The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl

In 2011, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day in the United States—a celebration of the life and legacy of the important Chicano civil rights and labor leader. With the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) and Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conferences also in full swing this Cesar Chavez Day, it’s only fitting that we are sharing a preview of Sarah D. Wald‘s forthcoming book, The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl (May 2016). Analyzing fiction, nonfiction, news coverage, activist literature, memoirs, and more from the Great Depression through the present, Wald’s book looks at how California farmlands have served as a popular symbol of American opportunity and natural abundance, and addresses what such cultural works tell us about who belongs in America, and in what ways they are allowed to belong. By bringing together ecocriticism and critical race theory, the book addresses an important gap in how we understand questions of citizenship, immigration, and environmental justice.

The excerpt below focuses on what Wald calls “the often-overlooked points of intersection between the UFW [United Farm Workers] and environmentalism.”

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl, by Sarah D. Wald:

Most environmental historians cite Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) as the modern environmental movement’s birth announcement. They distinguish mid-twentieth-century environmentalism from the conservationism and preservationism of the Progressive Era in large part through its concern for toxins and other forms of pollution. Many participants in the environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s expressed concern that human use of technology fundamentally threatened the circle of ecological life and imperiled humanity’s ability to sustain itself. Carson echoed these themes, linking the death of songbirds to the potential loss of human life. The popular concern for such issues congealed with the first Earth Day in April 1970. Organizers billed Earth Day as a national teach-in that included events at fifteen hundred colleges and ten thousand schools. As historian Adam Rome wrote, “The teach-ins collectively involved more people than the biggest civil rights and antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s.” Millions participated.

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The history of modern environmentalism is entangled with the remarkable story of the United Farm Workers, the first successful unionization effort for farmworkers. In 1962, the same year Carson published Silent Spring, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta resigned from the Community Service Organization to focus on organizing farmworkers, and Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). In 1965, the largely Filipino farmworkers union, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), began the famous grape strike, with Chavez’s organization voting to strike in solidarity. In 1966, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and AWOC merged into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). On July 29, 1970, just three months after the first Earth Day, the United Farm Workers (UFW) achieved a major victory, signing 150 contracts with the major Delano grape growers, covering thirty thousand workers. The success was short-lived, as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters began undermining the UFW by signing “sweetheart” deals with the growers. This controversy led to a renewal of the strike and boycott throughout the 1970s. The UFW never again had as many unionized workers.

For both the modern environmental movement and the United Farm Workers, 1962–70 was a key period of transformation and growing public awareness. Whereas previously the white American farmer was popularly perceived as an ideal authentic citizen, representations by and of the United Farm Workers depicted nonwhite peoples as being closer to nature, as natural environmentalists. Whiteness was no longer a requisite (and could be a hindrance) for an authentic relationship to the land. Simultaneously, the rise of a self-consciously environmentalist discourse (rather than one of conservation or preservation) reinforced the UFW’s production of an environmental justice rhetoric. As the modern environmental movement changed popular understandings of nature and Americans’ relation to it, the UFW expanded constructions of “environment” and “ecology” to capture the uneven exposure of farmworkers to pesticides while simultaneously positioning farmworkers as the new American environmental heroes, more capable than the federal government of protecting the broader American public from poisoning.

California farmworker advocates often assert the national belonging of farmers and farmworkers by depicting their relationship to the landscape as “natural.” They invoke Jeffersonian agrarian narratives in ways that legitimize farmers and farmworkers’ experiences and critiques of injustice through reference to their status as ideal American citizens. Often these texts use a subject’s relationship to the land or nature to articulate their racialized inclusion or exclusion from the nation. Many sympathetic commentators and advocates for the UFW invoked such a naturalization narrative, often through their depictions of Chavez, particularly authors who spoke from an environmentalist framework. Environmentalists’ concerns from the 1960s shaped some UFW supporters’ representations of Chavez. Their depictions of the Chicano leader reveal some of the latent racial ideologies that circulated in the support for both movements. They expose the changing racial politics of idealizing a natural relationship to the earth. Whereas earlier depictions of farmworkers often emphasized their whiteness or aspirational whiteness, representations of farmworkers in the 1960s and 1970s emphasized their “third world” status in ways that suggested that nonwhite workers had a more traditional relationship to nature.

The environmentalist fascination with the UFW drew on and reinforced a problematic understanding of Mexicans as being “natural” agrarian workers, closer to the land and to nature than their white counterparts. Such representations embraced Mexican farmworkers as a symbol of authenticity. By the 1960s and 1970s, nature had become, in part, a symbol of “the real” and “the authentic.” Its embrace during this period constituted a reaction against the perceived artificiality of 1950s society. Similarly, popular culture, political rhetoric, and even academic treatises from this period frequently presented Mexican American culture as being more “authentic” than mainstream white culture. A 1979 passage by literary critic Joseph Sommers illustrates this vein of thinking. Testa wrote, “Modern Anglo culture suffers from an ersatz quality deriving from loss of the past, urbanization, artificial and elitist sophistication, corruption by the manipulative mass media, and a voguish stress on the mental, the imaginary, and the irrational. The Chicano may live outside the mainstream, this critic would say, but his very exclusion has permitted the retention of traditional culture.” In this passage, Sommers offers a problematic opposition between artificial mainstream urban white culture and traditional authentic rural Mexican American culture. Similarly, in his April 22, 1970, Earth Day speech, Mexican American activist Arturo Sandoval proclaimed to a predominantly Chicano audience in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “And America—white America—has lost its ability to cry, and laugh and sing and love and live. And that is what we are addressing here today. Our humanity, our hope, and our determination to make this society—and all societies—human societies, livable societies. And to make those environments human, life-supporting kinds of environments.” For Sandoval, la raza was an inclusive term, “beyond skin color,” for those who retained their humanity, a life he sees many white Americans as having forgotten. Both Sommers and Sandoval perceived Mexican Americans as experiencing and participating in a “real” life that white America had forsaken.

In incorporating Catholic and Mexican traditions in his organizing strategies and public relations efforts, Chavez challenged such countercultural visions of Mexican farmworkers. In drawing on traditions that resonated with Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers, Chavez did not present Mexican or Mexican American culture as being inherently timeless and unchanging. Rather, he transformed the meaning of the cultural events he depicted, endowing Mexican and Catholic culture with the possibility of social transformation. For example, the red and black of the UFW flag intentionally recalls the colors used for strikes in Mexico. References to the Mexican Revolution peppered Chavez’s speeches. Chavez frequently used traditional Mexican sayings, or dichos, as part of his outreach to farmworkers. He scheduled the meeting during which his membership formally joined the Filipino farmworkers’ grape strike for Mexican Independence Day. The UFW’s perigranción, a 350-mile march from Delano to the Sacramento statehouse arriving on Easter Sunday 1966, consciously drew on Mexican Catholic traditions of pilgrimage, while Chavez’s fasts recalled rituals of penance. Chavez’s use of Catholic and Mexican American cultural icons and rituals countered popular stereotypes of Mexican American farmworkers as passive, ignorant, powerless, and lazy; instead, such icons and rituals empowered farmworkers. In transforming the meanings associated with certain rituals, sayings, and symbols, the union leader demonstrated their adaptability. He proved that such traditions were not timeless and immutable. Indeed, Chavez critiqued the tendency of US counterculture participants to romanticize ethnic cultures. He stated, “It seems to me that one other reason that it was difficult to organize was that for some time back and more so today, people tend to romanticize the poor people. Or romanticize the Negro or the Mexican or anybody who was discriminated against. And we say that to help someone help themselves we have to look at him as a human being. And we cannot romanticize his race or his poverty if we are really going to deal with the problem and to help him as a human being.” This call from Chavez for his supporters to see farmworkers as full human beings with flaws suggests that his use of Catholic and Mexican traditions was not meant to further romanticize Mexican American culture or perpetuate stereotypes of it.

Despite Chavez’s concerns about romanticization, many UFW supporters’ embrace of both Mexican farmworkers and nature functioned as a declaration against mainstream society and an affirmation of the values of the 1960s and 1970s countercultural left, particularly this sense of authenticity, “the real,” and traditional societies. These Chavez supporters celebrated the figure of the Mexican farmworker as Jeffersonian farmer, joining the concepts of “authentic nature,” “authentic Mexican,” and ideal American citizen. In writing about the liberal fascination with Chavez, Chicana/o Studies scholars Richard Griswold del Castillo and Richard A. Garcia highlighted Chavez’s Jeffersonian appeal: “Mexican Americans, specifically, the farmworkers and Cesar Chavez, were existentially authentic, primarily because of their labor, their relationship to the land, their respect for their humanity, and their love of community. The Mexican farmworker was closer to the Jeffersonian ideal of the true ‘common man.’ As farmworkers, they were God’s chosen children, threatened by industrial society.” The Jeffersonian ideal found new life when wrapped in the mantle of counterculture resistance to the perceived conformity and plasticity of middle-class Anglo-American consumer culture. Some UFW supporters romanticized Mexican American farmworkers’ culture as an authentic alternative to the middle-class suburban white life, the perceived overcrowding and decay of increasingly black urban centers, and the industrialization of pesticide-dependent agriculture.

These concerns are evident in nature writer Peter Matthiessen’s writing on Chavez. Matthiessen wrote Sal Si Puedes, one of the most frequently cited books on Chavez, from the position of an unabashed environmentalist. His depiction of Chavez and the association he draws between farm labor and environmental degradation suggests the problematic assumptions underlying the rise of modern environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Matthiessen’s interest in the UFW stemmed from his concerns about pesticides. His friend Ann Israel asked him to copyedit an advertisement about pesticides that the UFW intended to publish in the New York Times. This led Israel to introduce him to Chavez. After visiting Delano and spending time with Chavez and other key members of the UFW, Matthiessen convinced William Shawn, editor at the New Yorker, to run a profile of Chavez. The New Yorker published the piece in two parts, on June 21 and June 28, 1969. It was one of the first prominent published profiles of Chavez, and it was in the same magazine that had first published Silent Spring. From this profile, Matthiessen developed Sal Si Puedes, which Random House Press released in 1970.

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