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The National Park Service Explores the History of Farm Labor in America

Photo of Frank Barajasby Frank Barajas on May 3, 2011

Fifty years ago, a single mother from the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico migrated to southern California with four young daughters. The family caravanned up and down the state working the agricultural migrant circuit. That young mother was my grandmother, my abuelita.   
My abuelita's stories about those early years came flooding back as I read this week about the National Park Service's call for public input to identify sites associated with César Chávez that are worthy of federal recognition. The history of Chávez and the farm worker movement is important for all Americans, not just those with a personal connection. Designating significant sites as national landmarks and building educational resources around them helps insure that this labor and civil rights history is collected, debated, and passed on.
Shortly before she died, I interviewed my monolingual Spanish-speaking grandmother. The word duro (hard) arose frequently in abuelita's testimony: la vida era dura (life was hard), el trabajo era muy duro (the work was very hard). Like John Steinbeck's Joad family, my abuelos loaded old Chevys and Fords with luggage, kids, and family dogs. In my fractured Spanish, I asked abuelita if she had ever met César Chávez, the founder of the United Farm Workers union. She said yes. She joined César's union and became an organizer. Why, I asked?  For respect, she responded.  At times, she said, farm workers were treated like animals. La Unión gave them the strength to demand better wages—and respect.
My father and paternal grandparents told me their own stories about farm work in the Great Depression. And as I grew up at the height of the Farm Workers Movement in the 1970s, I cheered as cars paraded through my hometown, Oxnard, California, waving red, white, and black banners with the UFW eagle.
But this history is not monolithic. At home, my parents talked about a different unión: the Teamsters. The Teamsters represented the chilería (chili factory) canners, where my mom worked. Because they had signed sweetheart contracts with growers that provided cannery workers with minimal wage increases and benefits, the Teamsters Union was the nemesis of my abuelita's UFW. My parents talked about the union's pension plan, pay, and the union rep—not about strikes and boycotts.
In the early 1970s, I reluctantly crossed a UFW boycott line outside a neighborhood mom-and-pop grocery store, sent on an errand by my mother. In the faces of those farm workers I saw grandma, grandpa, and abuelita. With a sense of betraying la causa, I carried out mom's command. My mother was equally adamant that I was not to work in Oxnard's citrus packinghouses, even in the summer. College was her dream for her children.
Today I teach the history that my parents and abuelos lived. My students at Cal State Channel Islands, many of them the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of farm workers and growers, arrive with little knowledge of their past. They learn how farm workers of various national origins struggled against wage cuts and fought for such basic rights as drinking water and portable lavatories.
I teach about the successes and failures in the fields, the organizing efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Japanese Mexican Labor Association, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, and the Ventura County "Six Month Strike" of 1941, when my father's family was evicted from the Rancho Sespe labor camp because grandpa joined citrus workers who asked for a 10-cent-an-hour raise. We study the battles of the 1970s on the Oxnard Plain between strawberry growers and the United Farm Workers.
The history of the farm worker movement in the United States is long and varied. Farm workers who were treated fairly labored loyally for their employers; those who were not, like grandpa and abuelita, protested or left. The oral histories of farm worker families need to be made more widely known to promote a fuller and more nuanced appreciation of the nation's agricultural history.
This is why it is important that residents of Arizona, California, and other states with roots in the farm worker movement attend the Special Resource Study events of the National Park Service this May. The National Park Service plans to use the input gathered at these hearings to help it decide which sites are worthy of federal recognition and preservation. It will also use the suggestions of the community to evaluate how best to promote the public's visitation of these landmarks and to educate the young and old on the history of farm labor in America.

Frank P. Barajas is associate professor of history at California State University Channel Islands. His book, "Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961," will be published by University of Nebraska Press.