In the Strawberry Fields

The management of California's strawberry industry offers a case study of both the dependence on an imported peasantry that characterizes much of American agriculture and the destructive consequences of a deliberate low-wage economy

Juan-Vicente Palerm believes that today there are not only more migrants shuttling back and forth from Mexico but also more Mexican farm workers settling permanently in California. Throughout the state towns like Guadalupe, Calexico, Cutler, and McFarland are becoming enclaves of rural poverty. In the Santa Maria Valley the increased production of fruits and vegetables, higher yields per acre, and an extended growing season have created thousands of full- and part-time jobs for farm workers. Broccoli fields now occupy more than 20,000 acres, requiring a large supply of resident workers for a staggered harvest that lasts most of the year. Celery and cauliflower production have also increased the number of reliable jobs. Perhaps 40 percent of the farm labor in the valley is currently performed by workers who live there. Many farm workers now own houses. A privileged few may earn as much as $50,000 a year. But the strawberry fields have drawn thousands of poor migrants to the area. Only 12 percent of the work force at a strawberry farm can claim year-round employment. And cultivating the fruit is so labor-intensive--twenty-five times as labor-intensive as cultivating broccoli--that strawberry production now employs more farm workers than the production of all the vegetables grown in the valley combined. Most strawberry pickers hope to find jobs in the nearby vegetable fields, where the wages are better and the work is less arduous. Turnover rates are extremely high in the strawberry work force. But there is no impending shortage of potential migrants. The rural population of Mexico has tripled since the 1940s, and now stands at roughly 30 million. "In terms of absolute numbers," Palerm says, "there are far more Mexican peasants today than ever before."

A growing proportion of the strawberry pickers in the Santa Maria Valley are Mixtec Indians--some of the poorest and most exploited people in this hemisphere. Soil erosion and declining crop yields in the mountains of western Oaxaca have forced the Mixtecs to become migrant workers. According to Michael Kearney, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside, their choice is simple: "Migrate or starve." Mixtec Indians increasingly dominate the lowest-paid jobs in California agriculture. In Tijuana you often see the wives and children of Mixtec farm workers, small and dark and beautiful, dressed in the bright colors of their native villages, selling Chiclets to tourists on the street.

Until the late 1970s almost all the Mexican farm workers in California were mestizos with strong cultural links to communities already in the state. The new migrants present social workers with unusual challenges. In addition to the ninety-two dialects of Mixtec, there are at least half a dozen other pre-Columbian languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca. Perhaps a fifth of the Mixtec farm workers in California speak no English or Spanish. Throughout their migratory route Mixtecs are the victims of robbery and discrimination. In central Mexico they must run a gantlet of officials demanding bribes. In Tijuana they are preyed upon by smugglers, rapists, and thieves. In San Diego County they have been the targets of "beaner raids"--random beatings administered by white teenagers from the suburbs and by Marines from Camp Pendleton.

In Guadelupe many of the settled farm workers resent the new arrivals from Oaxaca. Illegal immigrants often crossed picket lines during the 1980s, helping to drive the UFW from the valley. Hourly wages have declined by 40 percent over the past decade, and there is widespread underemployment. Labor contractors now actively recruit illegals, who work for less money and raise fewer objections than legal residents. At harvest time Guadalupe's population of 5,500 swells by as much as half, placing great demands on local services. Palerm's researchers once discovered twenty-two people living in a two-bedroom apartment. The city government is bankrupt. Last year much of Guadalupe's housing for migrants was razed or condemned. Local officials hope to turn Guadalupe into a tourist attraction, an authentic "Mexican" town. The bars and cantinas along Highway 1 have been repainted, and destitute migrants, who might scare away the tourists, have been strongly encouraged to go elsewhere.

Despite the hardships of their long journey, Mixtecs hoping to sustain their native villages have a strong incentive to find work in California. Wages in Oaxaca are about two or three dollars a day. Wages in the strawberry fields of Baja California are about five dollars a day. A Mixtec farm worker in the Santa Maria Valley, making ten dollars an hour at the peak of the strawberry harvest, can earn more in one day than he or she could earn back home in a month.


In 1951 the President's Commission on Migratory Labor condemned the abysmal living conditions of illegal immigrants employed as migrant farm workers in the United States. At the time, workers were found living in orchards and irrigation ditches. They lived in constant fear of apprehension, like fugitives, and were routinely exploited by their employers, who could maintain unsafe working conditions, cut wages, or abruptly dismiss them with little fear of reprisal. In many cases the life of these migrants was, according to the commission, "virtually peonage." The commission estimated that 40 percent of the migrants in the United States--at least 400,000 people--were illegal immigrants. Their presence in such large numbers depressed wages for all farm workers; that was "unquestionable." Indeed, illegal immigrants had begun to displace native workers not only in agriculture but also in nonfarm occupations such as construction. The commission argued that the only way to stop the flow of illegals was to impose harsh punishments on those who employed and exploited them. It suggested fines, imprisonment, and a strict prohibition of interstate commerce in any goods produced or harvested by illegal immigrants. "We depend on misfortune to build up our force of migratory workers," the commission concluded, "and when the supply is low because there is not enough misfortune at home, we rely on misfortune abroad to replenish the supply."

Congress ignored the commission's recommendations, and for the next two decades it was a crime to be an illegal immigrant in the United States but not a crime to employ one. In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which demanded broad sanctions against the employers of illegal immigrants. But these sanctions have rarely been applied. There are approximately 873,400 private employers in California--and only about 200 federal inspectors to investigate workplace violations of the immigration code. Moreover, the federal penalties for employing an illegal immigrant are mild. A first offense may result in a fine of $250, a third offense in a fine of $3,000. Instead of stemming illegal immigration, IRCA has actually encouraged it. In response to growers' fears that the new sanctions on employers would create a shortage of farm workers, Congress included in the bill a special amnesty for illegal immigrants who could prove that they had done farm work in the United States during the previous year. It did not demand much proof. Backed by Congressman Leon Panetta and Senator Pete Wilson, both from California, the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program was expected to grant legal status to 350,000 illegal immigrants. Instead more than 1.3 million illegal immigrants--a number roughly equivalent at the time to a sixth of the adult male population of rural Mexico--applied for this amnesty, most of them using phony documents in what has been called one of the greatest immigration frauds in American history. More than a million illegal immigrants were eventually granted legal status; many were soon joined illegally by their wives and children. Instead of shrinking the farm-labor force, IRCA has guaranteed an oversupply of workers. Counterfeit green cards, Social Security cards, driver's licenses, and SAW work histories--the documents necessary to obtain employment as a farm worker--can be easily obtained in rural California for $50.00. The process usually takes about an hour.

Pete Wilson, now the governor of California and a candidate for President of the United States, has lately expressed support for a new guest-worker program, one that would openly recruit migrant workers through a formal agreement, and would guarantee their wages, their living conditions--and their return to Mexico at the end of each year's harvest. The U.S. government operated a similar endeavor, called the Bracero Program, from 1942 to 1964. Migrants who enrolled were shuttled to huge holding pens at the border, forced to await employment with numbers hung around their necks, and then stripped naked and sprayed with a delousing agent before being allowed entry into the United States. Once in this country, the braceros were all but powerless and were bound to a single employer. The Bracero Program was terminated amid revelations that its guest workers were being widely abused. Historians now agree that the program established the social networks and migratory patterns responsible for the subsequent waves of illegal immigration. Indeed, during the program's existence there were often more illegal immigrants than braceros employed in American agriculture.

Despite all these facts, Juan-Vicente Palerm does not rule out lending his support to a new guest-worker program. He has no illusions about such arrangements, having witnessed their implementation in Western Europe during the 1960s, their successes and ultimate failure. His willingness to consider a guest-worker program today is based on pragmatism. The living conditions of migrants in California have become so bad that something must be done at once--and a guest-worker program, while no solution, is at least a first step. The North American Free Trade Agreement permits the free movement of American capital across borders without offering any legal protection to Mexican migrant workers. Palerm believes that the terms of a guest-worker program could guarantee migrants some of the basic rights they do not enjoy today. Even if illegal immigration continues alongside the officially approved migration, those farm workers within the program will no longer have to live underground. Palerm is organizing a community-based coalition in the Santa Maria Valley to address problems facing new immigrants and rural youth. Growers, farm workers, teachers, health workers, and other citizens from Guadalupe are joining to find some common ground.

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A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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