Yesterday’s seeds, today’s harvest

Los Angeles Times
June 27, 2004 Sunday
Home Edition

Yesterday’s seeds, today’s harvest;

Beasts of the Field A Narrative History of California Farmworkers,
1769-1913 Richard Steven Street Stanford University Press: 904 pp.,
$75; $29.95 paper * Photographing Farmworkers in California Richard
Steven Street Stanford University Press: 330 pp., $39.95

by Mark Arax, Mark Arax, a Times staff writer, is the author of “In
My Father’s Name” and co-author of “The King of California: J.G.
Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire,” written with
Times business editor Rick Wartzman.

My grandfather, Aram, took the long road to California in the spring
of 1920. His migration covered 7,000 miles by ship and train. There
was no turning back.

Everything along the way seemed so farfetched to him — the Statue of
Liberty, the nation’s capital, the budding factories of Detroit. It
wasn’t until the tracks reached Fresno that America came true.
Outside his window, at the foot of the Sierra, the San Joaquin Valley
shimmered. Vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields, row after
perfect row. As his train chugged into town, my grandfather kept
muttering the same words in Armenian. “Just like the old land.”

The old land was a lazy village beneath the Mountain of Mist in
Bursa, Turkey. Every month the Anatolian sun ripened another fruit,
but it was the silk from the mulberry that gave the village its
wealth. “We had a very easy life,” he told me. “Our village was too
prosperous to do its own work. The poor Turkish workers did it all.
We used to have a name for them — ‘almost like slaves.’ ”

My grandfather survived the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Turks
by hiding in an attic with Maupassant and Baudelaire. He came down
after a year with plans to attend the Sorbonne University and write
for a living. Then the letters from his Uncle Yervant in Fresno —
“watermelons as big as small boats” — arrived. My grandfather was 19
when he took the bait.

He might have been forgiven for assuming the best when his uncle
drove up to the depot that day in a shiny Model T Ford. It wasn’t a
week later that they headed three hours south on a country road and
landed in Weedpatch. There, long before the Okies and Steinbeck
arrived, my grandfather dropped to his hands and knees and began
picking potatoes. Up and down the valley he trailed the harvest.
Watermelons, peaches, grapes, oranges and olives. This new land
wasn’t like the old land. My grandfather had become one of the beasts
of the field.

He was far luckier, it turned out, than the legions of migrant
farmhands who came before him, men whose American rebirths and brutal
journeys are vividly captured by Richard Steven Street in “Beasts of
the Field,” a stunning narrative history of California farmworkers
from 1769 to 1913. It took my grandfather four seasons working
alongside his widowed mother, sister and brother to go from fruit
tramp to farmer. He would watch his brother, Harry, become a cop
killer in 1934 and his son, Ara, become a murder victim in 1972 after
both strayed from the farm.

My grandfather taught me, the oldest child of that murdered son, that
our drama was part of a larger drama that played out in California
agriculture long before his arrival. Because I spent years gathering
his story, I thought I understood why the dreams of so many
immigrants are swallowed up by the fields. Because I live in the San
Joaquin Valley, the most productive farm belt in the world, a place
built on the backs of fieldworkers, I thought I understood their
lives. For the last six years, I’ve collected and written the
narratives of the black sharecroppers, Mexicans and Okies who came
here to pick the cotton for such giants as J.G. Boswell.

But “Beasts of the Field” is a history book that reaches into the
present and changes the way we see things. I now understand why the
lives of farmworkers so often end in the same broken place. Because
it has always been this way — as far back as the native Chumash and
Gabrielinos who plowed the first fields in the shadow of the missions
and the Chinese who erected the levees to drain the waters of the
great Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the white Europeans who
threshed the wheat as the giant metal harvester, the farm’s first
breathing machine, snorted and clawed at the earth.

For the first time, thanks to Street’s 25-year labor of love, the
whole extraordinary tapestry of that early era is before us. A
photographer, journalist and scholar, Street hails from no academy
and works for no publication. Logging thousands of miles from field
to library to newspaper morgue, he has produced a work of monumental
scholarship. One might ask if the subject hadn’t been thoroughly
mined. Countless academics and journalists, after all, have
documented in articles and books the peculiar institution that is
California agriculture. But although readers may believe that Carey
McWilliams’ seminal 1939 work, “Factories in the Field,” offered the
definitive word on the feudal empires of the soil, Street provides a
far more exhaustive, layered and satisfying portrait. Simply put,
Street’s remarkable book belongs on the short shelf of such
indispensable works of American history as Oscar Handlin’s “The
Uprooted” and Bernard Bailyn’s “Voyagers to the West.”

He steers clear of the polemics and dry scholarly treatments that
have undermined less ambitious books on the subject. Instead of
shouting his moral indignation at the lot of farmworkers, Street
builds his case pound for pound with an assiduous weighing of the
facts. He does so with language that may not be lyrical but serves
his chronological narrative well, giving a voice to those who have
always appeared to us hidden under hats, muffled in bandanas, backs
to the sun, hands in the earth.

Notably, Street, who is the Ansel Adams fellow at the Center for
Creative Photography and a onetime Guggenheim fellow, has
accomplished this while putting together a companion volume,
“Photographing Farmworkers in California,” that stands out as a
comprehensive visual record of farm labor from 1850 to the early
1990s. In the more than 270 images, we see workers picking, striking,
fighting, dancing, resting, praying and dying in photographs shot
through the lens of the famous (Dorothea Lange) and the obscure
(Ernest Lowe). His third volume, set for publication in fall 2005,
will complete the massive history, focusing on the period 1913 to
2000 and the farmworkers’ struggle to unionize.

“Beasts of the Field” follows the migrant field hands dawn to dark
through the early evolutions of a California agriculture destined for
industrial greatness. First, the missions sought a blend of salvation
and self-sufficiency. Then the bonanza wheat farms chased the numbing
notion that bigger is better. Finally, the vineyard and orchard
growers recognized that the Golden State offered a one-of-a-kind
union of soil and climate. Why waste it on mere wheat?

Street gives the reader the look, smell and taste not only of those
fields but also of the Chinatown opium dens and the skid rows
crackling with liquor, prostitution and murder where the workers’
long day ended. Nowhere in the 625 pages of text (and more than 200
pages of notes) does he shy away from his singular focus, and why
should he? The story of agriculture is the story of California from
Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who brought the first field
hands north, to Japanese immigrant Kinji Ushijima, the Potato King
who harvested 28,000 acres of spuds in the early 1900s on reclaimed
delta land. Every epic migration that transformed the state was a
migration rooted in the fields.

“Adrift in a landscape of ordered beauty,” he writes, “the
[farmworkers] illustrate the human costs required to produce a
geography of abundance, telling us not only about irony, suffering,
misery, acrimony, disorientation, resentment, cynicism and violence
but also about hope, tenacity, sacrifice and generosity.”

Who, precisely, were the first campesinos in California? That they
were brown-skinned peoples native to the land down south should come
as no surprise. By early 1769, Spain had kicked the Jesuits out of
Baja California and installed the Franciscans as missionaries who
would claim the Pacific Coast. The Franciscans dragged a group of
Cochimi Indians north for the “Sacred Expedition.” By summer’s end,
more than half the Cochimi — 180 in all — had died of disease and

Street deals head-on with a question that has long divided scholars
of the mission period. Were the padres taskmasters or slave drivers?
Were the Indians ennobled or exploited? What was so bad about
Catholicism, hard work and an adobe roof over the head, even if they
came with the dreaded disciplina, the rawhide whip?

The padres weren’t monsters, Street agrees. They fed the newly
baptized California natives well, sweated alongside them and rarely
demanded more than a 40-hour workweek. And for their part, the
natives could be exasperating. By the droves, they feigned illness
and ran away from the missions and hid in the tules of California’s
interior, where they became addicted to booze and games of chance.
But Street ultimately comes down on the side of mission critics,
concluding that the system reduced natives to “childish dependence,
prepared them for nothing, exposed them to diseases.”

Measuring the agricultural legacy of the missions is easier. The
California natives who joined the Cochimi planted the first vineyards
and wheat fields, erected the first brush dams and dug the first
irrigation canals. A peek into the state’s future grape and wine
industry could be glimpsed at the San Gabriel mission where the
170-acre La Vina Madre, “the mother vineyard” had taken root.
Likewise, the practice of labor contractors acting as go-betweens in
the California fields began with the mayordomo, boss men selected
from the ranks of mission guards.

For the better part of a century, the male natives bent, stooped,
squatted and crawled with their poles, clippers, sacks and buckets.
The women, who weren’t allowed in the fields, had their own quotas to
meet grinding wheat and corn. Their positions hardly changed after
Mexican rule replaced Spanish rule and the natives were supposedly
free to pursue a life of small-scale farming. Instead, cast adrift,
they huddled in dusty camps like the one on the outskirts of El
Pueblo de Los Angeles, where they led “vicious and irrational lives.”

Growers in the 1850s were still so reliant on native field hands that
they pushed the newly minted U.S. state of California to enact a law
that controlled the natives and forced them to work. The Indian
Indenture Act, in the words of McWilliams, “competed favorably with
slavery.” Only when the native population dwindled to a band of old
and crippled field hands did the farmer begin his eternal search for
a new group of desperate and poor.

The late 1860s and 1870s brought fresh laborers to the fields:
hard-luck Americans of European stock who had come West with gold
fever but who now found themselves threshing and bagging California’s
booming wheat crop. Street brings to life the grinding toil of the
men who wandered farm to farm, their worldly possessions packed tight
in a bindle. He does his best writing describing how they mounted the
first leviathan wheat harvesters and bounced all day over rough
ground, jolting themselves silly. They could not escape the Central
Valley sun.

“The heat had an almost metallic characteristic,” he writes. “It was
a weight that men carried on their backs, a fiery warmth that cracked
their leather boots, heated equipment to the point where it could not
be touched without gloves and baked straw so crisp that it snapped
like glass filaments underfoot.”

He lingers on the wholesome meals served to the wheat threshers and
on the songs they sang, always swearing off another harvest season:
“Don’t go, I say, if you’ve got any brains. You’ll stay far away from
the San Joaquin plains.”

As the crops grew more diverse, the call for more dependable
farmworkers grew louder. It was answered by peasant Chinese farmers
from the Guangdong province who poured off ships in the 1850s and
fanned out to Stockton, Sacramento, Fresno, Sonoma County and Los
Angeles. Among the myths Street debunks is the notion that the
Chinese constituted a significant minority of farm laborers at any
one time. Of the 50,000 Chinese in California in 1861, only about
1,500 had moved onto farms.

Nowhere was their imprint more lasting than in the delta, where they
drained hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands with an incredible
latticework of levees. The Chinese boasted their own system of
mayordomo: “China bosses” who made good on the promise that each
field hand would pick 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of grapes a day. The
bosses won many jobs by agreeing to a pay scale of $1 a day —
cheaper than the wage for Mexicans, $1.25, and for whites, $1.50.

“Beasts of the Field” makes clear that the issue of wages has long
pitted field hand against field hand, striker against grower and
reformer against politician. The debate always seems to start and end
in the same place. The farmer believes he isn’t exploiting the field
hand because what he offers is so much better than what the worker
had back home. The reformer shouts back that the farmer is engaging
in the cheapest form of moral inoculation. It is the ideals of this
country — not the Third World exigencies of their old land — that
judge morality. A dime a day in Guangdong doesn’t excuse a dollar a
day in Weedpatch.

The picker does hold certain leverage. Crops left too long in the
field perish. A two-week delay in picking might bring a grower to his
knees. This math drove the Chinese to strike again and again in the
1880s, shutting down the fruit harvest in Santa Clara and the raisin
pick in Fresno until they got their way, the same wages as the white

That the “coolies” had the cheek to strike only played into the
anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping across the land. Farmers didn’t know
what side of the fence to stand on, with their white neighbors or
with their ethnic field hands. Some tried appealing to logic:
“Americans can not go out in the hot sun and stoop over the vines all
day when the thermometer is probably 115 degrees in the shade,” one
grower asserted. “Our American sons won’t do that.”

For all its breadth, “Beasts of the Field” never quite makes the case
that agriculture’s exploitation differed from the brutality imposed
by industrial America. Was farm work worse because it took place
under the searing sun? Were the white farmers greedier as a class
than white factory owners? Were the bottom-line impulses of
agriculture different from the quotas that industry imposed on their
beasts of the steel mill?

Occasionally Street tips the scale of judgment in error. He quotes a
1913 editorial by Chester H. Rowell, a longtime editor of the Fresno
Republican, likening the perfect field hand to a manifold beast.
Rowell, it turns out, wasn’t expressing his view but what he regarded
as the unfortunate view of the farm lobby. The sarcasm is not noted
by Street.

Back on firm ground, Street details how the racist views of the
Yellow Peril culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that, over
time, dried up Chinese labor. The Japanese then staged their own
rising. At the height of their influence in 1909, about 30,000
Japanese worked on California farms, accounting for nearly 42% of the
labor force.

More than any other ethnic group, the Japanese saw fieldwork not as
an end but as a means to buy their own farms. Toward that goal, they
became tough negotiators. They confronted and boycotted growers,
withheld labor at key times and walked out during harvests. By 1910,
many Japanese had realized the dream of becoming farmers; they had
bought 17,000 acres and leased 89,000 more, dominating the
strawberry, melon and sugar beet crops.

The Yellow Peril soon raised its ugly head again. The so-called
Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907 halted Japanese immigration. As always,
Big Ag didn’t know where to turn. Into this vacuum, miraculously,
came the Greeks, the Sikhs, the Portuguese and the Armenians.

My grandfather didn’t have the benefit of those hobo songs to steer
him clear of the San Joaquin plains. The only song he heard was his
Uncle Yervant’s naively sweet one. For that second harvest, he
returned to Weedpatch with his mother, sister and brother, this time
to work for Villa Kerkorian, a grape grower with a ferocious mustache
resembling Pancho Villa’s.

My grandfather and his family slept in the Kerkorian barn on a bed of
raisin crates and hay until one night when they began feuding.
Grandpa’s 17-year-old brother, Harry, had the gall to question the
arrangement by which Uncle Yervant picked very little and played
pinochle a lot. Challenged for the first time, Yervant stormed out of
the barn.

“That boat that brought you over,” he shouted. “I would have been
better off had it brought a sack of potatoes instead.”

They didn’t speak again for years. By that time, Harry was well on
his way to killing a cop in Long Beach and serving a life sentence in
San Quentin. My grandfather was married and farming raisins outside
Fresno. In his 80s, as he grew blind, he gave me a stack of poems he
had written to the memory of the grape and cotton pickers: “To my
white, brown, yellow and black brothers and sisters who toiled under
the hellish sun.”

A few weeks ago, as another harvest neared, I drove to Weedpatch and
tried to find the old Kerkorian ranch. Villa Kerkorian had lost all
his land during the raisin bust of 1920-28. Not long after, they
found an ocean of oil beneath his old grapes. Kerkorian didn’t live
to see his get-even: His youngest son, Kirk, came to rule MGM and
rank as one of the world’s wealthiest men.

At the edge of town, a few miles down the road from where John
Steinbeck encountered the Okies, I met a young Mixteca who had
arrived the week before from deep in Mexico, her land turning to
dust. She had been smuggled across the border in the back of a
Suburban and was using her wages from the bell pepper fields to pay
off a $1,900 debt to the coyote. I asked her why she had come and she
began to tear up. She had left behind two young children with her
mother. “For their future,” she explained. In another few days, she
will stop harvesting peppers and begin picking grapes. In the powdery
loam, she will trace the footsteps of my grandfather and the other
“beasts” whose imprint Street has so faithfully recorded.

They still walk through these fields. *

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: FIELD HANDS: Laborers pick lettuce in the Salinas
Valley in 1935, from “Photographing Farmworkers in California.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: Photograph by Dorothea Lange Courtesy of Stanford
University Press PHOTO: SUBSISTENCE: A farmworker from Mexico, idled
by freezing weather, cradles a baby outside his home next to an
Imperial Valley pea field in 1937. PHOTOGRAPHER: Photograph by
Dorothea Lange Courtesy of Stanford University Press PHOTO: LOCAL
CREW: Chinese laborers sewed wheat sacks in the San Fernando Valley
in 1898, 16 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act cut the workforce.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Courtesy of Stanford University Press PHOTO: ON THE
COVER: “Cheng’s Hands and Hat,” Roger Minick’s 1966 photograph, is
included in Richard Steven Street’s “Photographing Farmworkers in
California.” PHOTOGRAPHER: Photograph by Roger Minick Courtesy of
Stanford University Press