In August of 1936, a young writer named John Steinbeck set out in an old bakery truck to capture the lives of California’s migrant farmworkers. With a notebook in hand, he toured the San Joaquin Valley, spending much of his time in the Bakersfield area, which would lead to his classic 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck’s book shocked the country. He revealed the hardships faced by migrant farmworkers, who made just enough money to keep moving along, and who struggled with one crisis after another — from having their wages stolen to being unable to find safe housing.
As I learned last year, many of those crises continue. For several months, I traveled the state to meet with current and former farmworkers, who told stories about their lives in the field. “The world needs to know us better,” one farmworker, Roberto, told me. “No one comes out here; no one knows what we go through.”
Roberto has worked in the fields for 20 years, much of it spent following the grape harvest between Coachella and Bakersfield. In 2005, after his 16-year-old son nearly died of heat stroke while harvesting grapes, Roberto became an advocate and traveled to Sacramento to testify in support of new heat regulations. Today, California is the only state with such rules, which protect not just farmworkers but everyone who works outdoors.
Roberto is one of 17 people featured in my new book, "Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Farmworkers in California Agriculture." It is an oral history collection from the fields, allowing people — farmworkers, advocates and growers — to tell their stories in their own words, making each entry both intimate and engrossing. The narrators, who are aged 17 to 77, live as far south as the border city of Calexico all the way up to Stockton. Several, like Roberto, have spent years harvesting crops around Bakersfield.
It is a punishing occupation that doesn’t pay much: the median annual income for California farmworkers is $14,000. Farmworkers contend with wage theft, pesticide exposure and sexual harassment. A study of seven agricultural communities in California found that 10 percent of farmworkers lived in what researchers called “informal dwellings” like garages, sheds, barns and abandoned vehicles. Formal dwellings aren’t always much better. Families double or triple up in apartments, stuff into sweltering trailers, and make homes out of primitive labor camps.
The narrators in the book talk frankly about such challenges. But they also share stories of hope and triumph. This might seem strange to readers who think of farmworkers only as exploited, vulnerable and miserable. Statistics do a good job of painting that picture, and they are indeed real. But the statistics miss a lot, too. They miss the joys that farmworkers also have: the pride in their work, the camaraderie of a crew, the tight-knit families, the feeling of deep satisfaction that comes, as one narrator put it, from being in “a beautiful struggle.”
“Look at my hands,” Roberto told me, an hour into our conversation. Two fingernails were busted, there was a cut on his hand, and the calluses on his palms were hard as bricks. “These are the hands that feed this country.” He had a wide smile on his face. His is an important occupation, and he knew it.
There are 800,000 farmworkers in California, who make up one-third of the nation’s agricultural workforce. We rarely get the chance to hear from them, but this book allows you to invite 17 people into your living room and listen to them share details about their hopes and fears, their joys and hardships.
Even better, next week you can meet some of the farmworkers in person in Delano. On Wednesday, Oct. 25, from 6 to 8 p.m., we will host a panel discussion with farmworkers from "Chasing the Harvest," which will also celebrate the legendary UFW organizer Larry Itliong. The event, which is sponsored by the Social Justice Institute of Bakersfield College, will be held at Robert F. Kennedy High School, located at 1401 Heitt Avenue. And if you come at 5 p.m. with a family historical artifact — whether a photo or letter — Digital Delano will record your story.
Gabriel Thompson is a freelance journalist and author, whose most recent book is Chasing the Harvest.