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