Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Factories in the Field: a History of Migratory Farm Labor in California

In the mid-1930s, at the height of the great depression, a novel written by a young John Steinbeck shattered the carefully-constructed myth of California as a “land of sunshine and abundance.”  Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath told a gut-wrenching story of migratory farm labor exploited by wealthy land owners.

Around that time, another book came out that is less well-known today, but perhaps equally illuminating.  That book is Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California, written by a young lawyer/journalist named Carey McWilliams.  First published in 1935, McWilliams’ book is a carefully researched work of social history.  Factories in the Field may be read as the research that backs up Steinbeck’s fiction. 

I read Factories in the Field this summer, and was blown away by this largely unknown history.  It’s a story of greed, corruption, exploitation, violence, and human struggle.  It’s a story that is ongoing, that still affects what we eat and how that food is produced.  I have decided to write a series of articles, chronicling the major parts of McWilliams’ important book.  If we understand our shared past, maybe we might better understand our present.



Part I: Land Monopolization

By the time California became a state of the Union, much of its land was already spoken for.  By 1870, the powerful railroads held nearly 20,000,000 acres of land.  By 1871, 516 men in California owned 8,685,439 acres of land. 

“Our system,” said governor Haight, “seems to be mainly framed to facilitate the acquisition of large blocks of land by capitalists or corporations either as donations or at nominal prices.”

According to McWilliams, “The ownership patterns established by force and fraud in the decade from 1860 to 1870 have become fixed; the social structure of the state is, in large part, based upon these patterns.  California more than once has been referred to as a colonial empire, and, by and large, the description is accurate.”

After the Gold Rush of the 1850s, landowners in California began to realize the financial potential of agriculture.   Contrary to American mythology,  the bulk of California farmland did not go to small farmers.  Rather, it went to railroad companies, land barons, and corporations, who held enormous influence over elected officials.  If you have been watching the show “Hell on Wheels” you have some idea of the power of the railroads in 19th century America.

According to Walter V. Woehlke, a writer for Sunset Magazine in the 1920s, “Wheat and cattle barons controlled the bulk of the fertile land in large tracts, having acquired their principalities through purchase of the old Spanish grants or though evasion of the laws protecting the public domain.”  The result of this situation was “a class of landless tenants and drifting homeless farm laborers.”

In his 1872 travel book, Afoot and Alone, Stephen Powers describes "the notable phonemona of California...the multitude of its tramps, the so-called blanket men.  I seldom met less than a dozen or fifteen a day.”

It is to these blanket men and bindle stiffs, to the exploited Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican laborers of California’s past and present, that I dedicate this series.


Henry Miller's Hoboes

When Americans think of "Captains of Industry" we normally think of men like Rockefeller (the oil baron), Carnegie (the steel baron), and Vanderbilt (the railroad baron).  We do not normally think of agriculture.  But, according to Carey McWilliams, California's Captains of Industry definitely included agriculturalists or "farm industrialists."  McWilliams titled his book Factories in the Field to emphasize this point.

One of California's first and most ruthlessly successful farm industrialists was a man named Henry Miller (not the author).  A German immigrant, Miller began his career as a butcher and cattle trader in  San Francisco.  He began acquiring more land through shady deals involving buying out heirs to Spanish land grants, purchasing land "scrip" from U.S. surveyors, bribing local officials, lobbying the state legislature, and making friends with the powerful railroad companies.

By the turn of the century, Miller owned well over a million acres of land and over a million head of cattle.  According to McWilliams, "Miller liked to boast that he could ride on horseback from Canada to Mexico and sleep every night in one of his own ranches." 

As a result of his land grabs and power, Miller was able to push many small farmers and original settlers off the land.  Many of these displaced farmers and settlers became "tramps" and hoboes."  Miller discovered that these hoboes and tramps could be hired for very low wages, as long as they didn't settle and kept moving along his farm empire.  What developed was a route called the "Dirty Plate Route" (hoboes carried their own plates with them).  McWilliams calls this "the beginning of migratory farm labor in California."

Sometimes Miller would pay local constables and sheriffs to round up tramps and hoboes from freight yards, arrest them on vagrancy charges, which they could pay off by working for free on a Miller ranch.  Conditions on the ranches were often "lousy and foul."

H.A. Van Coenen Torchiana, who was once a foreman on one of the Miller ranches wrote, "The whole system was vicious, and bred industrial oppression on a large scale."

Despite the fact that he was largely responsible for this system of industrial oppression, Miller went to great lengths to create a public image of himself as benevolent: "In the mornings, in Bakersfield, the tramps, who had jumped off the train, would line up in front of the bank when they saw Henry Miller enter.  When he emerged from the bank, it would generally be with a large bag of coins--two bit pieces.  As Miller shuffled out of the bank, he would hand each man two bits, while he, hat in hand, would murmur, 'Thank you, Mr. Miller' or 'God bless you, sir.'"


Bonanza Farms and Indian Labor

Up until 1860, much of California agriculture was centered around huge cattle farms, perhaps best represented by those of Henry Miller.  After 1860, a new crop began to dominate...wheat.  1860-1890 saw the rise of massive wheat farms in California.  By 1890, 40,000,000 bushels of wheat were produced in the state, making California the second largest wheat producer in the United States.

Wheat farming was, for a time, profitable for large scale growers like Hugh J. Glenn, but it also exhausted the soil.  According to Carey McWilliams, "Within a decade the land barons of the state had seriously undermined the agricultural resources of California.  The same feverish frenzy that had characterized mining in California also characterized wheat farming, which was not strictly speaking farming at all, but a variety of mining."

During the heyday of the great wheat farms, the main source of cheap labor was Indians, who had also supplied the bulk of the labor force during the Spanish colonial period.  It's no secret that when Americans took control of California, the Indians were ruthlessly exploited and uprooted.

Charles Loring Brace, a writer who visited California in 1867, expressed the popular U.S. attitude toward Native American laborers during that time period.  He describes them as "perhaps the lowest tribe of the human race--they were all disgustingly dirty, and with but little clothing on them, living, in part, on pine seeds, acorns, and grass seeds; a diminishing race."

It is, of course, ironic that writers like Brace blamed Native Americans for their own "diminishing" and not the Anglo Americans who systematically exploited and killed them.

In her 1884 novel Ramona, writer Helen Hunt Jackson portrays treatment of Native Americans in late 19th century California.  A character in the novel, Allesandro, explains how Anglo Americans treated Native Americans: "When they buy the Mexican's lands, (they) drive the Indians away as if they were dogs; they say we have no right to our lands."

Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who visited Southern California in 1876 noted that most of the labor force was Cahuilla Indians from the San Bernadino mountains.  According to McWilliams, these Indians were paid "ridiculously low wages, or no wages at all (a bottle of whiskey was one method of payment)."


Chinese Labor

Between the decades of 1870 and 1890, fruit gradually replaced wheat as the main crop of California.  Reasons for this included changes in market conditions, droughts, and high freight rates.  While wheat could be harvested mechanically and required less labor, fruit often had to be hand-harvested and required a large labor force.

Enter the Chinese laborer.

The completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869, which had relied heavily on Chinese labor, created a lot of job-seeking Chinese immigrants.  These "coolies" were a Godsend for large fruit growers in California, as Chinese laborers would work for very low wages.

According to the California Bureau of Labor, Chinese workers constituted around 80 percent of the agricultural laborers in the state in 1886.  Low-paid Chinese labor was a major factor in the early economic success of the California fruit industry.

Large fruit growers faced a problem, however...large-scale and vicious racism against Chinese people in late 19th century America.  As early as 1854, a California Supreme Court decision had included Chinese in "a statute which prohibited the testimony of Negroes, mulattos, and Indians, in cases to which white men were parties."  According to Carey McWilliams, "Newspapers had stated as early as 1850 that the Chinese were being murdered with impunity."

Anti-Chinese clubs sprang up around California starting in the 1860s.  Cities like San Francisco passed discriminatory ordinances making it illegal to carry baskets on the sidewalks or for men to grow their hair a certain length.  Chinese people were routinely harassed and expelled from their homes and places of work.

This anti-Chinese sentiment became federal law in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which sought to curtail Chinese immigration to America.

The Geary Act of 1892 continued the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act and also provided for massive deportation of Chinese from the US.  The language of the Geary Act is eerily familiar.  It "forced the burden of proving legal residence upon the Chinese, and required that all Chinese laborers register under the act within one year of its passage."


When these legal measures failed to expel Chinese people as swiftly as people wanted, Californians resorted to vigilante "justice", as shown by the following examples, as excerpted from Carey McWilliams' book Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California:

"On August 15 (1893), riots broke out near Fresno: Chinese were driven from the fields and were 'compelled to make lively runs for Chinatown.'  Chinese labor camps were raided and fired."

"In Napa Valley, on August 17, a white laborers' union was formed, and a mass meeting protested the further employment of the Chinese in the prune orchards."

"In Southern California, at Compton, the Chinese were barricaded in packing sheds where they were forced to sleep for safety, while 'hoodlums' raided the fields and drove out the Chinese."

"On September 3 anti-Chinese raiders swooped down on Redlands' Chinatown, broke into houses, set afire to several buildings, looted the tills of Chinese merchants, and generally terrorized the Chinese."

"At Tulare, Visalia, and Fresno, hundreds of white men were busy 'routing out the Chinese, terrifying them with blows and pistol shots, and driving then to the railroad station and loading them on the train."

During the years when this anti-Chinese activity was most acute (1893-1894), the United States was in the throes of a major economic depression.  During this economic turmoil, Americans sought a scapegoat for their troubles, and found that scapegoat in Chinese workers.




Japanese Exclusion

"From 1882, when the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, until about 1930, the history of farm labor in California has revolved around the cleverly manipulated exploitation, by the large growers, of a number of suppressed racial minority groups which were imported to work in the fields."

--Carey McWilliams, Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California 

After the exclusion of Chinese laborers from California following the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and widespread armed vigilantism, large growers were faced with a dilemma.  They could have reconsidered their labor policies and created a more just and fair system.  Instead, they began importing another exploitable minority labor force...the Japanese.

Between 1890 and 1910, the number of Japanese people in California rose from 2,039 to 72,156, many of whom worked as agriculture laborers.  In 1901, the Industrial Commission on Immigration reported, "In the state of California alone there is today a great army of Japanese coolies, numbering upwards of 20,000.  They do not colonize as do the Chinese; they are scattered throughout the state, doing work in the orchards, vineyards, gardens, and hop and sugar beet fields."  By 1909, there were 30,000 Japanese field workers in California.

Apparently, the large growers were as pleased with the Japanese as they were with the Chinese, as a low-paid labor force.  J.L. Nagle of the California Fruit Growers Exchange stated, rather bluntly, "The Japs and Chinks just drift--we don't have to look out for them."  The growers liked a labor force that worked cheap when fruit needed harvesting, and then moved on.

The Japanese brought about innovation in California agriculture.  It was they who introduced rice cultivation to the state, a crop which by 1935 brought in around $20,000,000 per year.  Some Japanese were able to purchase farms and become growers themselves.  George Shima became famous for a time as the "Potato King."

When Japanese agricultural laborers began to organize and demand higher wages, they were met with racial prejudice and exclusion.  In 1920, the Los Angeles Times stated, "Japanese labor is not cheap labor.  The little brown traders know how to get as much for their product as the traffic will bear."

When Japanese immigrants began to purchase and cultivate their own farms, they faced systematic legal discrimination and exclusion.  In 1909, John D. Mackenzie, Commissioner of Labor Statistics, stated, "The moment this ambition [land ownership] is exercised, that moment the Japanese ceases to be an ideal laborer."

Feuled by widespread anti-Japanese media and hysteria, the California government passed the Alien Land Law of 1913, which prevented Japanese people from owning property.  A similar Alien Land Law was passed again in 1920.  The Immigration Act of 1924 (aka The Asian Exclusion Act) excluded the Japanese from entering the United States.


Writing in 1939, Carey McWilliams stated, "The Japanese are today no longer an important element as farm laborers."  With another labor pool excluded, the large growers looked elsewhere.  McWilliams continues, "After 1920, the large growers, who of course employ the bulk of farm labor in California, began to use Filipino and Mexican labor, as it was unorganized and cheaper."

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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