Michael Green­berg

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In the Val­ley of Fear

Cal­i­for­nia’s San Joaquin Val­ley, from Stock­ton in the north to Arvin in the south, is 234 miles long and 130 miles wide. If you drive there from the Bay Area, in less than an hour the tem­per­a­ture will go from 57 to 97 de­grees. It will keep ris­ing. The ra­dio sta­tions are pre­dom­i­nantly Span­ish: ranchera mu­sic, boleros, cor­ri­dos, bal­lads of spurned love, and the dis­tinc­tive norteño sound—per­cus­sive, driv­ing, no brass. On the English-lan­guage sta­tion an in­dig­nant voice ad­vises lis­ten­ers to be men­tally vig­i­lant against “sit­coms, news re­ports,” the en­tire panoply of “main­stream me­dia be­cause it’s all the same skank, it’s all from one cesspool, their snak­ish agenda for a one-world order.” The coun­try mu­sic summer hit is called “Take a Drunk Girl Home.” The Val­ley is flat, un­der a con­stant cloud of dust, smog, pes­ti­cides, and smoke. The smog is from Bay Area traf­fic car­ried in by the wind, the pes­ti­cides from the mil­lions of pounds of chem­i­cals poured onto the land ev­ery year, the smoke from the wild­fires that burn to the north and get trapped in the Val­ley, pushed to the ground by the heat. The cloud is kept there by the Sierra Ne­vada to the east, the Coast Ranges to the west, and the Te­hachapi Moun­tains to the south, which the Fresno-based writer Mark Arax calls “our Ma­sonDixon Line,” be­cause it marks the Val­ley’s phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion from the cos­mopoli­tan cul­ture of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Los An­ge­les.

The city of Bak­ers­field and the area around it, on the south­ern edge of the Val­ley, has the worst air qual­ity in the United States.

Mea­sured by yearly production, the San Joaquin Val­ley is one of the high­est-value stretches of farm­land in the coun­try, and is dom­i­nated by large grow­ers who pre­side over a la­bor force of mi­grant work­ers in a way that has not changed much since Carey McWilliams de­scribed it in his 1939 book, Fac­to­ries in the Fields. Arax likens it to a Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try. “It’s the poor­est part of Cal­i­for­nia,” he told me. “There’s al­most no mid­dle class. To find its equiv­a­lent in the United States you’d have to go to Ap­palachia or the bor­der­lands of Texas.”

Raisins, ta­ble grapes, pis­ta­chios, al­monds, toma­toes, stone fruits, gar­lic, and cab­bage are some of the crops of the Val­ley. The clemen­tines that we buy in net­ted bags at the su­per­mar­ket are grown here, as are the pomegranates that make the juice we are told pro­tects us from cancer. The rev­enue from all the crops har­vested here and else­where in Cal­i­for­nia is $47 bil­lion a year, more than dou­ble that of Iowa, the next-biggest agri­cul­tural state. Most of this rev­enue ben­e­fits a few hun­dred fam­i­lies, some with as many as 20,000 or even 40,000 acres of land. Plan­ta­tions on the west side of the Val­ley are so huge that man­agers keep track of work­ers by fly­ing over the fields in planes. Com­put­ers mon­i­tor the re­lease of wa­ter, which is de­liv­ered to the plants with an in­tri­cate sys­tem of pipes and valves. “It’s pris­ons and plan­ta­tions, noth­ing else,” Paul Chavez, the son of Ce­sar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Work­ers union (UFW), told me. “You can’t even get an ed­u­ca­tion in these places. Ac­cord­ing to the state of Cal­i­for­nia’s own sur­vey, in farm­worker towns barely 30 per­cent of school teachers are ac­cred­ited.”

When Ce­sar Chavez started or­ga­niz­ing farm­work­ers in the 1950s, his son said, 12 to 14 per­cent of field hands “were still Okies and Arkies, the Stein­beck people,” and 8 to 10 per­cent were African-Amer­i­cans brought in by cot­ton planters dur­ing the boll wee­vil in­fes­ta­tion in the 1920s. About 12 per­cent were Filipino, and 55 per­cent were Mex­i­can, “half of them Mex­i­can na­tion­als, the other half first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans like my father.”

To­day, at least 80 per­cent of farm­work­ers are un­doc­u­mented Mex­i­cans, the ma­jor­ity of them Mix­teco and Trique, in­dige­nous people from the states of Oax­aca, Si­naloa, and Guer­rero—the poor­est re­gions in Mex­ico— who speak no or very lit­tle Span­ish, much less English. Most of them have been work­ing the fields for at least a decade, have es­tab­lished fam­i­lies here, and live in ter­ror of la mi­gra, as Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforcement (ICE) is called, and in­stant de­por­ta­tion or im­pris­on­ment that would wrench them from their chil­dren.

In late June, I vis­ited a tomato field in Fresno County near the town of Men­dota. The fields are owned by Gargiulo, one of the biggest tomato grow­ers in the coun­try. Dozens of beat-up cars were parked at the edge of the var­i­ous sec­tions that were ready for har­vest. Clus­ters of Mix­teco work­ers re­lied on the one flu­ent Span­ish speaker among them to com­mu­ni­cate with the crew foreman and the union rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the UFW who had smug­gled me onto the prop­erty. Dur­ing peak sea­son these fields em­ploy four hun­dred pick­ers; about 250 were work­ing that day, al­most half of them women, some of them vis­i­bly preg­nant.

Be­cause of the heat, the work­day lasted from 5 to 10 AM, when tem­per­a­tures rose to 113 de­grees. The sun beat down, but ev­ery­one was cov­ered from head to foot in sev­eral lay­ers of clothes: cracked base­ball caps an­chored in place by hood­ies and home­made scarves, sweat­shirts over sweat­shirts, two pairs of pants, heavy socks and boots; only eyes and cheeks and fin­gers were ex­posed. This was to pro­tect against pes­ti­cides. Cancer rates among pick­ers through­out the Val­ley are high. The soil is so hard­ened by chem­i­cals that it comes up in the hand in dry, pale stone-like clumps. In the heat the chem­i­cals rise po­tently from the earth; within an hour I tasted them burn­ing in my mouth.

Tomato picking is “stoop la­bor,” the most weary­ing and painful kind. But the Oax­a­cans went at it with dizzy­ing speed. The pay was 73 cents for ev­ery five-gal­lon bucket they could fill, which work­ers pre­fer to the al­ter­na­tive of $11 per hour, Cal­i­for­nia’s min­i­mum wage.1 Younger work­ers filled two buck­ets at a time, yank­ing su­per­sized green toma­toes from their plants, flick­ing off the stems, drop­ping them into the bucket, then racing to de­liver them to the pack­ing trailer hitched to a trac­tor fifty or sixty yards away at the end of the sec­tion. They then ran back to the har­vest row, call­ing and shout­ing to one an­other like sol­diers to keep up their spir­its and pace. In five hours, a skilled picker could earn be­tween $75 and $85. The tomato sea­son lasts four months, from June to Oc­to­ber, af­ter which the work­ers move to the east side of the Val­ley to pick cit­rus or prune grapevines and fruit trees. With luck, a dili­gent field hand can find work eight or nine months a year, earn­ing $20,000 to $23,000, be­fore taxes. In 2010, un­doc­u­mented work­ers paid about $12 bil­lion in So­cial Se­cu­rity taxes, money that ac­crued to the re­tire­ment ben­e­fits of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens—ben­e­fits those work­ers will likely never re­ceive. In re­sponse to the ar­gu­ment that im­mi­grants steal jobs from Amer­i­cans by un­der­cut­ting their wages, the UFW set up a web­site of­fer­ing cit­i­zens and le­gal res­i­dents agri­cul­tural jobs any­where in the coun­try through state em­ploy­ment ser­vices. This was in 2010, dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion. The web­site re­ceived about four mil­lion hits, out of which around 12,000 people filled out em­ploy­ment forms. Of these, a to­tal of twelve cit­i­zens or le­gal res­i­dents ac­tu­ally showed up for work. Not one of them lasted longer than a day. Ac­cord­ing to a Los An­ge­les Times re­port, Sil­ver­ado, a farm la­bor con­trac­tor in Napa, “has never had a white, Amer­i­can­born per­son take an en­try-level gig, even af­ter the com­pany in­creased hourly wages to $4 above the min­i­mum.” A wine grower in Stock­ton couldn’t lure un­em­ployed cit­i­zens for $20 an hour. Fruit and veg­etable picking is a one-gen­er­a­tion job—farm­work­ers I spoke to nei­ther wanted nor would al­low their chil­dren to fol­low them into the fields. The heat and phys­i­cal toll, com­bined with the feu­dal power of the grow­ers, make it prefer­able to work in an air-con­di­tioned ho­tel or pack­ing house, where you can stand up­right and be free of pes­ti­cides for the same low wages.

This means that a con­stant sup­ply of im­pov­er­ished Mex­i­can im­mi­grants will­ing to do the work is re­quired. But those im­mi­grants aren’t com­ing. Since 2005 more Mex­i­cans have been leav­ing the US than ar­riv­ing. And this isn’t only be­cause of a crack­down at the bor­der. In 2000, when the bor­der was far more por­ous than it is now, 1.6 mil­lion Mex­i­cans were ap­pre­hended try­ing to cross into the US. In 2016 the num­ber was 192,969.2 Ed Tay­lor, an econ­o­mist at UC Davis, es­ti­mates that the num­ber of po­ten­tial im­mi­grants from ru­ral Mex­ico shrinks ev­ery year by 150,000. This can be partly ex­plained by im­proved eco­nomic con­di­tions in north­ern and cen­tral Mex­ico, which have dimmed the al­lure of min­i­mum-wage la­bor in the US, and partly by the cost and dan­ger of ven­tur­ing across the bor­der. If you do make it into the US, pay­ments to a smug­gler can keep a min­i­mumwage la­borer in debt for life.

We have wit­nessed fam­i­lies be­ing sep­a­rated at the bor­der—im­ages of pri­mal ou­trage. But the cru­el­ties vis­ited upon un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants on the low­est rungs of the la­bor force who al­ready live in the US have re­ceived far less at­ten­tion. Thou­sands ex­ist in a cor­don of ter­ror, and this is true in Cal­i­for­nia de­spite its sanc­tu­ary laws. Some Cal­i­for­ni­ans ar­gue that sanc­tu­ary laws have ac­tu­ally made mat­ters worse, by turn­ing ICE into a rov­ing para­mil­i­tary

Tomato har­vest, Fire­baugh, Cal­i­for­nia, 2014

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