Farmworkers, Gleaners, and the Stories We Tell

Blackie Rd. Field

I recently visited the Gleaning Stories, Gleaning Change event at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. I drive by the seemingly endless vegetable fields of the Salinas Valley every day; they are not much discussed among the people I know around here. Yet, the agricultural fields are the backdrop to our lives; they border most of the highways and backroads in this area. What’s happening in the fields tells us about our economic and physical health.

Molera Rd.1

With their long, repetitively neat rows, the fields change color throughout the year, from fertile black, to green, to mud-brown or grey. I see the crops—artichokes, strawberries, spinach, chard, beets—rotated with each season, and the Mexican and other Hispanic fieldworkers at their tasks in the heat of summer, or the cold and drizzle of early spring or fall mornings. They are not always picking vegetables, though. Sometimes they are laying down polypropylene sheets to protect the strawberries; sometimes they are driving tractors, putting in irrigation pipes, or other tasks that I, as an outsider, can’t fathom.

I’m not a complete outsider though; my father worked in these fields during the Great Depression era, when most of the workers in the area were Filipino. My mother worked for the Birds-Eye cannery, sorting the vegetables that were shipped in from the Salinas Valley. She came home smelling of rotting brussels sprouts. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I traveled with the Filipino community members to the labor camps to sell tickets for community events to the workers. During that decade, the manongs (respected elder males) were old, although most could not afford to retire. Many had been here since the 1920s, and were swiftly being replaced by an influx of Mexican workers.

Manongs -- at the labor camp
Manongs in a local labor camp. Photo by Trinidad Vengua, 1960s.

They lived in ramshackle wooden buildings that looked like the last remnants of the Depression era. Even as a child, I remember being appalled at the condition of some of the bathroom facilities provided for the workers. From their sparsely furnished communal dining rooms, I could see beyond the open doorway into their bunk areas, separated by sheets strung across clotheslines for privacy. The manongs would prepare fishead soup for us to eat, a hearty concoction of vinegar, fish and its broth, ginger, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. I’m sure they did their share of gleaning the fields, too.


While I appreciate the inclusion of the Filipino farmworkers into the story of Salinas Valley farming, it was slightly disorienting to see their lives reconstructed as public history exhibits—to walk into a bunkhouse “room,” and see an explanation of the scene written on the “window,” or an artistically rendered bit of prose screen-printed on an old used pillow. That painted wooden cutout of a Filipino worker could be my dad—although he would’ve been much more likely to wear a straw hat in the fields, his face protected with a bandana.

filipino workers - Gleaners

Butterfly pillow - Gleaners

The interactive exhibit featured a lot of audio and various media (even a game) related to agriculture, the history of the farmworkers in the area, and the gleaners who arrive after the fields have been harvested to pick over what is left. In an audio situated in the “bunkhouse,” one voice talking about farmwork sounded familiar. I could swear it was the voice of a local poet, Jeff Tagami. He has lived and worked in the Pajaro area for his entire life. There were so many people walking around, however (on opening day of the exhibit), that it was difficult to hear the stories. Whether or not it was Jeff, his poetry gives us some insight into the life of the farmworker in “Song of Pajaro” (from the Poetry Foundation website ):

Pajaro the men thigh deep in mud
who are cutting cauliflower
the tractor they must depend
to pull them out
the catering truck selling hot coffee

Pajaro the children who clean
the mud from their father’s boots
They sleep They wake
to the smell of cauliflower growing
in fields that are not dreams
fields that begin under their bedroom windows
and end in a world they do not know
from the mountains to the river
from the river to the beach

Now Pajaro is tired It wants to sleep
The packing sheds shut down for the night
The trucks close their trailer doors
and the Southern Pacific leaves town
(having got what it wanted)

This Pajaro of my mother leaving work
who at this moment is crossing the bridge of no lights
in her Buick Electra with wings like a huge bird
crossing over the black river toward home
where she will make the sign of the cross
over the cooked rice in the name of the Lord
and prepare for the table
a steaming plate of cauliflower

—Jeff Tagami

Christina Jogoleff, Mauricio Macias, Donna Haraway.
Christina Jogoleff, Mauricio Macias, Donna Haraway.

I even had a chance to tell my own story, since they had an audio setup ready for anyone with their own tale to tell about gleaning. Mauricio Macias and Christina Jogoleff helped me with the microphone, and I said my piece—but was nervous and hesitant, the words catching in my throat. Well, I thought, I could always post it in my blog, later. This reminds me of an incident with my father, many years ago. A student from UCSC wanted to interview him about his working life during the 1930s. He agreed, because he liked the student. However, the prospect gave him a couple of sleepless nights. He had been involved in labor organizing back then, and during the Bloody Thursday strikes in San Francisco, had some first hand experience with suppression by the police. The memories disturbed him, and he decided he’d rather not discuss it–and he didn’t.

I also had an interesting talk with Donna Haraway about gleaning; she commented on the incredible waste of good produce found in the fields by gleaners. The gleaners themselves have their own, complex stories; some are truly “outsiders” to agricultural labor, and come to glean in order to give back to the community, and to find out what it’s like “on the other side.” Some have family histories of fieldwork, and feel both pride and sadness while gleaning. Many gleaners—whether they have a history in the fields or not—talk about the “sensual” experience of gleaning, the feel of the dirt, the produce in their hands, the smells of farming, and how it differs from their everyday lives. I realized how in these hard times it’s so important to collect this food, use it, appreciate it, and distribute what we can’t use to those who need it. You can listen to some great stories about gleaning on the Stories pages of the project website.

Package Deal - Gleaners

In one corner, the gigantic Marilyn Monroe promo cutout lent a humorous if surreal and ironic, vision to the exhibit. A former Castroville artichoke queen, she presided over the event like some bizarre Hollywood goddess, proffering Salinas Valley bounty, and flanked by posters for the “big ag” farms.

The fieldworkers come and go, literally, but the agricultural fields remain—or so it seems. But in reality, some workers stay on, or return again and again until the place becomes “home.” Use of the land here has shifted from indigenous hunting and gathering, to grain cultivation and cattle-raising during and after the Hispanic Alta California period, and finally to beet farming (with the development of irrigation methods) and row crops. Mary Ellen Ryan and Gary Breschini point out that the farming of lettuce really took off in the 1920s—1930s, which was when my father arrived, along with tens of thousands of Filipinos, Mexicans, African-Americans (the Chinese and Japanese had already been here since the mid- to late-19th century), and Anglo-Americans streaming in from the “dust bowl” of the midwest to find work—changing forever the population and culture of the Salinas Valley area.

Categories: California farm laborers, Food, Farms, Local History | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Farmworkers, Gleaners, and the Stories We Tell

  1. Pingback: the story collector « Local Nomad

  2. John and Millie Whitehead

    Here are a few observations…
    1. Artichokes and, strawberries don’t get rotated each year. It seems like the plants were good for 3 years. Then they would plow them under and bring in new ones. Lots of fertilizer was added.
    2. No such thing as “heat of the summer” around Salinas. Every now and then it would get up to high 70’s and maybe low 80’s a couple of times. Salinas is an air conditioned valley. Now the fog could make for an uncomfortable morning in the fields.
    3. “Pajaro the men thigh deep in mud” is silly… If the fields were to wet for the trucks, the workers wore rubber boots but the mud was never more than a few inches sloppy as I remember.

    I worked in the lettuce fields the summers of 60 through 65 in high school. Three years with Mexican labors and 2 years with Filipino labors. I liked working with the Filipinos better because they could all speak english and my Spanish was never any good.

    It is interesting the way the labor forces were split up. Now we are talking about the 50s and 60s. The Filipinos worked the irrigation in the fields. Probably not a 100% but close to it. As I understand it, the Mexican labors came in big numbers during WWII because so many American men were active in the military. During my time, they dominated the field labor. And the Okies (my people) were in the packing sheds for the most part.

    1946 marked the beginning of the Baby Boomers and that was when I was hatched. My high school years were 60 to 64 and any kind of social barriers that existed went by the wayside. In Salinas, interracial marriages were and are very common.

    Salinas Valley was a good place to grow up even though most of us kids wondered what it would be like to live in a big city. I doubt any of us early 60’s kids had any idea what was going on in a lot of areas in the US.

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