Sunday, February 9, 2014

Oppression and Poverty Persists in the Central Valley

Guest Blogger: WookSun Hong, second-year law student, University of San Francisco

Recently, I was fortunate enough to join a community service bus trip organized by a wonderful organization called OneJustice.  We went to San Joaquin Valley to help Central California Legal Services (CCLS) with preliminary interviews for staff attorneys and general intake.  We were invited to visit the small town of Pixley in Tulare county first.  My first impression was “this is it?”  No traffic light, no multi-story buildings.  Later, I learned there had been only one stop sign in the whole town and they just got another one.  Gray and clay-brown was the theme of the town.

The person who invited us was Sarah Ramirez, a remarkable passionate person.  You can read about her in an NPR article “This Stanford Ph.D. Became A Fruit Picker To Feed California’s Hungry.” She grew up in Pixley and went to Stanford to get her Ph.D. in epidemiology.  She never forgot about the people she grew up with.  She knew she would come back and help them.  She and her husband moved back to Pixley.  Her husband is teaching at a high school in Pixley and she is educating people to eat better with less money.  She also teaches at Cal Poly in San Louis Obispo but her heart is in Pixley.   When she talked about her town, and her family and people she loved in Pixley, I could not help feeling her passion and love in her voice.  She cried and we all cried.  Also, it made me wonder why this town looked like it had not developed for decades, or a set for a post-apocalyptical movie.

The next day, we went to Fresno, and the director of CCLS of Fresno, Chris, heard we were at Pixley the day before and wanted to tell us the history of that town.  It started with a cotton grower named J.G. Boswell.  He was a cotton grower from Georgia.  In 1920, he convinced the state government to build a damn so that he could use the newly formed land for cotton farming.  His vision of transplanting southern cotton plantations into new cotton plantations in California using Mexican workers instead of black slaves came alive.  Then the Great Depression hit farming.  From 1929 to 1932, cotton price went down 35% and the cotton pickers’ wage went from $1.40 to 40 cents per 100 pounds.  The anger among the farm workers exploded in October 1933.  About 18,000 farm workers went on strike and 12,000 of them were cotton pickers.  The cotton pickers demanded $ 1 per one hundred pounds of cotton and the growers offered 60 cents. 

On October 18, 1933, groups of strikers gathered in Pixley.  Growers heard of the meeting and went to the building where the meeting was being held, with determination and militarized “supporters.”  The growers started randomly shooting at the group to break up the meeting.  Two people were killed and eight others were injured.  The militarized growers attacked the workers in other towns, and families of the striking workers were evicted from the housing owned by the growers.  Many lost their jobs and homes, and some headed back to Mexico.
When the strike was declared over in late October, three farm workers were dead and twenty were injured. Eight growers and their “supporters” were indicted for the shootings but they were all acquitted.  However, seven strike organizers were arrested.  The growers convinced the court that the word they chanted during the strike, “Huelga,” was a communist slogan and that the leaders were communists.  They were convicted and went to jail.  The state of California ordered the cotton strike officially ended and other leaders of the strike left the area.

This was not the end.  This was the beginning of systemic oppression of the area and its farm workers.  The area and its farm workers were kept poor and powerless by the state and federal governments and powerful growers who could influence them.  The State of California ordered the cotton picking to be resumed under armed protection of State authorities.  When President Roosevelt created social security in 1935, he excluded agricultural workers, along with domestic workers.

When Cesar Chavez moved to the San Joaquin valley in 1950 to organize farm workers, the word “union” symbolized failures to the farm workers, and something to block and suppress to growers.  Using the word “union” would come with hesitance from workers and oppression from the government and its system.  He named his organization Farm Workers Association avoiding the use of the term Union.  When a lawyer tied to Chavez’ National Farm Workers Association was named the director of CCLS, their funding was threatened.  He had to resign. 

It is not difficult to see the oppression and poverty in Pixley even today.   There is not much government funding coming to the area.  It is hard to believe that Pixley is still being punished for a strike that happened 80 years ago, as Chris claimed, but one look at the town makes you wonder. 


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