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September 17, 2008

'Okies' and today's farm labor: Some things don't change

They came to California because there was nowhere else to turn.

There was no money to be made in the fields back home, so they packed what they could, sold the rest and turned their sights toward the Golden State, where streets were paved with gold, jobs were plentiful and everyone ate well -- or so they'd heard.

Although agriculture, employment laws and the face of farmworkers have changed, this story is as true today as it was in the 1930s, when dust storms blew through the Great Plains carrying away miles of topsoil and leaving behind severe ecological and agricultural damage.

In the 1930s, "Okies" were coaxed to California by promises of work and agricultural bounty. Slowly, they put down roots in valley towns including Modesto, infusing the region's culture with evangelical religious beliefs, country music and a tireless devotion to hard work.

They left a lasting impression, but the 1930s was the first and last time a majority of farmworkers were white. Since then, the majority have been from Mexico.

Just as Okies moved to the valley and influenced the culture, so have Mexican workers. Today, the region is home to scores of taquerías selling traditional dishes and radio stations pumping out Spanish-language music.

Farmworkers not only influenced valley culture over the past 70 years, but also farming operations.

Okies demanded higher wages. Then, Mexican farmworkers led boycotts in favor of job security and better working conditions, said Professor Philip Martin, who studies migration and labor issues at the University of California at Davis.

Still, nearly 60 years after photographer Dorothea Lange and writer John Steinbeck captured the Okies' plight, many of the same problems persist, said United Farm Workers spokeswoman Vicki Adame.

"Laws don't matter unless they're followed," Adame said. "Everyone looks the other way. There's no one out there policing the fields."

That's a stretch, said Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Executive Manager Wayne Zipser. The state has

66 inspectors who make surprise farm visits three weeks a month.

When some fields are inspected, the violations reveal a scene that would have been common in the 1930s.

This summer, state labor inspectors uncovered a slew of violations during a sweep that began in Modesto and headed north over two days. Crews were using banned tools, had zero shade or safety plans, and water but no cups. Children too young to work legally were found toiling in the fields. And some workers lived in a makeshift village with more than 30 tents.

"We thought if we worked hard, we would live comfortably. But picking is never going to give you a comfortable life. As long as you pick, life is hard," Sonia Mendoza, 27, of Ceres said in Spanish.

That's a lesson farmworkers have been learning for decades, Martin said.

"I think what the 1930s showed us is the best way to help a farmworker is to get him out of agriculture. I don't think that's changed," he said.

Agriculture "is a starting point for them. Parents pick and send their kids to school and their kids get better jobs," Zipser said.

Tears well up in Francisco Mendoza's eyes when asked about his children.

"I want different work for them. I want them to study. They aren't going to do this work," said Mendoza, 38, of Hilmar, who is not related to Sonia Mendoza.

But for many farm laborers, it's the only kind of work they've known, and some prefer it, said Turlock peach grower Randy Fiorini, 54.

Miguel Chavez, 54, of Hilmar makes about $9 an hour working in almond orchards. After 37 years, he said, he still enjoys it because he likes his co-workers.

"Some people want to earn more than this can pay," he said in Spanish. "But, to me, a peso is a peso."

Farm labor foreman Javier Arambula, 53, of Hilmar shares that sentiment. Farming is all he has known or wants to know, but it hasn't always been easy. When he came to California 32 years ago, he slept in barns, camped near rivers and beneath the trees he'd spent the day picking, just as Okies had done before him.

"But it was worth the trouble," he said, crossing his arms, "because now I'm here to stay. I have a house."

It was the same migrant lifestyle that wore on Arambula that had attracted Clyne Keener's family to the valley during the Dust Bowl.

"We were like gypsies. We had no intentions of settling," said Keener, 72, of Oakdale. "When Dad got the urge to pack up and leave, he wanted to just leave."

Okies "were in-migrants who faced difficult times and have since transitioned from being unwanted outsiders to successful Californians," said Toni Alexander, a geography professor at Auburn University in Alabama who wrote her doctoral dissertation about Okie identity.

All about 'survival

Sonia Mendoza has made the difficult transition. Now a factory worker who rents a home in a quiet Modesto neighborhood, she used to work all day and fall asleep dirty beneath the trees she had just harvested.

"It's survival. You do what you have to to survive," she said. "I'm not a dirty person. I just had a dirty job. I know how to wash myself. I just didn't have water."

Keener's family lived the same way.

"I don't see any difference between pickers now and us back in the day," he said.

But pickers today are protected by laws that didn't exist in the 1930s. Now, they're entitled to minimum wage, shade, drinking water, on-site restrooms, extra breaks and more. And yet, there is more to fight for, Adame said, referring to the need for better enforcement, health care and pay.

As farmworkers struggle for more, farmers are moving away from using such labor.

"When my dad pulled out his peaches, it was mainly because of labor. Labor was the biggest expense," Zipser said.

Agriculture's future may be dependent upon technology, but for now delicate crops such as peaches and salad tomatoes prefer the softness of hands over jolting machinery.

"I was watching a pumpkin harvest the other day. Guys in the field still harvest them and pitch them up to a guy on a truck the way they did in the old days," Zipser said. "It's hard work. Some things haven't changed."

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at or 578-2382.

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