From the Border to the Fields
Harvey Richards’ still photo images of braceros in California agriculture in 1958 created considerable interest among film makers and viewers of this web site. In the process of reviewing Richards’ film Factory Farms for Amazon Instant Video rental, I rediscovered the five minutes of film devoted to the braceros in California and present it here in this blog post.
Harvey Richards documented the bracero program as part of his efforts on behalf of the farm workers and their unions. He photographed in Mexican villages along the border and then in the reception centers on the American side. Bracero workers, upon arrival, were stripped of their clothing, given cursory medical exams, and loaded on buses for travel northward to the fields of the central valleys of California. He followed their buses into the fields and labor camps where they were put to work. For millions of Mexican men and women who went through the California bracero program, it was a Harvest of Loneliness, as film maker Gil Gonzales has said. Many suffered separation from their families and villages while enduring the arduous work in the fields. The bracero program may be gone, but the pattern of exploitation created by industrial agriculture in California remains.
Bracero labor in California prevented unionization for many years, holding farm workers in second class status which they still occupy today. This sub-class status of farm workers is a glaring violation of farm worker’s civil rights. Bracero labor has been replaced with the recruitment of illegal immigrants which has preformed the same role in keeping wages down and preventing unionization.
People unaware of the situation can miss the connection between the union struggles of farm workers and civil rights. Today civil rights is associated with the fight against racial segregation in the southern US of the 1960′s, or more recently, with the struggle for the rights of gay and lesbians to marry. Civil rights protests are against legal barriers that discriminate against people because of race or gender identity. Farm workers efforts to unionize have always been a civil right issue because of the way that agribusiness has been able to hold its work force as second class citizens, denying them the right to organize, denying them access to unemployment benefits, health care, and education. Today, California farm workers are held in subservient conditions, as a sub-class of citizens, that differs little from the share croppers of the segregated southern US in the early 1960′s.
California agribusiness still recruits immigrant labor from countries near and far to work in agriculture at substandard wages in seasonal crops. Recruiting from the pools of extreme poverty in other lands has allowed the industry to staff its operations at very low wages while resident farm workers cannot make a living nor establish themselves in the communities where they work. As a result, there is a constant turn over in the labor force as workers leave the fields as soon as they can. If agribusiness paid living wages in the same way that other industries do, the funneling of immigrant labor into the state would decline as people gained full citizenship and equal status under the law. The United Farm Workers Union continues the struggle to organize farm workers, providing a responsible voice for workers in the ongoing efforts for better conditions and for ending the injustices heaped upon workers by California’s agribusiness.