Article

The Terrain of Farmworker Life

Farm workers using short handled hoes to gather crops.
Farmworkers use short handed hoes, el cortito (the short one), in the fields. Commonly used to harvest lettuce, the tool required workers to be bent over continuously. This led to chronic back pain and other health issues. In the 1970s, the United Farm Workers helped lead the fight to ban its use.

Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Large-scale commercial agriculture or agribusiness has shaped the landscape of California's Central Valley for over a century. This article explores the social and economic world created by agribusiness in and around the small city of Delano, with an emphasis on the lives of the predominately Filipino, Mexican, and Mexican American farmworkers and their families.

In the mid-1960s, at the time of the Grape Strike, about 12,000 people called Delano home.


This figure included a large number of seasonal farmworkers and their families. The city was highly segregated by race and class. Wealthier, mostly white, residents lived on one side of the railroad tracks. A more diverse working-class community had taken shape on the other side, largely Mexican and Filipino.

Once home to the Yokuts people, the area surrounding Delano has been defined by agribusiness since the early twentieth century. The region's long growing season and rich alluvial soils drew settlers looking to create fortunes from crops like cotton and grapes. Delano was first a terminus (1873) and then a stop along the Southern Pacific Railroad, providing its farmers a direct connection to major markets in San Francisco and beyond. Extensive irrigation projects were completed in the decades between 1920 and 1950, including construction of the massive Friant-Kern Canal System, which remade the Central Valley landscape still further, bringing water and power to the arid region. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe settled in Delano in the 1920s and established vineyards, building agricultural fortunes from the land and transforming it into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

By 1965, the vineyards surrounding Delano produced close to 500,000 tons of table grapes each year. A small group of growers controlled the industry in and around the city. Most were local residents, with two large, absentee, corporate owners - the DiGiorgio Fruit Company and Schenley Industries. The local growers were mostly first or second generation Italian and Croatian immigrant families, who operated farms of roughly 2,000 - 5,000 acres. Like other immigrants, many had escaped poverty in their native countries to seek opportunity in the United States. Through industry, they realized the American dream and took great pride in the businesses they built. But the accomplishments of these immigrant growers --though remarkable--were intimately tied to the labor of Filipino and Mexican farmworkers, who were denied many of the opportunities European immigrants enjoyed.

Delano’s farmworkers were a mix of regular and seasonal employees. Most farm workers spent a significant part of the year on the move: once they completed the task of preparing a field or harvesting a crop, they would move on to the next, traveling up and down the highways, working for several different employers in any given year. Grape cultivation was particularly labor intensive, requiring a large number of workers at various points in the growing cycle. In the vineyards of Delano, between 3,000 and 5,000 workers pruned, harvested, and maintained the plants at peak moments. Skilled packing crews--mostly Filipino workers with many years of experience--were employed in the grapes fields for eight or nine months out of the year, while workers brought in for the peak harvest season could count on upwards of 100 days of steady work from August to November. The relatively steady work available encouraged a large number of farmworkers to make Delano and the surrounding region their permanent home.

Most of the Filipino farmworkers were older, unmarried men. They had come to the United States as young men in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Philippines was a U.S. colony. Many had made the journey across the Pacific to get an education. They spent their summers in the Alaskan salmon canneries or working on farms trying to earn enough money to pay tuition at colleges and universities like the University of Washington. Although they came to the United States as American nationals, they were excluded from U.S. citizenship. In addition to “Alien Land Laws,” which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land, Filipinos were subject to discriminatory employment, educational, and housing practices, many of which were written into law. The social divisions between the growers and the farmworkers grew from this history; overcoming these divisions meant overcoming generations of racial injustice.

Facing racial discrimination in jobs and housing, most Filipinos who came to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s wound up on the migrant circuit, making their way up and down the West Coast in crowded jalopies or empty boxcars. Exclusion from mainstream society fostered solidarity, and Filipino farm and cannery workers were among the most militant strikers and active unionists during the major labor upheavals of the 1930s.

Filipino farmworkers kept the tradition of labor organizing alive through the period of the Bracero Program. Their organization and extensive experience in the fields made them some of the highest paid farm workers, and they were good at negotiating with employers. Most were bachelors because of anti-miscegenation laws, but a few had married and established families. They were called manongs by the new generation of Filipinos who had begun to come of age by the 1960s, a term of respect. Although many were near the end of their working years by the time of the Delano Grape Strike, their experience in labor disputes and collective action were critical to the farm worker movement.

The majority of the farmworkers in the vineyards around Delano were Mexican and Mexican American. Though the farm worker population fluctuated seasonally, many lived in Delano or the nearby towns of McFarland, Earlimart, and Richgrove year-round. Through the winter months, thousands of farmworkers arrived in California’s Imperial Valley along the U.S.- Mexico border to cut and pack lettuce, cantaloupe, and few other crops before moving north to harvest grapes in the Coachella Valley. From there, they made their way through the Central Valley, providing the labor that made California’s rich agricultural economy possible.

Thousands of workers crossed the border each year, some with authorization, some without. Others had called the American Southwest home for generations, stretching back to when the region was part of Mexico. Until the 1920s the southwest border had been relatively fluid, providing labor for California agriculture while fostering a transnational community with familial, economic, and cultural ties. The labor of these farmworkers yielded fortunes in the fields of California. But the workers themselves saw little of the enormous wealth generated in the agricultural industry.

Although they labored in the same fields, Mexican and Filipino farm workers rarely worked alongside each other in the same crews. Wage gains and other concessions won by farm workers in strikes and worker slowdowns usually remained temporary and highly localized. Farmworkers were constantly on the move and struggled to build on those successes. At the same time, growers fostered ethnic divisions to prevent workers from making common cause with one another. If a group of Filipino workers went on strike, for example, growers would often hire a crew of Mexican farmworkers to break the strike, breeding resentment between the two groups and making unity an unlikely prospect. To be successful, the farmworker movement would need to transcend these divisions.

Bibliography

Bardacke, Frank. Trampling out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. New York: Verso, 2011.

Jenkins, J. Craig. The Politics of Insurgency: The Farm Worker Movement in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Levy, Jacques E., and Chavez, Cesar. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1975.

Majka, Linda C. and Theo C. Majka. Farm Workers, Agribusiness, and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Scharlin, Craig, and Lilia V. Villanueva. Philip Vera Cruz. 3rd ed. University of Washington Press, 2011.

Part of a series of articles titled The Road to Sacramento: Marching for Justice in the Fields.

César E. Chávez National Monument

Last updated: May 26, 2021