As California farmers plan crops for this year, there are serious questions about whether there will be enough workers to plant and harvest them. President Trump’s immigration plan is having serious implications for farmworkers, according to a recent report by Fox-KTVU anchor Ken Wayne.

But the challenges of immigration aren’t new. These discussions have been going on for more than 50 years, Wayne explains.  In fact, he reports the Council of California Growers released a black-and-white documentary-style “Why Braceros?” film about 55 years ago to explain the importance of farmworkers.

Why Braceros?

The first Braceros arriving in Los Angeles by train in 1942. Photo: Dorothea Lange, working for the US Government.

Wayne explains:

“Braceros is a Spanish word meaning one who works with their arms and hands. Starting around World War II and for years after, the Braceros program allowed Mexican farmworkers to enter California to tend the land.

But even then there were some who questioned if the immigrant workers were taking jobs from American citizens. But others argued there were few, if any Americans, who would perform the back breaking work done by immigrants.”

These arguments remain relevant today. Tom Broz, owner of Live Earth Farm and president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, is quoted as saying he’s worried farmworkers may flee the country and farms may disappear. If that happens, he says:

“We will have an increase in prices and we will see maybe an industry moving to other places. And that would (be) the worst case scenario that we lose this thriving industry that we have here in California.”

Here’s the story.

Editor’s Note: California farmers also used other groups of immigrants as labor in the state’s agricultural sector, including Filipinos. Learn more here.

Understanding Braceros

To really understand the history and impact of these hidden Braceros, who work unseen growing our food in the fields, it pays to turn to Dr. Mario Sifuentez of UC Merced.

Professor Sifuentez is from a Bracero family himself, and his research is informed by his own experiences as the child of migrant farm laborers. The first family member to be college educated, he authored the ground-breaking Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest.

In this Q&A, he tells us:

“I was looking for answers to why my family was in the Pacific Northwest, why they were working in the fields, how they came to be there. I had read other books about migrant farmworkers in Texas, California, maybe Arizona…and it felt like Mexicans only lived in those places, but there were towns all over the Pacific Northwest with Mexicans laboring on farms. Why, why, why?”

These days, the professor teaches a food history class at UC Merced, which leverages his students’ love of food as a way to discuss difficult and little-known topics such as immigration, labor, history, mechanization and colonization. He tells us this year that students seem more engaged than ever since the election:

“Given the emergence of ‘alternative facts,’ students seem to be more interested in gaining the skills to discern lies from facts than ever before. My office hours are busier and class is livelier. We haven’t even started talking about immigration and labor and with a room full of first-generation kids I imagine class is going to get even livelier.”

Rural Justice Summit

To further the conversation in the community, Professor Sifuentez is partnering with California Institute for Rural Studies to host the 2nd Annual Rural Justice Summit on March 22 at UC Merced.

The event is designed to build collaboration between community members, activists, farmers and researchers. Farming stories of the past will be shared and celebrated. The summit is already sold out, but you can reserve a spot on the waiting list.

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How these historic photos show the rural-urban divide in California is not new. (Guest post by Rachel Surls of UC ANR.)