I first met Mario Sifuentez at a meeting at UC Merced a few years ago. We were part of a UC Merced/UC Agriculture and Natural Resources team framing a digital archive project that aspired to enable UC to digitize 100 years worth of historical ag data for use by researchers. (That project is in its early phases; you can learn more about it here).
Mario – Dr. Sifuentez – is a history/social sciences professor at UC’s rapidly growing Merced campus. Merced is the nation’s first new research institution in the 21st century and it’s attracting talented students and faculty. Despite being only 11 years old, the campus is already nudging its way into national rankings. I’ve previously written about the compelling research of another faculty member at the campus, Elliott Campbell.
Among Mario’s research interests are labor, immigration and hip-hop. His research work is informed by his own experiences as the child of migrant farm laborers. He is the first in his family to attend college, starting out at University of Oregon (where he earned a Bachelors and Masters) and ending up at Brown (earning a second Masters and a PhD).
Mario has recently authored a ground-breaking book, Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest. Published by Rutgers, the book documents the stories of those who labor, often invisibly, to feed us. Readers can learn more about the Bracero program, which brought millions of guest workers from Mexico to labor in America’s fields, forests and canneries. I read the book this week and highly recommend it…on my list of this year’s best reads.
How did you get involved with UC’s Global Food Initiative?
Last year I received a grant from GFI to collaborate on a rural justice summit. It will now become an annual event. We called it that because we wanted to bring a number of different perspectives to rural people. The summit was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Food Institute (BFI), California Institute of Rural Studies, UC Merced and San Joaquin Valley Sustainable Agriculture Collaborative.
I know the GFI’s focus is on food, but other issues that link to food are impacting rural communities.
The summit evokes the importance of rural sociology and history work, doesn’t it?
It does bring that kind of spirit back. There is a long history of doing scholarly work in rural communities as a way of trying to effect change. So many things coalesce around rural life: land use, water use, urban sprawl and pollution. This work is really bringing to bear many kinds of research on rural communities. I hope to bring that to UC Merced.
I involved many different kinds of people: farmers, farmworker representatives, social justice activists, scholars, food bank staff, the UC Berkeley Food Institute, policy folks and others. The goal was to get people having similar conversations in different spaces to come together. And by holding this every year, we’re helping build the network of rural people in the Valley. We’ll be bringing different people next year.
Rural communities have been ignored for a while. There was a time historically where many worked on rural community and Central Valley issues, but it went away. I don’t know where, when, or why the disconnect happened, but we’re hoping to re-engage.
Our next conference will be March 22, 2017.
Tell me about your book.
It was a labor of love, for sure.
The beginning of the book was when I was working in the fields. My parents were migrant farmworkers and I worked in the fields with them. My mom used to tell me in Spanish, “the pencil weighs less than the shovel.”
I hated farm work. I was told that if I didn’t want to do this kind of work, that I needed to study. So at a young age I was often in the library, reading books. I wanted to do something other than working in the fields. My parents made fun of me, but it wasn’t something I was cut out for.
They were the last generation to do farm labor. My dad later got a job doing road construction and my mother worked in food processing plants for Ore-Ida. When they stopped working in the fields, we stopped moving around. I found my groove in terms of being a student…I knew that was what I wanted to do.
Where did your family land?
Ontario, Oregon. It’s a small town on the border between Oregon and Idaho. I knew I wanted to get out, so I went to the University of Oregon (UO). It was quite a culture shock. I’d grown up in a small town and had never seen that many people – or that many white people – in one space. It was a very different experience. I struggled when I first got to college.
What helped keep me there was that I found an organization that engaged student activists on campus to participate in a boycott. That was my introduction to farmworker organizing.
Our group took tours of camps. That was shocking to others, but I grew up in these migrant camps and spaces. I found people working to improve the life of farmworkers and I was enthralled, I had every intention of finishing my undergraduate and then going to work for a union or social justice organization.
You had an extraordinary mentor.
Yes. Matt Garcia was my mentor. He suggested that my background uniquely qualified me for this kind of work. There are many people committed to working with farmworkers, he told me…but then he asked me, “Who will write the book about farm labor in the Pacific Northwest?”
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? Matt encouraged me to fill that knowledge gap and write that book.
Matt went to Brown and I followed him out there and that’s how this whole thing started. Being in graduate school was not a fun experience: it was difficult and tedious, but that project is what kept me there.
Telling the story is important. There were lots of kids like me that grew up in Woodburn (Oregon) and Ontario. Their parents and grandparents were farmworkers.
Editor’s Note: Matt Garcia currently serves as the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. His award-winning book A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 is a #goodread. Pair it with Mario’s book for a deep-dive into race and farm labor history. Garcia was also the co-primary investigator for the Bracero Archive Project, which was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in 2008. This is the project that Mario worked on, and which provided much of the material that appears in his book about farm labor experiences in the Pacific Northwest.
Can you tell me more about the Bracero photo exhibit and how that informed the book?
I wanted to launch that conversation, but I couldn’t find evidence in the traditional archive. The evidence appeared serendipitously. My mentor was approached by the Smithsonian…they had found photos of farmworkers, but didn’t know who they were. They needed to know when, where, who…they were taken by a photographer named Leonard Nadel.
The photos were of Mexican farmworkers, but the Smithsonian couldn’t contextualize the photos, so they called Matt and a couple of us went with him and right away we knew they were Braceros.
Putting together that photo exhibit got all us thinking about the certain kind of invisibility that farmworkers suffer through in this country. And it felt as if we were contributing to that if we displayed the photos without stories. We’d be treating them again as a faceless, mass of workers.
We applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant to find these people, these farmworkers. We received the grant.
Editor’s Note: The Smithsonian ultimately developed an exhibit – America on the Move – that documents the story of Braceros. It includes Nadel’s photographs.There is additional information on the Bracero Archive Project website, including historical information about the guest worker program, teaching resources and photographs. If you click on this link and scroll down, you can read a brief biography about Nadel’s life and work. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also holds some historical materials relating to the Bracero program; visit that page here.
How did you find these individuals?
We went to towns with Bracero populations or processing centers. We’d partner with Spanish language media in advance: TV, radio and newspapers. We put out an invitation that we want to take your oral history, find out about your lives and get into the details of what it was like to be in the Bracero program. Our advance team spent the week in the community. On Friday night we’d have an open house in a church basement or cafeteria, do a brief presentation about the importance of the project.
One Friday night we sat in a Denny’s in Mecca [Riverside County]…and we asked each other, “What if no one shows up?” We had put together a team of about 15 people, including Matt, Christine Navarro from the University of Texas El Paso oral history project, 10 undergraduate students and 2 other graduate students. We were panicked no one would show up.
When we arrived the next morning at 6 a.m., there was already a huge line of braceros outside. Some hadn’t seen each other in years. People were crying and chatting it up.
We had to do 50 to 60 interviews some days. For about 15 hours we took oral histories. We did this on and off for 5 years during summers and breaks. Ultimately, we collected 600 oral histories.
I worked mostly on Oregon and Washington histories. The team would direct those folks to me. And in that way, my research was almost in reverse…I didn’t start the process in archives. Instead, through my interviews with Braceros – and there was very little in the historical record – they would point me to specific towns, public libraries and old newspapers.
Because I couldn’t find things in traditional archives, I was dependent on people who led me from one thing to another…that gave me my big break.
I interviewed the contractor who hired my parents. The contractor was from the same village my family was from and he gave me other contacts. He provided a gateway to speak to other people. In some ways, I constructed a genealogy of the local labor force. My parents were well-known and well liked…and people were willing to talk to me because they knew my parents were good people.
This was a highly personal project…
It was. I was able to put together facts about my family. I wrote about my great-uncle who died in the fields. I didn’t even know he existed. But that story was in a local newspaper. So I went back to my grandmother and in the process my family history was unearthed.
It was a very intimate project for me. I found communities that were analogous to Ontario, places like Mt. Angel, Hillsboro, Woodburn [communities in Oregon]. An important thing for me was to edit the work so that it was readable by those whom I wrote about.
Whatever accolades I get for this book, it’s painfully clear that this kind of book doesn’t get written if not for these people. They wrote it. I have no special insight into this…it’s all coming from community knowledge. Because of my background I’m able to interpret it in a particular way.
I feel like I missed a lot, but hopefully my work encourages others to write about the topic.
Academics are often accused of being removed from local knowledge, yet your research was really based in community knowledge…
One of the things I’m invested in is helping people understand different kinds and sites of knowledge. As a country we’ve become increasingly anti-intellectual…and academics have retreated away from the public space.
That’s odd to me. In Latin America, professors are very much part of politics. They hold high cabinet positions and hold political positions. Academics in this country are pulled away from the public life, it seems to me, to the Ivory Tower. We tend to write about things that are of interest to limited audiences.
I made a deliberate decision to have my book be readable by many audiences. I know that some folks will criticize me because it is not theoretical enough. I’m perfectly fine with it – that’s not all that important to me. My goal is to have people outside my profession read this book and make my scholarship more accessible.
And the summit has wider social goals as well?
Yes. The summit brings some new people to the table that also have knowledge, insight, skills and abilities, but are not from within the walls of academia.
Immigrant farmers are developing water conservation and soil conservation techniques on their own and we completely miss it…it’s completely beyond us. I’d like to see universities do more collaborative work with communities and not use them as research subjects. What do they get out of it? We get tenure, awards and it sometimes reinforces our sense of how smart we are.
There are two angles to this summit. I teach a food history class at UC Merced. My students have been very excited about the research and wanted to get involved. There haven’t been too many local opportunities and I had to send them to the Bay Area for work and project internships. We needed to develop more ties here and there is certainly a lot of need here in the Central Valley. I want to stop the brain drain…I want them to stay here and do something.
This opens up some of these kinds of opportunities.
The Fresno Food Commons work was partly based on that. We’d like to do activist work in the community and find money to create a Central Valley oral history project. That could have various components. People specialize in different kinds of oral histories: farmers, immigrants, various ethnic groups (here in the Central Valley we could focus on Hmong, Japanese, and Sikhs). It would be nice to develop a large-scale oral history platform.
These are huge goals but I want to build these things so that when I’m long gone we have the infrastructure to do that kind of historical work in the Valley