filipinos in the 1920s and somewhat displaced by Dust Bowl migrants in the 1930s. The “fruit frontier” was opened where the white fruit grower, called to California by booster literature, met the racialized worker haled from hands further to the West or South. Without these workers, the transformation of citrus growing into an empire would not have been possible.
Racist Ideology is Cost-Effective!
One grower suggested that “the short-legged, short-backed Asiatic performs all of the stoop-over work, the squat work. His stands any temperature. He works in every sun and clime.” Such stories held that Chinese were “consigned to the farm work force by a mechanism of natural selection.” The basic elements of this narrative were used and adapted to explain why each wave of workers—Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicanos (and also Okies)—could be left to wallow in the mud while the growers preserved a clear conscience.
Growers tended to subscribe to a loose evolutionary theory about how nature had adapted peoples to their labor needs, and they conceived of these adaptations as racial essences. Sunkist president Charles Collins Teague explained that Mexicans “are naturally adapted to agricultural work, particularly in the handling of fruits and vegetables, for the Mexican climate is in many ways similar to that of California. Many of them have a natural skill in the handling of tools and are resourceful in matters requiring manual ability.” Emphasizing workers hands and their bodies’ adaptations to climatic conditions, these fables made worker skill a product of natural selection. Even when heaping praise on their workers, growers often viewed them as simple and innocent children—primitives, even.
Most growers subscribed to a racial nationalism that excluded nonwhites from the body politic…”California growers did not abandon the fantasy of a white man’s California, “ scholar Steven Stoll explains, “they simply redefined it to mean the dominance of white growers over a labor system that used poor people to harvest specialized crops.”
The relationship between growers and racialized workers was expressed in the landscape itself. “Throughout the citrus belt,” Carey McWilliams (who spent much time observing and writing about the Orange County citrus industry in the 1930s) observed, “The workers are Spanish-speaking, Catholic, and dark-skinned, the owners are white, Protestant, and English-speaking. The owners occupy the heights, the Mexicans the lowlands.”
The Ku Klux Klan, active in Southern California in the1920s, used intimidation and “white supremacy” parades to keep Mexicanos from moving out of the colonias. Residents could be attacked by vigilantes. Basic city services did not reach them. And, since colonias were often located in floodplains, they could be washed away in storms (as happened with La Jolla village in Orange County).
Blood Orange: Union and Strike-Breaking
Blood Orange: Union and Strike-Breaking
When citrus workers united behind a union in Orange County in 1936 and were faced with pick handles, shotguns, tear gas, and handcuffs; when they were held in stockade jail without bail; when they were denied jury trials, and when authorities told strikers they had to go to the groves or turn themselves in to the court, the citrus landscape began to look like a prison state in which workers had no control over their own bodies.
Then intensity with which the growers fought the strike infuriated workers, but the strike also disillusioned growers. To growers, who believed their own story that those who worked in citrus were answering an evolutionary call, the strike seemed like bucking the sun, an effort to go against the very laws of nature…The strike was a rude awakening, for growers had believed their workers were perfectly content with their lot.
What the empire’s ecology covered up was this: the poorly paid workers who harvested the crops and whose bodies were taxed deeply for this growth: the workers were rendered “other,” naturalized as outgrowths of the crops rather than members of a democracy; the fact that many growers had little or no contact with the soil; the fact that land was falling into fewer hands and being controlled by larger interests; the plunder of aquifers and the alienation from nature that accompanied the ever intensifying commodification of the land.
Upton Sinclair vs. Sunkist
In California, where the land still looked abundant but the people had become desperate, stories began to take shape implicating the growth machine in all of the suffering. Upton Sinclair, running for governor in 1934, pointed to the natural abundance and human misery and promised to “End Poverty in California” (EPIC). It was a powerful and politically charged vow, and the Orange Empire took notice. The president of Sunkist was instrumental in organizing the anti-Sinclair campaign, and Sunkist’s former advertising manager created much of the publicity. And in 1933 and 1934, just as Sinclair was making his political challenge, workers were rising up to challenge the power of the growth machine in the fields and on the waterfront. A Senate committee concluded that “the unprecedented series of agricultural strikes in 1933…riveted public attention upon the labor problem in California’s industrialized agriculture. To deal with these uprisings, the same individuals who had assembled the anti-Sinclair campaign resolved to strengthen the Associated Farmers. With money and leadership provided by Sunkist and other companies, the Associated Farmers had been designed to maintain the growth machine’s control, fighting agricultural unionization on the ground, in the courts, and in the press. One hand massaged public opinion while the other strong-armed labor.
Sinclair told a parable about economic depression being the result of the “profit system” and offered “production for use” as its cure.
EPIC went on the road with this message. There were EPIC rodeos, parades, and flea markets. Sinclair went on the radio, seeking to extend his presence, to multiply himself throughout the state and write himself into the stories his audiences were living. “I have to make this my own story,” he said, “and you have to decide whether you wish it to be yours.” Advertisers and Sinclair were both itinerant storytellers, spreading narratives in which crisis was dramatized, its causes identified, and its solution shown to be near at hand. The people simply had to reach for it, by buying or by voting. But EPIC was not equivalent to an advertising campaign, for Sinclair’s vision struck at the heart of the individualistic consumerist and profit-oriented world advertisers cultivated with every story they told. He envisioned creating a cornucopia from which fruits would flow freely.
Sunkist vs. Upton Sinclair
To face down the Sinclair threat, the growth machine put its own story-telling operations into high gear. In a lot of the stories it spread, the kettle was calling black. William Randolph Hearst, one of the leading forces in the anti-EPIC campaign, characterized the Democratic candidate a an “unbalanced reformer whose remedies, like his writings, are pure fiction.” His words were loaded with unintentional irony. Hearst’s own brand of journalism was anything but objective. Recalling his days as a cub reporter for a Hearst paper, John Steinbeck said, “I learned that external reality had no jurisdiction in the Hearst press and that what happened must in no way interfere with what WR wanted to happen.” Hearst, after all, is the one who is said to have told his reporter in Spanish Cuba in 1898, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”
One observer has argued that the EPIC campaign marked the “birth of media politics,” noting that the powerful force of advertising was mobilized as never before in the political realm.
Sunkist’s C.C. Teague had assembled the motive forces of the growth machine: publishers, entertainment moguls, industrial and agribusiness leaders…it designed and assembled the narratives within which it would frame Sinclair. It used Sinclair’s words, usually out of context, to frame him in past and future crimes against the state.
Sinclair lost the all-important battle of narratives.
Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange and the Artists in Revolt
The anti-Sinclair campaign had created a frame through which the migrants were seen as an invading horde. Hoping to open another door of perception, others represented the migrants in the iconic form of pioneers lighting out for the territory. Paul Taylor, a labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley, and photographer Dorothea Lange were among those casting a narrative lifeline to the migrants, pulling them from the waters of (the anti-Sinclair campaign’s) demonology. Working for the California Division of Rural Rehabilitation in the Spring of 1935, Taylor and Lange drove past the border inspection station at Fort Yuma to witness migrants streaming across the bridge over the Colorado River. Large trucks and tourists’ cars zoomed into the state but at intervals “appear slow-moving and conspicuous cars loaded with refugees.”
Out of the rubble of EPIC’s defeat and the actions of the Associated Farmers rose a committed group of artists and intellectuals I call the agrarian partisans. The core of this group consisted of Dorothea Lange a photographer with a remarkable ability to capture on film both human suffering and human worth and to connect each to the condition of the land; her husband, Paul S. Taylor, who believed passionately in the ideal of the family farm; Carey McWilliams, a young lawyer who was passionate about creating a society in California that would extend equal protection and equal opportunities to all of its people, regardless of race; and John Steinbeck, who wrote about people as if they were organisms in an ecosystem but still made his readers care deeply about the people he portrayed and the larger predicament their condition dramatized: the relationship between modern Americans and the natural world after the closing of the frontier and the ascent of corporate capitalism.
With her photographs, Lange attempted to wrest control of the public sphere away from the growth machine by exposing the gap between the American promise and the vagrant experience.
When the San Francisco News ran John Steinbeck’s series of articles on farm labor in California in 1936, one of (Dorothea Lange’s) Migrant Mother shots was used lend urgency and authenticity to the novelist’s words. Steinbeck began his expose by pointing out the central moral paradox of “the present system of agricultural economics…The migrants are needed, and they are hated.” Constructed as racial others—“ostracized and segregated and herded about”—they are “never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their service.” If they “committed the one crime that will not be permitted by the large growers…[attempting] to organize for their own protection,” they could be deported or jailed.
The Grapes of Wrath
In 1939, California’s cornucopia yielded 462,000 tons of prunes, 2 million tons of grapes, 10 million bushels of pears, and 75 million boxes of oranges. The oranges brought in over $100 million, and the $383 million paid for all of California’s crops made it the richest agricultural state in the union. But half a million American consumers also bought a book that cast a pall over these fruits and their place of origin. For Americans who had been fed a steady diet of romantic images of the Golden State, The Grapes of Wrath was a gut-wrenching, myth-breaking novel. It pulverized those images, revealing a hemorrhaging landscape. The American dream was gushing out of the land of promise, Steinbeck insisted, and justice was drying up under the sun.
The Grapes of Wrath dramatizes the growth machine’s conversion of place into profit. Through the Joads, the human toll of economic growth was registered, and the tractors become both instrument and symbol of this process. They cut through the land, they wreck homes, they split individuals from their community, they expel people, they metabolize all they can and then move on—and then “the monster” sells the denuded debris to Easterners, reincarnated through advertising as a rural idyll. Steinbeck denaturizes these changes, refusing to accept them as the inevitable fruits of progress or evolution. His farmers insist it is “not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”
At the end of one chapter, Steinbeck presents his most damning charge (of growers destroying surplus oranges to ‘stabilize’ the market):
“Men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges…A million people hungry, needing the fruit—and kerosene is sprayed over the golden mountains…There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation…The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra because a profit cannot be taken from an orange…The people…come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch…the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”