Can you briefly describe your book?
My book Grounds for Dreaming takes readers into the Salinas Valley of California—nicknamed “The Salad Bowl of the World” for being one of the richest farming regions on the planet—to show how this agricultural empire was continually a center of significant transitions and moments in U.S. labor, immigration, and Latino history. In public, tourist-driven narratives of the valley’s history, however, not much is said about the contributions of Latinos or Latino farmworkers. There might be a brief mention of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, which organized there in the 1970s and 1980s, but there is still a reluctance to acknowledge the ways that this region’s wealth was built upon the backs of workers of color. Grounds for Dreaming is the first comprehensive history of how U.S.-born Mexicans, braceros (male Mexican agricultural guestworkers), and undocumented Mexican migrants navigated their relationships with other Californians and with themselves in this increasingly corporatizing world of agriculture that continually pitted groups of Latinos against each other economically, socially, and politically. While my book zooms in on a particular place, I think the arguments it makes about labor, immigration, and the complexity of the Latino demographic can be applied to many other communities in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
What initially drew you to your topic?
I knew I wanted to research and write about some aspect of working class history in the Southwest, because my early scholarship had focused on women garment workers in Texas. When my graduate adviser Al Camarillo and I began to discuss my dissertation topic, he suggested that I take advantage of Stanford’s immense Mexican American archival collection and see what interesting things I could find. I had heard about “race riots” taking place between white and Mexican American youth in the Salinas Valley in the 1950s, and started digging there. What I ended up uncovering was this vast collection of newspaper clippings on Monterey County which revealed tons of fascinating, complicated stories—stories about Mexican-origin soldiers, braceros, and zoot suiters coming into contact with each other in the 1940s; the sexual panic associated with Mexican immigrant men in the 1950s; the victories of War on Poverty–funded organizations of the 1960s; and the United Farm Workers’ union activities of the 1970s and 1980s. After this preliminary research, I placed some newspaper advertisements asking to interview anyone who had lived in the Salinas Valley during the post-World War II period, and the phone calls started coming in. As I came to know the region better by driving back and forth, interviewing people, and living there for a while, I came to see that there was a dark history of transnational labor exploitation, racial discrimination, violence, and political conflict that needed to be chronicled.
Does your work speak to modern debates about immigration?
Absolutely. A huge part of the history I tackle in this book is that of the Bracero Program (1942–64), a guestworker agreement negotiated between the U.S. and Mexican governments that imported on average 200,000 Mexican men per year to work in the railroad and agricultural sectors. Though the U.S. government and employers promised braceros decent wages, housing, food, and transportation during their contract period, these promises were often minimally upheld or broken altogether. The H-2A temporary agricultural visa program we have today is strikingly similar to the Bracero Program. H-2A labor contracts are seasonal, and workers are bound to a single employer with very little monitoring by labor agencies. Those workers who experience abuse are reluctant to report it for fear of losing their jobs and being deported. In this election year, we need to choose leaders who offer practical and humane ideas about how to reform our immigration system and our treatment of various types of migrants. Walls, or militarized roundups and deportations, will not work and do not make sense in this present reality of global violence and immense economic disparity.
How could studying community formation among Latinos in the Salinas Valley change the way we look at the Mexican American farm workers and immigrants?
I think my book helps readers to see that the Latino demographic of this country has always been, and continues to be, very complex. Mexican Americans, for instance, had to confront Mexican guestworkers and undocumented immigrants as labor competition and as potential threats to their social mobility and integration. The personal and political tensions that developed between Mexican Americans and Mexicans certainly affected how both groups were able to fight for their rights in California agriculture. Today, in terms of our farmworker demographic, many new immigrants from South America, Central America, and indigenous, non-Spanish speaking communities in Mexico are now working and living alongside older waves of workers. The greater diversity and tensions we see in farmworker communities means that any organization seeking to mobilize these laborers will have to acknowledge that even though most farmworkers continue to be Latino, there is no one definition of Latino—there never has been, but particularly not now—and will have to strategize accordingly and be sensitive to a variety of cultural, political, and linguistic differences.
What I think my book also reveals is how much we are repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to farmworkers’ physical safety. Back in the 1960s, the U.S. government classified farmworkers as “types of loads” for vehicles along with metal, wood, and hay. Though this language has changed in the books, we are still treating farmworkers like cargo rather than human beings. Farmworkers continue to suffer from pesticide poisoning, sexual assaults, and heatstroke, and continue to die in transportation-related accidents all the time. Not long ago, a refurbished school bus carrying Haitian migrant workers and their families crashed, killing and injuring several people. Migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. have an average life expectancy of only 49 years compared with the national average of 79 years. This is shameful. Employers need to stop cutting corners on basic safety measures, and the U.S. Department of Labor and other overseer agencies need to devote more resources to monitoring conditions and punishing violators.
How did you develop your archive for this project?
Like I mentioned, the oral histories that form the backbone of this project were gathered by simple newspaper advertisements or phone calls, and by interviewees recommending I talk to another person they knew. The Steinbeck Public Library in Salinas has a fantastic collection of city directories and oral histories on cassette tapes that I hope more people will use. The National Archives in both Washington, D.C. and San Bruno were invaluable resources for finding Bracero Program bureaucratic correspondence, I.N.S. reports, and smuggling and deportation files. The Smithsonian’s Bracero Archive is amazing, as many people know. I also used what I call “tragic sources”—sources that illuminate the emotions or positions of my historical subjects in moments of despair or death (court trial transcripts, deportation files, or gravesites, for example)—since trauma is a big theme in this book. Finally, the ex-braceros or their spouses and children who I met in California and Oaxaca were incredibly generous with their stories and photographs.
What surprised you while writing this book?
Two things surprised me—one is personal and one is professional. As a kid, I had grown up with stories of my dad’s family struggling on a piece of ranchland in South Texas, or my mom’s family migrating to Michigan in the summers to pick strawberries. Yet it really hit me upon completion of this book that because my parents eventually worked their way into jobs in the education sphere, I never had to work in the fields and know the peripatetic and precarious lifestyle that many children and adults still experience today. This book is for my ancestral family, but also for today’s farmworker families who deserve much better pay and treatment.
Professionally, I was surprised by how many people were willing to help me make this a stronger book. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I have wonderful colleagues all over the country and the world! Contrary to my fear that I wouldn’t have any more close advising after graduate school, I realized there was always someone willing to read the introduction, a chapter, or the whole manuscript, and who cared enough to tell me when to slow down and revise again. I had to learn a different kind of patience at every stage of revision, but I ended up much happier with the book I ultimately wrote.