If the sturdy New England yeoman and the Midwestern farm family are essential symbols of the American dream, the reality in California, as it became the leading agricultural state between 1900 and 1939, never matched the myth. In this book, Camille Guerin-Gonzales shows that neither California’s industrially organized agribusiness nor the waves of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and eventually Mexican wage laborers who toiled the land have fit into the pastoral ideal.
Despite hardships, many immigrants to the United States obtained some security, if not the full dream, by becoming citizens. Guerin-Gonzales argues, however, that California growers sought to ensure a cheap labor supply for their vast land-holdings by preventing Mexicans from attaining full citizenship rights. Based on U.S. government documents, correspondence among California and Mexican officials, newspaper accounts, and memoirs from collections in the Bancroft Library, this book unveils a legal and political strategy for keeping Mexicans foreigners on U.S. soil or repatriating them to Mexico. The book is particularly useful for showing how racial and ethnic stereotypes were manipulated at different times to conform with the labor needs of the state’s powerful political and economic interests.
Guerin-Gonzales argues that deportation and the threat of it, antilabor legislation, and repatriation were used to undermine the growth of unions in the fields. In the 1930s, nevertheless, Mexican and Mexican American workers organized and launched the largest strikes in U.S. agricultural history. Curiously, though, except for a passing mention that “union leaders and union members were often members of the Communist Party . . . where Mexicans made up a large part of the work force” (p. 134), the author does not discuss the source of the workers’ militancy. By contrast, Dorothy Healey, who was a Communist Party (CP) leader of several of the struggles Guerin-Gonzales describes, has recalled that many of the Mexican farm workers who arrived in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution knew about anarchosyndicalism, proclaimed allegiance to leftist doctrines, and followed El Machete and other left-wing newspapers from Mexico (Healey and Maurice Isserman, Dorothy Healey Remembers a Life in the American Communist Party, 1990).
Devra Weber attributes the development of the militant California Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union in 1927 to a coalition of Mexican leftists inspired by the Mexican Revolution and Anglos following the dual unionist strategy of the CP-USA’s Trade Union Unity League (Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal, 1994). The story of European immigrants bringing socialist and anarchist ideas from the old country is a familiar one. Although this book is silent on the question, one wonders if the Mexican Revolution played a similar role in stimulating Mexican migrants to join unions.
Despite those shortcomings, this is nevertheless a well-written, clearly argued monograph that will be very useful to teachers and students in the growing field of Latino history in the United States.