Thursday, September 20, 2012

A History of Farm Labor in California (Part 6)


Mexican Labor

The following is from a series I am writing on the history of farm labor in California based on the book Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California, by Carey McWilliams

Around WWI, as Chinese, Japanese, and other “undesirable” immigrant groups were being 
expelled from California, and many men from California were fighting overseas, large growers looked to Mexican workers “to relieve the labor situation.”  Mexican immigrants would remain the dominant low paid labor force for the remainder of the twentieth century, and they remain so today.

By 1920, at least 50 percent of the migratory labor in California was Mexican.  In 1926, growers sent lobbyist S. Parker Frisselle to congress “to get us Mexicans and keep them out of our schools and our of our social programs.”  Between 1920 and 1930, at least 150,000 Mexicans worked in the fields of California.

Mexican laborers, like the Chinese and Japanese before them, were ideal for growers because they were low-paid and easily deportable, should workers organize for higher wages or better conditions.  Carey McWilliams explains, “The general attitude of the growers towards the Mexicans is summarized in a remark made by a ranch foreman to a Mexican: ‘When we want you, we’ll call you; when we don’t—git.’”

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, white Americans began to clamor for the agricultural jobs worked largely by Mexicans.  Just as Chinese laborers were deported enmasse following the Great Depression of 1893, Mexican laborers were deported en masse during the Depression of the 1930s.  McWilliams writes, “Beginning in February, 1931, thousands of Mexicans, many of whom were citizens of the United States, were herded together by the United States and shipped back to Mexico.” 

This phenomenon was not limited to California.  Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were illegally deported at this time.  This historical reality is described in heartbreaking detail in the book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s by scholars Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez. 

Mexican laborers in Southern California often lived in work camps, or “villages” which were segregated from the dominant Anglo community.  The definitive scholarly work on this subject is Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Workers Villages in a Southern California County 1900-1950 by Gilbert Gonzalez.  This book describes the Mexican citrus villages of Orange County, which are the roots of current unofficial white/latino segregation in cities like Fullerton and Anaheim. 

McWilliams states, “Although the charge is vociferously denied, Mexican and Negro are segregated in the rural schools.  Arthur Gleason interviewed the principal of one rural school in 1924.  ‘Mexican children,’ she said, ‘will not be admitted to this school.  The reason is public sentiment.  The trustees will never put those children in here.  This school is a white school.’”

It is a significant, though not widely taught, fact that the first public school de-segregation case in the United States was not Brown vs. Board of Education, but Mendez vs. Westminster, which declared racial segregation in Orange County schools to be unconstitutional.  Up until 1946, however, it was considered okay.

Stay tuned for more on Mexican farm labor in California!



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