The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship and Farming since the Dust Bowl

Reviewed by Theo

Sarah D. Wald, The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship and Farming since the Dust Bowl (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 297 pp., $30.

For almost 150 years, California’s agriculture and its large-scale “farm factories” have provided continuous examples of labor exploitation, marginalization, racialization and subordination of the mostly immigrant farm worker populations. With the exception of Dust Bowl migrants from the 1930s, they have been primarily from Latin America and Asia. Beginning with the Chinese, many of whom were initially brought to the US as contract laborers to build railroads, Japanese, Mexicans, Asian Indians, Filipinos, and since World War II, Mexicans have either dominated or comprised sizeable proportions of California’s agricultural labor force. Throughout this history, new and recent immigrants periodically have been used to replace an increasingly organized labor force, in some cases even if both were of the same national origins, e.g. Mexico. State and federal policies contributed to farm worker subordination and at times facilitated labor force transitions. Anti-union actions by large growers and their supporters, combined with the exclusion of agricultural labor from most national labor legislation, especially the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, have resulted in low-wage farm worker populations typically with little job security or benefits and ironically high rates of food insecurity. Even the decades-long organizing efforts by the United Farm Workers and their successes at signing labor contracts could not be sustained at the level of their earlier victories.1

This excellent study by a professor of English and environmental studies describes the cultural dimensions of these patterns. Wald analyzes the ways in which marginalization and racialization have been manifested in literary works since the Great Depression. While coverage is mostly on novels, other works of fiction, and journalistic accounts, the study is well informed by scholarly research on immigration. Wald examines the consequences of the fact that some immigrant populations, while legal residents of the US, either could not obtain citizenship (immigrants from Asian nations until 1952) or even when citizens were not accorded full citizenship rights.

How the various farm labor populations have been portrayed and the underlying implications, e.g. their “unworthiness,” is a consistent theme of Wald’s study. She contrasts this to the ideal of “American agrarianism” where beginning with the writings of Thomas Jefferson farm ownership has been viewed as particularly virtuous and the ideal of American democracy. But she also documents how farm ownership was mostly reserved for non-Hispanic whites. For example, Alien Land Acts were passed in most western states during the 1910s that curtailed the growth in ownership and leases of agricultural land by Japanese immigrants.

The class dimension was not just a matter of white writers describing minority farm workers as inferior and undeserving. One of Wald’s chapters is on Japanese-Americans’ claims to belonging during the 1930s and thus before internment. She does content-analysis of two Los Angeles Japanese-American newspapers during this time. While their articles emphasized the supposed shared class position of Japanese-American growers and their non-Hispanic white counterparts, they also tended to ignore Japanese-American farm workers and their participation in farm labor strikes. Instead, their articles drew sharp distinctions between Japanese on the one hand and Mexicans and Filipinos, the latter two comprising much of the agricultural labor force. They editorialized against their labor strikes and attempts to organize, using “derogatory racial stereotypes of Filipinos and Mexicans to depict strikers as violent, irrational, and controlled by communists” (84), not much different from statements by large grower organizations. Racialized stereotypes were reinforced by exaggerated coverage of crimes committed by Mexicans and Filipinos. Wald interprets this as an attempt to position Japanese-Americans as preeminently family farmers and thus participants in the American agrarian ideal, conveniently ignoring class diversity within the population.

Perhaps Wald’s most controversial analysis is about John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath and Carey McWilliams’ highly-influential study Factories in the Field. Both works imply that white Dust Bowl migrants had qualities that immigrant farm workers lacked, and that their “American-ness” would be the leverage for change. For example, McWilliams argued that non-white farm workers were easy to manipulate and their presence kept wages low. Dust Bowlers, by contrast, would demand better treatment and be more likely to unionize. Even grower organizations echoed this. Steinbeck placed hopes for better futures on families like the Joads whose ownership of agricultural land epitomized Jeffersonian agrarianism.  While both authors offered a scathing critique of the predominant pattern of land ownership in California and growers’ treatment of agricultural workers, they believed that the possibilities for structural change of class relations in agriculture rested with the actions of non-Hispanic whites.

More context helps explain this view. Both books were published in 1939, toward the end of the Dust Bowl migration. Over half a million people left the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri during the 1930s, peaking between 1935 and 1937, and over 60 percent ended up in California, the vast majority in agricultural counties. By 1937, they represented the majority of farm workers. Their presence created another of the frequent transitions in the agricultural labor force. Dust Bowlers were favored by growers and increasingly replaced Mexicans and Filipinos, many of whom had become increasingly militant and better organized as a result of their ethnic solidarity and previous unionization efforts. The Dust Bowlers were not immigrants, and that circumstance prompted both Steinbeck and McWilliams to place hope in the newcomers becoming the agents of change to finally end the pattern of periodic labor replacement and worker exploitation. However, evidence from unionization campaigns by a CIO-affiliated union during the late 1930s, indicated that the white migrants were less interested in collective efforts than were immigrant farm workers. And the subsequent improvement in the nation’s economy and the growth of war-related jobs led to a massive exodus from agricultural work by Dust Bowlers. Significantly, both authors, especially McWilliams, later became strong advocates for minority and immigrant farm workers.

Wald contrasts Grapes of Wrath with Sanora Babb’s novel Whose Names Are Unknown, written in 1939 and thus contemporaneous with Steinbeck’s but not published until 2004. Like Steinbeck’s, this novel is about families being pushed off their farms in Dust Bowl states and migrating to California. Once there, they are called derogatory names, treated no differently than Mexican and Filipino farm workers, and in short lose their “white privilege.” Rather than attempt to reassert their race privilege, her characters begin to identify with immigrant farm workers and adopt a “class analysis” of their oppressive situation. While Babb’s analysis of exploitation by large-scale growers is similar to Steinbeck and McWilliams, her characters look to multiracial unionism as the agency of change.

Wald’s analysis of the United Farm Workers (UFW, founded in 1962) under Cesar Chavez is particularly interesting.  She examines Peter Matthiessen’s journalistic account of the farm labor movement, Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, first published in 1969. Matthiessen ties the UFW and Chavez directly to the environmental movement, and his book was important in presenting the union to a wider public. Matthiessen was inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) with its damning indictment of the effects of pesticide use, especially DDT, on wildlife and human health. Certainly environmental issues for farm workers, specifically pesticide poisoning, were and continue to be important, and UFW contracts contained limitation on and strict specifications for pesticide applications. DDT was banned from use in fields covered by the first UFW contracts in 1970, before the pesticide was outlawed by the federal government in 1972. These and subsequent contracts included grower contributions to the union’s healthcare plan and a series of farm worker medical clinics where pesticide-induced ailments were common.

As Wald notes, however, the strong environmental emphasis in Matthiessen’s depiction of the farm worker movement is misleading. Scholarly studies, including some she cites, have instead described the movement as emerging from the Civil Rights movement, as part of the larger unionization movement (UFW is an ALF-CIO affiliated union) and as a major inspiration for the Chicano movement of the 1970s. Still, the environmental representation of the movement did help mobilize supporters that proved critical for the successes of consumer boycotts which were the key to winning not only the 1970 contracts with table grape growers but also contracts later during that decade with a wider array of growers and the 1975 passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act that gave farm workers the legal right to petition for unionization elections.

Wald’s last chapter examines how the consumer-focused orientation within the “alternative food movement” that advocates for locally-grown and/or organic foods aligns with the historic image of family farmers as epitomizing the Jeffersonian model of the farmer citizen. But this orientation virtually ignores farm workers and their working conditions, as well as the presence of food deserts in many US cities. Their individualistic “consumer choice” emphasis shifts attention away from institutional change and regulation addressing labor conditions. As an alternative, Wald cites the 1995 novel Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes that uses a coming-of-age story of a young Latina to illustrate the pervasive impact of farm labor conditions on farm worker health and life chances.

Wald’s book joins many other studies of farm workers and their organizing campaigns. Its most significant contribution to this literature is analyzing how cultural depictions and representations facilitate social constructions of race and citizenship and how these have been central to the history of agriculture, glorifying farmers (and by implication large-scale corporate growers in California) and denigrating and marginalizing farm workers. The processes she describes are increasingly relevant given the recent growth of a backlash against immigrants and presidential initiatives that encourage and reinforce stereotyping and scapegoating and contribute still again to the racialization and marginalization of those targeted.

Reviewed by Theo Majka Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work University of Dayton, Ohio


1. See Linda Majka and Theo Majka, "Decline of the Farm Labor Movement in California: Organizational Crisis and Political Change," Critical Sociology 19 (3) (1993), 3-36.