Sunday, April 6, 2014

Let Us Honor Cesar: Viewing the Forest for the Trees

In anticipation of the premiere of the movie Cesar Chavez, and immediately thereafter, commentary circulated critical of the film’s central narrative on the leader for which it is titled.

Critics pointed out the minimization of the role of people such as Dolores Huerta (the National Farm Workers Union’s founding vice-president), Helen (Cesar’s wife), Larry Itliong (the labor leader of Filipino workers that initiated the Grape Strike of 1965), and the supporters of the farmworkers movement from all walks of life. These are valid points that subsequent motion pictures on the experience of Mexican-origin farmworkers can focus greater attention.

I am culpable of this rather imperious criticism.

When an English department colleague with whom I co-teach a course on the Sixties suggested we assign the film to our students, I replied that the early buzz was that Cesar Chavez was hagiographic—a trite criticism that many privileged sons and daughters of el movimiento (the Chicano Movement) have vouchsafed to suggest an elevated insight in relation to recent histories that reveal the shortcomings of Cesar’s leadership.

One flaw being his refusal to delegate control of the union’s authority to his subalterns at the union’s headquarters in Delano, California and organizers in distant parts of the nation who found themselves empowered by Cesar’s focused determination for social justice.

But Cesar was a human being.

My colleague reminded me that we assigned Spike Lee’s Malcom X and Rob Epstein’s documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Both hagiographic films.

As a veteran of the protean movements of the Sixties, she pointed out the significance of these movies lay in how they portrayed the struggle and sacrifice of people for civil rights. Cesar Chavez accomplished this forcefully.

The film highlighted the realities of what farmworkers experienced in the past and present. People who watched the film were brought to tears by episodic scenes of farmworkers, Filipino and Mexican, being terrorized by vigilantes.

Cesar Chavez also illustrated the feudal rule of the agricultural industrial complex consisting of growers interlocked with the institutions of law enforcement, politics, agencies of the state, and finance.

In fact, prior to the Grape Strike of 1965, citrus mogul Charles Collins Teague coordinated the resources of such interests in the creation of the Associated Farmers in the 1930s to bust unions.

This translated to a culture of violence inflicted on farmworker families that entailed grinding economic deprivation, substandard housing, the fragmented schooling of children, and work conditions that denied campesinos (fieldworkers) basic human rights such as free and clean drinking water and porta potties for men, women, and teenagers to relieve themselves.

Another scene of the movie depicted how helicopters hovered directly above the picket line of striking grape workers of the San Joaquin Valley. As picketers dispersed, Kern County law enforcement officers pursued them as they wielded their batons.

A similar event occurred in Ventura County, the community where I was born and raised and whose single-parent abuelita(grandma) from Batopilas Chihuahua in Mexico toiled in the strawberry fields of the Oxnard Plain with her three teenage daughters. She too was an activist of the la union de campesinos, the United Farm Workers AFL-CIO.

In 1974 over six hundred Ventura County strawberry workers joined Cesar’s UFW. Like the grape workers in Cesar Chavez, they went on strike to win a living wage and humane labor conditions.

As strawberry workers picketed one field in the suburb of El Rio, a Ventura County Sheriff helicopter hovered directly over them to break the protest line. When strikers allegedly threw rocks at the aircraft and defended themselves they were arrested and charged with felony and misdemeanor charges of assault and trespassing.

The use of the department helicopter to intimidate the strawberry strikers ceased only after a recently elected county supervisor of Irish Catholic descent made the demand to the sheriff.

In listening to the stories of farmworkers and their allies, the film poignantly shed light on this abuse. Therefore the film succeeded in exposing the exploitation inherent within industrialized agriculture and the collective struggle of people to overcome.

So the film is both inaccurate and is true.

It is the former because it is a commercial representation of a complex narrative embedded with the usual contradictions of history. For example, as Cesar Chavez depicted, farmworkers themselves were prone to violence. Indeed, Cesar embarked on a 25 day fast in 1968 to recommit his movement to nonviolence. He also admonished people not glorify farmworkers as they were people like everyone else.

At the same time, however, Cesar Chavez is true in its conveyance of a narrative of struggle and perseverance through the life of one person.

Que Viva Cesar Chavez!

Con Safos

Versions of this essay are posted in the following sites: Amigos805, ¡LatinoLa!, History News Network, and the Ventura County Star, Somos en escrito

Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961

University of Nebraska Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound

Friday, January 24, 2014

To the Farm Worker in All of Us

With the National Football League playoffs decided and the approach of the final championship game on February 2nd, I am reminded of one Super Bowl XLVII commercial of last year. It was the fourth ranked, according to the NFL website, Chrysler Ram advertisement titled “To the Farmer in All of Us.”

As my son and I watched, deceased conservative radio broadcaster Paul Harvey recited his 1978 “So God Made a Farmer” paean as Ram trucks complemented avatars of Midwestern men, women, and children on presumed family farms. Imagery of cornfields, livestock, and the faces of weather-beaten cowboys valorized country life. Of the thirty-four slides a meager two contained people of color: an African American man sitting on the bed of a truck and a putative Latino son and mother before a produce stand.

The commercial raised my ire. Confused by my indignation, my boy asked why I was upset. I replied with the question, “Were the ‘farmers’ in the commercial what you see in the fields of the Oxnard Plain? After a reflective moment, my boy expressed his epiphany to the commercial’s fiction.

Like the majority of “farmers” in California, the people that labor in the fields, orchards, and vineyards of Ventura County don’t own the land; they earn a wage, are predominantly from Mexico and are, half the time, undocumented immigrants.

My parents, with immigrant origins from the Mexican states of Michoac├ín and Chihuahua, toiled in the “factories in the field” of fruits and vegetables as defined by Carey McWilliams, the paterfamilias of California History. And the dream that they held for their children was that we would not, someday, want to be “farmers.”

So the Chrysler Ram trailer is much more than an advertisement as it promotes an identity based on the Midwest region at the expense of people, living and dead, from different parts of the nation. (click to see Salvador Barajas's counter narrative "The Idea of Farmers")

Dating back to the mission era, California elites—whether they be missionaries, rancheros, or wheat barons—monopolized the land as lumpen classes of Native American, Asian, European, African, and Mexican origin people labored in the intense sun and bitter cold of agriculture.

Periodically, to improve their lot farm workers (composed of men, women, and children) collectively protested their station, sometimes successfully, for modest demands such as a living wage, water to drink, adequate shelter, and safe work conditions.

This occurred on the Oxnard Plain in 1903 when a coalition of Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers and labor contractors formed the Japanese Mexican Labor Association. They resisted the attempt of a coterie of growers and financiers to slash the extant wage rate by fifty percent. The sugar beet barons also created the Western Agricultural Contracting Company to eliminate independent labor agents.

Despite the wealth and power of agribusiness, the JMLA enjoyed a victory against a class of employers that often pitted one ethnic group against another to undermine labor solidarity.

The omission of such events from our history preserves the Jeffersonian myth of the yeoman farmer as self-sufficient and individualistic.

Contrary to the yeoman legend, growers today belong to associations and bureaus to advance their interests as farming is big business. In fact, it has been so dating back to the early 19th century. For example, where I live the total value of agricultural production today, according to the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, approaches $2 billion, with the crops of strawberries and raspberries topping the list.

The people that own these prolific properties are not the ones involved in the cultivation of the land for wages near or below the poverty line of subsistence.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture the average annual income of crop farmworkers is $20,000. Sixty-eight percent of these workers come from Mexico; twenty-nine percent consist of people born in the US and Puerto Rico; the remaining three percent are from Central America and other countries.

But the Chrysler Super Bowl ad of last year veiled these realities from an audience seeking an escape from the anxiety filled actualities of modern life.

Indeed, the late US historian Richard Hofstadter argued in a 1956 American Heritage essay titled, “The Myth of the Happy Yeoman” that the more we find ourselves in an urbanized society the more powerful the fantasy of a fading agrarian ideal. Hofstadter also noted that since the early nineteenth century the market revolution of commerce and land speculation stoked the monetary passions of growers, not a spiritual devotion to the soil.

More recently, this nostalgic yearning has intensified as a demographic shift has emerged with an ever increasing number of people with origins like mine, from Mexico, and other parts of the world becoming the new majority. Chrysler might want to take note of this for its next Super Bowl commercial as non-Midwestern people, like “All of Us,” buy trucks too.

Con Safos

Versions of this essay were published by The Bakersfield Californian, the Ventura County Star, Amigos805, and LatinoLa.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A LatinoLA Reader Response

I posted my blog essay on the one year anniversary demonstration of the Oxnard police killing of Alfonso Limon Jr on ─░LATINO LA! and received the email below from "Frankie Firme" who was raised in the San Gabriel Valley.

I read with distinct interest your article in LatinoLA about the youth killed in Oxnard by police, and the family’s endeavor to find justice.

For many years, I myself have supported community causes in search of justice, and I now support yours.

Many times as a youth growing up in the San Gabriel Valley neighborhood of Bassett, I was harassed along with my friends for daring to cruise into West Covina
during the late 1960’s & early 1970’s when it was primarily white. We were always pulled over for DWB ( Driving While Brown) and harassed, frisked, and forced to sit
on a curb facing traffic & the public, while our cars were searched, and back seats pulled completely out of the car and thrown to the curb.

Police would just laugh and tell us to “ Leave West Covina and go back to your side of town or Tijauna” , and follow us to the edge of town.

In 1971, 2 Chicanas, Kathy Zozaya & Rosalyn Macias, both 14 years old, were run over and killed by a white drunk driver in La Puente who had a previous DUI record .
Court was held in West Covina, in front of a white judge, and he was given probation. When the community protested, the media painted us all as “trouble makers”.

Justice was never served. I never forgot that….never will.

My compliments & respects.

Frank “Frankie Firme” A.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Past as Present: Community Protest and the Police

Over 150 people spoke on Sunday, October 13, at Camino Del Sol Park in Oxnard, some serenely and others with strong demands for justice, in observance of the one year anniversary of the police killing of Alfonso Limon Jr. As I observed the Limon family distribute t-shirts before the event with the image of Alfonso on the front and the names of nine Oxnard Police Department officers on the back, a woman approached me to ask I was Professor Barajas. I said I was. She informed me that her name was Rebecca Limon, the sister of Alfonso, and that she was a student of mine at California State University Channel Islands.

Rebecca expressed interest in my presence. I said that as a historian I periodically document the actions of the Chicano community by writing op-ed essays to situate current events within in a historical frame. I then asked if her family considered a request to the California Office of the Attorney General to investigate the killing of her brother. With grace Rebecca explained that the process first entailed an investigation from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department and an inquiry by Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.

Meanwhile, the Limon family will continue to seek answers and the timely prosecution of justice.

Rebecca’s sisters echoed this message in a circle of unity before the commencement of a peaceful protest march through the streets of La Colonia and Oxnard Boulevard.

As I listened to the words of the Limon family and members of Todo Poder Al Pueblo and observed a prayer service conducted by Aztec dancers, I panned the audience of community elders, youth, college professors, parents, infants in strollers, and students and alumni of my institution, CSU Channel Islands. Their presence mirrored moments of the recent and not so distant past when the Mexican community of Ventura County protested the perceived and real oppressive actions of law enforcement.

For example, in 1900 leaders of the Mexican community summoned the Mexican consul in Los Angeles to investigate the fiery death of two Mexican nationals in an Oxnard jail. Forty-five years later, the Mexican community of Oxnard protested the police use of batons and tear gas to break up a peaceful outdoor celebration along the boulevard.

When Police Chief George Pryor was confronted by members of the community he responded, “The tear gas wasn’t much good, anyway. . . We had it for a long time, and it gets weaker as it gets older. Why, it didn’t make’em cry very much. . . .”

In 1956, the OPD again fired tear gas as they stormed a crowd that enjoyed the festivities of a Cristo Rey Church bazaar in La Colonia after a reported disturbance. Tony Del Buono, Vera Gonzales, John Soria, and other activists formed the Oxnard Civic Improvement Association to collectively protest such abuse of power. Two years later in 1958, the OCIA converted itself to the Community Service Organization of Ventura County with Cesar E. Chavez as its director. A central concern of the CSO was police brutality.

Police relations in La Colonia had become strained to the point that many residents, particularly its youth, viewed law enforcement as not their protectors but as an agency that violated their rights with impunity. This expressed itself in 1958 when police officers responded to a boy being struck by a car in La Colonia. As they arrived at the scene, they found themselves pelted by rocks and bottles launched by neighborhood youths.

In my research of the Chicano Movement in Ventura County, long-time civically engaged citizens have shared stories how the police stopped African American and Mexican origin residents that dared to venture into white neighborhoods. In April of 1972 Mexican origin youth demonstrated against this sort of harassment by the Santa Paula Police. One Santa Paula police officer in particular was infamous for pulling over Chicanos who cruised the town to throw their car keys into an adjacent orchard.

It is this history and similar contemporary experiences generally not reported in the media that is absent from the public’s mind when considering peaceful yet militant demonstrations such at those organized by Todo Poder and the families who have lost loved ones to police violence.

As heartbreaking as the killing of Alfonso is, the Limon family is patient and determined to obtain answers to why and how he died at the hands of Oxnard Police Department. With the support of people in Ventura County and many others outside the area, they will wait for the legal process of justice to take its course.

Con Safos

A version of this post was published in the Ventura County Star.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Preoccupying Observation

Image: Los Angeles Times

Twice, on my way home from the gym last winter, around 6:15am, I noticed a tractor in a strawberry field that surrounds Oxnard High School. The headlights cut through the dark, the tanks contained some chemical, and its extended arms sprayed a mist. The driver donned a full protective suit.

As I drove by on Gonzales Road both times, I considered how the aerosol of the fumigant would affect, immediately or deferred, high schoolers that walked to campus within the next hour.

And as I started my morning constitutional around the perimeter of my workplace, California State University Channel Islands, this past week another tractor blanketed the crops (perhaps cabbage, who knows) off Potrero Road with some substance. This time, the driver did not wear a white panoply or respirator. So I worried about this person’s well-being, the students that resided in the dorms across the street and mine as I walked away faster.

The scene of crop spraying is common on the Oxnard Plain that encompasses the communities of Ventura, Oxnard, Somis, and Camarillo. In this rurban (not completely rural or urban) corridor, the business of agribusiness is in open view. Petrochemicals are part of the air we breathe, especially for fieldworkers. They are the most vulnerable. That is a central reason why strawberry pickers are covered and masked in clothing from head to toe, even during the hottest of days.

This leads me to ask, what is being sprayed on our food? How do such chemicals affect the health and well-being of farmworkers? Can such spraying take place earlier in the morning or later in evening so that farmworkers and our children will not be as exposed? Perhaps, non-profit, private, and government agencies can effectively provide the public with answers?

Con Safos

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Imperial Agriculture: A Curious Unions Talk

Image: Los Angeles Public Library

I will give a talk based on my book Curious Unions this Saturday, May 11th, at the Ventura E.P. Foster Library starting at 6pm.

A focus of the presentation will be on the history of farm worker housing on the Oxnard Plain.

As I have done previously, I will contextualize the creation of my book in how it challenges the Jeffersonian myth (the alloy of agricultural fact, fiction, distortion, and the omission of historical truths). In this regard, I have referenced in previous presentations this year’s Dodge Ram Super Bowl XLVII “Farmer” commercial.

To compare the Dodge Ram Midwestern perspective of the “Farmer,” here is Salvador Barajas’s “The Idea of Farmers”, a more inclusive photographic interpretation of the Paul Harvey verse.

See you at the E.P. Foster Library.

Con Safos