Last summer my husband and I took a road trip down California’s Central Valley to the Salton Sea. John Muir loved this part of California, its tule fogs and wildflower meadows. For him this land was “the great bee pasture.” Today, with monoculture crops as far as the eye can see, it is hard to envision Muir’s pasture. If you’re a statistics kind of person, you can Google “Central Valley” and find all sorts of data, including the fact that here, on less than 1 percent of the total U.S. farmland, 8 percent of the nation’s crops are grown. This miracle occurs because water is channeled over long distances through California’s aqueduct system. According to the u.s. Geological Survey, an astonishing one-sixth of the nation’s irrigated land lies in the Central Valley. Needless to say, the farming is almost entirely mechanized. Only the occasional sight of farm workers gives any sense of a human presence. There is something awesome about the vastness of so much flat land, but it is visually oppressive, too.
We stopped in Delano, a dusty town still surrounded by fields of table grapes. Here, forty-five years ago, Filipino-American farm workers from the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Larry Itliong, began the Delano Grape Strike, which lasted for five years. A week after the strike began, Cesar Chavez and his National Farm Workers Association voted to join in. By 1966 the groups had combined into the powerful United Farm Workers union (UFW), with the charismatic Chavez at the helm.
Over lunch my husband and I contemplated what those forty-five years have brought. The fields are still dominated by table grapes; the pickers are still poor. Arriving in the u.s. in the 1930s, Filipino farm workers faced discriminatory laws that kept them from owning property or intermarrying. Delano’s once-visionary Agbayani Village, completed by UFW volunteers in 1974 to provide affordable housing for the then-elderly workers, never really took off, due to political and cultural tensions between Mexican and Filipino union members. Now the property is inhabited by regular tenants. By contrast, the National Chavez Center at Nuestra Señora Reina de La Paz presents a spectacular, and moving, tribute to Chavez and his work. Located on the grounds of the UFW headquarters in Keene, a tiny town in the hills rising west of the Mohave, the Center has a new gallery space dedicated to the history of the UFW. Chavez lies buried outside, among beautiful roses and fountains. He earned this shrine, yet it doesn’t seem right that the Filipino workers are forgotten.
At the nearby Keene Café we paused for some local tehachaberry pie, made from just-picked raspberries and blackberries. There is no question that California led the way in celebrating the local and initiating America’s food renaissance. California even created a prototype for hugely successful food festivals when it staged the first Gilroy Garlic Festival in 1979. We now flock to restaurants that serve local, organic food; we enjoy seasonal festivals that bring much-needed revenue to their communities. But in all of this celebration we too often remain oblivious to what underlies these fresh foods—the backbreaking labor by mainly migrant agricultural workers who, despite the UFW’s successes, still work under horrific conditions, in one-hundred-degree heat, exposed to chemical herbicides.
So what is the legacy of the Delano Grape Strike? Our road trip this summer caused me to reconsider our national conversation about food. Amidst the important discussions of sustainability and ecological responsibility that are going on nationwide, the human factor is too often overlooked. And the issue is not simply a question of corporate vs. small-scale agriculture. Recently I visited a California winery where everything was being done just right. The vineyard was beyond organic—it was biodynamic, with its own closed ecosystem based on natural cycles overlaid with Rudolph Steiner’s precepts. Here nature was allowed to do her own thing, with only minimal, and benign, human intervention. But this idyllic vision was shattered when a huge truck arrived. Out jumped two dozen grape pickers, who grabbed boxes and began literally racing down the rows—they were being paid by the box. This winery believed in harvesting its grapes by hand, so mechanical harvesters were not an option. But these workers might as well have been robots; they were that anonymous. Today’s workers may be better treated than the table-grape pickers of the 1960s, but to consumers they remain hidden behind the labels of even the most wholesome, organic products we responsibly choose to eat.
Contemporary American agricultural discourse speaks to the land, to how badly it is being treated. But a healthy food system involves more than pesticide-free soil and erosion control. The national move to eat more sustainably needs to include an awareness of those who are laboring so that the rest of us can eat. Only then will the American diet have been truly transformed.