Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Long Valley

The year was 1951. My grandmother, her brother Bam (as in Alabama), and her brother-in-law, were in Salinas, California as seasonal farm workers trimming and packing lettuce. This was my grandmother's third season working as a "lettuce tramp" in John Steinbeck's "Long Valley." In mid-April she would pack up her young daughter (my mother) and head up from Arizona for the lettuce season. At a dollar an hour, the wages were enticing to a divorced, struggling mother. It meant she could double up on a few house payments and put a little money aside.

Of course the work was hard and bringing a child along was difficult, but like a lot of Americans of that time, my grandmother was tough. She'd lived through the Great Depression, World War II, a migration from a broken southern state to the promising wild west, and a couple of disasterous marriages. Trimming lettuce in a hot shed for a few extra bucks wasn't beneath her.

I didn't know this photo existed until my mother gave it to me this week. My grandmother is the ninth woman in the row, the one sitting on the lettuce belt. She was probably worn out, but she is smiling. She was doing something to improve her situation back home. The pay brought her to the lettuce fields. If you pay fairly, you will attract workers. In time, growers in California found ways to circumvent this, cry labor shortage , and open the backdoor for illegal Mexican immigrants to dominate the labor force and drive wages down. Eventually U.S. workers exited the fields for non-farm jobs leading to true labor shortages and a further drive for growers to hire illegals.

It's not that U.S. workers are too good to do the backbreaking work of harvesting America's food; it's that growers found ways to undercut fair wages and replace U.S. workers with Mexican cheap labor. Now here we are fifty-plus years later suffering from the fall-out of that handiwork. No one argues that Mexicans work extremely hard and have the same drive to improve their lives. But California has got itself into a mess over illegal immigration with no government policy effective enough to stop the spiraling.

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