Tragedy in the Fields: The Self-destruction of the United Farm Workers

Tragedy in the Fields: The Self-destruction of the United Farm Workers

Most people think that farm work in the vineyards and fields of California is unskilled labor, largely undifferentiated work in which an army of Mexican-born migrants follow the harvest northward from the border as the fruits and vegetables ripen with the season. The pay is low, the housing transient, and the work life full of humiliations petty and grand.

A lot of this rings true, before, during, and after the appearance of the United Farm Workers in the great agricultural valleys of the Golden State. But Frank Bardacke, in Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011), does not begin his magnificent and tragic history of that union and its leader with a tale of debased and impoverished farm labor broiling in the California sun. He starts instead with a detailed description of the skill and cunning necessary to make effective use of the celery-cutting knife in the cool and fertile Salinas Valley. There, in the 1970s, well-paid, closely knit piece-rate crews of a dozen or more workers harvested an enormous proportion of all the vegetables consumed in the United States. In pages reminiscent of John McPhee’s celebrated books probing the world of orange growers and truck drivers, Bardacke describes each of the three strokes necessary to sever the root, trim the loose strands and tendrils, and then size the celery stalks into a neat fourteen-inch bundle that can be packed for shipment in the field. For an experienced apiero all this takes just three to five seconds. Because celery and other vegetables are fragile and variegated, the work is craft-like, combining brain, brawn and much cooperation throughout the entire crew, not unlike a professional athletic team, notes Bardacke, who “closely coordinate difficult physical maneuvers in a contest that lasts an entire season.” No machine has been invented to do the work. Instead of mechanization, California agriculture has been transformed by “Mexicanization.”

Bardacke’s enormously insightful and nuanced book thus radically reconfigures the social, political, and moral narrative with which most Americans have understood the history of the farm worker movement and its leadership. Cesar Chavez remains a preeminent figure, and the grape boycott a brilliant and successful innovation that mobilized millions on behalf of a struggling union, but Bardacke highlights the experience of an increasingly self-confident and sophisticated cadre of agricultural workers who had a work life agenda that ultimately proved incompatible with the “movement” Chavez sought to construct and dominate. His history of the United Farm Workers therefore shifts much of our attention from the fasts, marches, and boycotts that made Chavez and the farm workers so iconic in the late 1960s. Instead, he refocuses the narrative onto the next decade, when Chavez became an increasingly self-destructive leader even as an enormously hopeful wave o...


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