Sunday, August 13, 2017



Review: In the Fields of the North (En los campos del norte)
August 08, 2017 / Eve Ottenberg

In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte
By David Bacon
(University of California Press / El Colegio de la Frontera Norte; 302 photographs, 450 pages; $34.95 paperback)

David Bacon's unforgettable new English-Spanish photo-essay, In the Fields of the North (En los campos del norte), is about migrant farm workers on the West Coast. Bacon says that without unions, the state of affairs in the fruit and vegetable fields would be even sorrier.

Mexican blueberry picker Honesto Silva Ibarra died in Washington state on Sunday after complaining of headaches but being forced by his supervisor to return to work in the blazing sun. He ended up in a coma. When 70 of his co-workers struck Sarbanand Farms to protest Silva's treatment, they were fired the next day and within an hour were thrown out of their company-owned housing.

Such situations are typical of those found in David Bacon's remarkable new English-Spanish photo-essay, In the Fields of the North (En los campos del norte), about migrant farm workers on the West Coast. The main takeaway from the book is that if the United Farm Workers were a stronger union, tragedies like this would not occur. But it should also be said that without the UFW and smaller independent unions like Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), the state of affairs in the fruit and vegetable fields of the West would be even sorrier.

Still, most farm workers don't have a union yet, and many of those who do have not had a contract for a long time.


This book contains unforgettable photographs. There is one of farm workers from the Gallo ranch in Sonoma Valley, who "cross arms, hold hands and sing at the end of a meeting to protest the unwillingness of the company to sign a union contract. Holding hands and singing at the end of a meeting is part of the culture of the United Farm Workers."

And these workers, mainly indigenous people from Mexico, have lots to protest. As Lucrecia Camacho recalls: "I would tie my young children to a stake in the dirt while I worked and I tried to work very fast, so that the foreman would give me an opportunity to nurse my child...I've always been alone, a single mother of ten children...The strawberry harvest...[is] hard. I don't wish that kind of work on my worst enemy."

The labor is arduous, the living conditions atrocious: workers describe how they sleep out in the open, under trees or tarps. Explaining what led to one strike in Washington, Rosario Ventura says: "We were upset about the conditions in the labor camp. The mattress they gave us was torn and dirty, and the wire was coming out and poked us...There were cockroaches and rats. The roof leaked when it rained...All my children's clothes were wet."

Eventually, because of the strike, the company agreed to some of the workers' demands.

The photographs of the shacks, tents, trailers, and tarps the workers live in and under are powerful-the need for decent housing everywhere evident. These hovels often stand right next to luxurious upper-middle-class abodes, separated only by a low wall or path. "We're the first trailer park to have the owners legally removed," says Elisa Guevara, who leads Mexican farm workers protesting bad living conditions. "When people realize they don't have to be quiet and afraid, then change will happen."


As Laura Velasco Ortiz writes in the book's afterword, David Bacon is a "partisan artist." He himself elaborates: "Eighty years ago, many photographers were political activists and saw their work intimately connected to worker strikes, political revolution or the movements for indigenous peoples' rights...I don't claim to be an unbiased observer. I'm on the side of immigrant workers and unions in the United States." His new book highlights resistance and solidarity, but it also exposes injustice and details the exploitation of the people who put food on our tables.

Today growers are "paying an illegal [subminimum] wage to tens of thousands of farm workers," Bacon says. Workers get about $1.50 for picking a flat of strawberries. "Each flat contains about eight plastic clamshell boxes, so a worker is paid about 20 cents to fill each one. That same box sells in a supermarket for three dollars...If the price of a clamshell box increased by five cents (a suggestion made by the UFW during the Watsonville strawberry organizing drive of the late 1990s), the wages of workers would increase by 25 percent."

Workers are thus cheated of a fair wage. They are also threatened with deportation, if they complain, and they have no work in winter. But coming from 13 Mexican states, they speak 23 languages and have strong community ties. As Bacon points out, these bonds are key to their efforts to organize.

Romulo Muñoz Vazquez recalls: "I was beaten at work five years ago on a ranch by the freeway in San Diego. The boss asked us why we weren't working hard. I told him we weren't animals and we had rights. I still remember everything they did to me afterwards...On May Day we've decided not to go to work...We must organize ourselves in order to move ahead."


Most migrants crossing the border today are, typically, about 20 years old. In the chapter, "I'm Going to Be a Rapper with a Conscience," Raymundo Guzman, a young farm worker from Oaxaca who lives in a trailer in Fresno, explains: "I really didn't like to work in the fields when I was in school. I still don't like it, but we have to do it."

He speaks Mixteco, Spanish, and English. "I graduated from high school," he says. "I was the first in my family to do it, my mother was so proud that she threw me a party...but I felt sad...because I didn't know what to do with my diploma, I didn't know where to go and nobody at school helped me." He describes picking grapes in the dizzying heat, and the pain in his knees and back from bending over to pick strawberries all day. "I want to live, not just survive," says Guzman.

Farm workers have difficulty just getting decent clean water. Arsenic contaminates the drinking water of migrants in Lanare, California, an issue around which residents have organized. Another problem is rampant sexual abuse at work and gender discrimination in hiring. But job insecurity remains one of the biggest issues.

"I know one [foreman] who only hires immigrants without papers, because she says legal residents complain too much," Lucrecia Camacho reports. "It's always based on if they like you or not, we just have to put our heads down and work quietly." Speaking of the cost of living, she goes on: "The more we earn, they more they take away. We can't move forward...if I didn't work fast, I was fired immediately."

Everyone in this book who is asked thinks a union would help. "When I was working for [the UFW]," says Andres Cruz, leader of a Triqui immigrant farm worker community, "a group of workers...told me that the company they worked for was firing people every day, this company wanted each worker to pick 250 pounds of peas daily...their hands were so swollen and cut...Sometimes organizing a strike takes three to four days, but in some cases, we can organize in one day...When [our community decides] to do something collectively, they are very united."

That is why the work of the UFW and of smaller independent unions is vital. (After many strikes, Familias Unidas por la Justicia ratified a first contract this summer with Sakuma Bros. Berry Farms in Washington.) So are groups like California Rural Legal Assistance and indigenous movements like La Nación Purepecha. And so are publications like In the Fields of the North.


'Chasing the Harvest' and 'In the Fields of the North'
Review by Elaine Elinson
SF Gate, July 19, 2017

In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte
By David Bacon
(University of California Press / El Colegio de la Frontera Norte; 302 photographs, 450 pages; $34.95 paperback)

Chasing the Harvest
Edited by Gabriel Thompson
(Verso; 320 pages; $24.95 paperback)

In 1946, Carlos Bulosan documented the gritty lives of Filipino migrant workers in California in his autobiographical novel "America Is in the Heart."

Since that time, there have been a wealth of books about California farmworkers, from Steinbeck's iconic "Grapes of Wrath" to Peter Matthiesen's "Sal Si Puedes," published at the height of the Delano grape strike, to Matthew Garcia's recent "From the Jaws of Victory," with revelations from an excavation of United Farm Workers archives.

Yet aside from Bulosan's groundbreaking work seven decades ago, the stories have been told by outsiders - albeit excellent journalists and observers - not by farmworkers themselves.

Two new books, "Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture," edited by Gabriel Thompson, and "In the Fields of the North/ En los campos del norte," by David Bacon, change that pattern.

They come at a crucial time: One third of the nation's agricultural workers, about 800,000 people, are in California. Though the crops they harvest yield $47 billion dollars annually, their average annual income is $14,000. They face chronic arthritis from stoop labor, pesticide poisoning and heat stroke.

Today, 70 percent of the farm workers were born in Mexico, and many travel with their families and fellow villagers from Oaxaca, Michoacán and Guerrero. They speak Mixteco, Triqui and 20 other indigenous languages; many don't know Spanish at all. "We are the invisible of the invisible," Fausto Sanchez, a Mixteco, told Thompson. Sanchez worked the onion fields and orange groves and is now an advocate with California Rural Legal Assistance living in Arvin, a whisper of a town south of Bakersfield where Steinbeck once did research.

Thompson's book, a collection of 17 oral histories, is part of the innovative Voice of Witness series. An award-winning journalist, Thompson is the author of "America's Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century."

Roberto Valdez, a 48-year-old farmworker who lives in a trailer with his family in Thermal, in Riverside County, took cell phone videos in the scorching fields after his teenage son almost died from heatstroke. "No one comes out here, no one knows what we go through," he says.

Valdez became an advocate for safe conditions, even testifying before the state Legislature: "The hands that you see are the hands that harvest the lemons you use to make the lemonade you are now drinking. The strawberries that your children eat, we cut them. We're dying out there in the fields."

Valdez's testimony and videos helped win the passage of regulations protecting workers from extreme heat. But, as Thompson notes, "widespread violations - and death in the fields - continue."

Rosario Pelayo, a 77-year-old great-grandmother of 21 from Calexico, proudly shows Thompson a photo that appeared in El Malcriado, the UFW newspaper, when she was arrested during the grape strike in 1974. "There were days when the only thing we had out on the picket lines was a bottle of water and one taco. And I still haven't lost the spirit."

She recounts facing Teamsters who menaced picketers with tire irons, chains and pruning shears. Yet she was one of the workers who was ousted from the UFW convention when she sought a seat on the executive board.

Though Pelayo harbors some resentment, she still feels proud of the UFW's accomplishments. "I saw so many injustices in the field. They used to treat the farmworkers as if they were slaves. We didn't get breaks. There were no bathrooms in the fields. We needed a union and to get it we had to fight with all our hearts."

Thompson notes that, thanks to the UFW, California still has the only law in the country that protects the right of farmworkers to unionize, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975.

Bacon's comprehensive bilingual volume also includes oral histories, as well as analytical essays and hundreds of black-and-white photos. A former union organizer, Bacon is the author of "The Children of NAFTA and Illegal People," and his photos have been exhibited in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. Bacon describes his work as "not objective but partisan, documenting social reality is part of the movement for social change."

Ironically, despite using a more diverse array of documentation, Bacon may have chosen a more challenging path. As photographer Teju Cole asserts, "Photography is particularly treacherous when it comes to righting wrongs because it is so good at recording appearances. ... It's not about taking something that belongs to someone else and making it serve you, but rather about recognizing that history is brutal and unfinished and finding some way, within that recognition, to serve the dispossessed."

The poignant photographs in Bacon's collection meet that call. Avoiding both sensationalism and sentimentality, the photos reveal not only the workers' desperate poverty, but also the dignity of their toil and their consuming effort to provide a better life for their children.

The inside look at the migrants' "informal housing" is deeply disturbing. We see families crammed in tiny trailers and dilapidated plywood shacks, covered by tarps or sin techo (without a roof) hastily thrown up in orchards or fields. The growers allow them to stay in exchange for protecting the crops. Clusters of shacks outside city limits lack sewage, electricity and water treatment, forcing the residents to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking. They bathe in irrigation ditches, polluted by runoff of pesticides and fertilizers.

Bacon's photos are most captivating when he focuses on people's faces and calloused hands as they prune vines, cut lettuce and sort strawberries. In accompanying captions, they remember precisely how many buckets of jalapenos, blueberries or tomatoes they picked, how much they weighed and how much they earned per bucket.

Bacon also captures moments that brighten the lives of the workers. Raymundo Guzman, a trilingual rapper in baggy shorts and unlaced sneakers, entertains from a makeshift stage in a labor camp. Mothers embroider intricate designs on blouses for their daughters to wear when they perform traditional dances at fiestas. Bright-eyed Mixtec children show off their drawings and sing with their teachers in Migrant Head Start. And workers march under banners reading "Respect," and "United Without Borders" as they renew the arduous effort of union organizing.

Both Bacon and Thompson bring us one step closer to Bulosan's masterful novel, providing not just an intimate, but an insider look, at the lives of California's farmworkers.

Elaine Elinson, coauthor of "Wherever There's a Fight," represented the United Farm Workers in Europe during the grape strike and boycott.

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