CIRS Blog about Rural California

For the state’s first hundred-plus years, certain unspoken rules governed California politics. In a state where agriculture produced more wealth than any industry, the first rule was that growers held enormous power.

 

Tax dollars built giant water projects that turned the Central and Imperial Valleys into some of the nation’s most productive farmland. Land ownership was concentrated in huge corporate plantation-like farms. Growers used political power to assure a steady flow of workers from one country after another—Japan, China, the Philippines, Yemen, India, and of course Mexico—to provide the labor that made the land productive.

Agribusiness kept farm labor cheap, at wages far below those of people in the state’s growing urban centers. When workers sought to change their economic condition, grower power in rural areas was near absolute—strikes were broken and unions were kept out.

 

The second unwritten rule was therefore that progressive movements grew more easily in the cities, where unions and community organizations became political forces to be reckoned with. In the legislature, these rules generally meant that Democrats and pro-labor proposals came from urban districts, while resistance came from Republicans in rural constituencies.

 

That historic divide in California politics is changing, however.

 

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Consuelo Mendez was 23 when she arrived in the United States 45 years ago, looking for work. In Ventura County she found it, harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, parsley and spinach. She got those jobs by going from field to field, asking other workers to tell her who was hiring. Picking is hard work, and getting enough work to live on required her to move all the time from one farm to another.

“When I emigrated from a small town in Michoacán I had never worked before,” she remembers. “I was young, raising my children. Then I went to work in the strawberry harvest. My husband was running an upholstery business, but that didn’t pay very well, so he worked alongside me in the fields to make extra money. I never thought I would be working like that, and that the work would be so hard. I did it for three years, but after that I couldn’t because I got so tired. I couldn’t drive and didn’t know how to speak English – to this day I struggle with it.”

Mendez wanted something more stable, and she found it. A woman told her Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy was hiring. She asked a foreman there again and again to hire her, and finally the owner took notice. “We told him we were looking for work because we had a family to support,” she remembers. “He told us to come back the next day and gave us a job. I got a job indoors and my husband went to work in their fields. I’ve been here and never been unemployed since.”

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