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They Saved the Crops

Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California

Don Mitchell

Publication Year: 2012

At the outset of World War II, California agriculture seemed to be on the cusp of change. Many Californians, reacting to the ravages of the Great Depression, called for a radical reorientation of the highly exploitative labor relations that had allowed the state to become such a productive farming frontier. But with the importation of the first braceros-guest workers from Mexico hired on an emergency basis after the United States entered the waran even more intense struggle ensued over how agriculture would be conducted in the state. Esteemed geographer Don Mitchell argues that by delineating the need for cheap, flexible farm labor as a problem and solving it via the importation of relatively disempowered migrant workers, an alliance of growers and government actors committed the United States to an agricultural system that is, in important respects, still with us.

They Saved the Crops is a theoretically rich and stylistically innovative account of grower rapaciousness, worker militancy, rampant corruption, and bureaucratic bias. Mitchell shows that growers, workers, and officials confronted a series of problems that shapedand were shaped bythe landscape itself. For growers, the problem was finding the right kind of labor at the right price at the right time. Workers struggled for survival and attempted to win power in the face of economic exploitation and unremitting violence. Bureaucrats tried to harness political power to meet the demands of, as one put it, the people whom we serve.

Drawing on a deep well of empirical materials from archives up and down the state, Mitchell's account promises to be the definitive book about California agriculture in the turbulent decades of the mid-twentieth century.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

List of Abbreviations

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pp. ix-xii


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pp. xiii-xvi

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Introduction: “Reality Soon Caught Up with Us”

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pp. 1-13

Octavio Rivas Guillen arrived in Stockton, California, on September 29, 1942, to work in the sugar beet harvest. He was among the first trainload of Mexican National workers to arrive in the United States in an emergency wartime program of agricultural...

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1. The Agribusiness Landscape in the “War Emergency”: The Origins of the Bracero Program and the Struggle to Control It

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pp. 15-43

BY THE END OF THE 1930S, according to Carey McWilliams, the great critic of twentieth- century California, California agriculture had been thoroughly shaped as an industrial and capitalist landscape. Now, as war was gathering in Europe and the Pacific...

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Morphology: Things on the Land

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pp. 44-47

“IT IS PROPER AND IMPORTANT to think of cultural landscape as nearly everything that we can see when we go outdoors,” geographer Peirce Lewis influentially wrote at the end of the 1970s, and it is. But how should we understand what we see? How should...

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2. The Struggle for a Rational Farming Landscape: Worker Housing and Grower Power

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pp. 49-69

THE FPC WAS COMPOSED OF seven leading agriculturalists. George H. Wilson, from Clarksburg (in the Delta), was a director of the National Beet Growers Association, the California Asparagus Growers Association, and the American Farm Bureau Federation...

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Reproduction: Housing Labor Power

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pp. 70-73

THE “MAINTENANCE AND REPRODUCTION OF the working class is, and ever must be, a necessary condition of the reproduction of capital,” Marx argued, but that is step two. First comes the development and reproduction of labor power. Labor power is labor in its commodity...

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3. The Dream of Labor Power: Fluid Labor and the Solid Landscape

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pp. 75-95

THE DREAM OF PERFECT CONTROL of labor power is never far from California growers’ minds. Even as he was lobbying the secretary of agriculture for the creation of a farmer- controlled, California- only system of labor importation from Mexico...

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Scale: Infrastructures of Landscape and Labor Markets

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pp. 96-101

LEMON GROWERS IN VENTURA COUNTY could refuse to hire women workers, or male domestic workers they did not like, because they had ready access to labor from Mexico, labor that was vital to the maintenance, reproduction, and expansion of their capital...

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4. Organizing the Landscape: Labor Camps, International Agreements, and the NFLU

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pp. 103-130

C. C. TEAGUE’S SUBCOMMITTEE WENT TO WASHINGTON in January 1947, and with national farm organizations draft ed what became (with not many changes) House Resolution hr 3367. hr 3367 included all that growers wanted and added to the list a proviso that...

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Violence: Overt and Structural

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pp. 131-133

“THE STORY OF MIGRATORY LABOR,” Carey McWilliams once wrote, “is one of violence: harsh repression interrupted by occasional outbursts of indignation and protest.” The repression could indeed be harsh: vigilante committees burning Chinese worker camps...

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5. The Persistent Landscape: Perpetuating Crisis in California

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pp. 135-165

DESPITE NO REAL LEGISLATIVE AUTHORITY to do so (though with much support from members of Congress), and despite Mexican displeasure with the border opening at El Paso in October 1948, the uses began negotiation in January 1949 in Mexico City to forge...

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Determination: Labor’s Geography

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pp. 166-169

LANDSCAPES ARE PRODUCED. To state the obvious, they are produced by people working, or more accurately, by working people, working classes. Of course, all kinds of diverse labor goes into any production process, whether the finite production of a specific commodity...

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6. Imperial Farming, Imperialist Landscapes

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pp. 171-197

THE GOVERNOR’S COMMITTEE to Survey the Agricultural Labor Resources of the San Joaquin Valley submitted its 405- page report to Governor Warren on March 15, 1951. Bowing to strenuous grower opposition, the report lacked recommendations in key...

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Squeezed: Capital’s Geography

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pp. 198-201

“FINANCE,” RICHARD WALKER WRITES, “is the oxygen pumped into the engine of accumulation to make it run faster. Credit provides extra funds for investment and profit seeking, for the whole speculative process of anticipating future prospects and making them...

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7. Labor Process, Laboring Life

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pp. 203-228

ON DECEMBER 4, 1949, the Los Angeles Times reported that a “new monster” lettuce- harvesting machine was then at work in the Salt River Valley (Arizona) harvest. Invented in Salinas, the machine—essentially a series of conveyer belts on wheels...

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Wetback: Surplus Labor [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 229-232

“RACE,” AS STUART HALL SO PERSUASIVELY ARGUED, “is the modality in which class is lived.” So is citizenship. As geographers Geoff Mann and Ruth Wilson Gilmore variously argue, it is not the intersection of these modalities that matters but (in Gilmore’s apt term) their...

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8. Operation Wetback: Preserving the Status Quo

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pp. 233-256

OPERATION WETBACK WAS HERALDED into being on June 9, 1954. Announcing that by June 17 they would move 491 more Border Patrol agents from elsewhere in the country to the region along the United States–Mexico boundary in California (where currently...

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State: Capital’s Foremen

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pp. 257-259

IN DECEMBER 1958, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Mervin McLain appeared before the California State Chamber of Commerce and presented a talk on “the role of the government as the hired hand on the farm.” In her analysis of the complex role of the state...

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9. RFLOAC: The Imbrication of Grower Control

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pp. 261-283

IN 1954, AS OPERATION WETBACK moved into high gear and the number of braceros imported concomitantly increased, the compliance staff in Region X of the BES (covering California, Nevada, and Arizona) was decreased from 14 to 12. It jumped back...

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Domination: Of Labor, by Capital

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pp. 284-286

WHEN WORKERS SELL THEIR LABOR POWER to a capitalist, they give up (most) rights to it. Such sales lead to what Marx called the formal “subjection of labour to capital”—a “result of the fact that the labourer, instead of working for himself, works for...

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10. Power in the Peach Bowl: Of Domination, Prevailing Wages, and the (Never-Ending) Question of Housing

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pp. 287-309

ON MAY 20, 1958, lawyer James Murray wrote to Edward Hayes requesting “copies of all the information you have compiled including statistical tables on crops and crop areas ‘dominated’ by Mexican nationals.” Murray’s letter followed up an earlier one from...

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Dead Labor: The Past Materialized, the Present Shaped

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pp. 310-311

“DEAD LABOR,” FOR MARX, is the labor power—the expended energy—“congealed” in a commodity. It is “labour materialized” or “labour incorporated with its subject.” Where environmental historian Richard White wants us to see a landscape like that carved by the Columbia...

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11. Dead Labor—Literally: (Another) Crisis in the Bracero Program

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pp. 313-336

IN AUGUST 1957, even as the NAACP was investigating appalling conditions in the Peach Bowl, even as public health nurse Ann Hollingsworth was describing the “bullpen”—El Carralon—for braceros in Yuba City, and not long aft er the BES and growers...

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Property: Contract Farming, Contract Labor

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pp. 337-340

“FARMERS,” WRITES GEOGRAPHER JULIE GUTHMAN, “are essentially price- takers, especially when faced with crops about to perish.” Because of that (among numerous other factors), Guthman argues, innovation—taking the forms of intensification...

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12. Organizing Resistance: Swinging at the Heart of the Bracero Program

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pp. 341-367

IN 1952, AS PL 78 WAS TAKING EFFECT, farm labor wages in California were 41.5 percent of industrial wages, according to an analysis conducted by the newly chartered AWOC in 1959. By that latter year, they had sunk to 28.6 percent. In metropolitan San Diego, industrial...

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Prospect: Persistent Landscapes and Sculpted Futures

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pp. 368-370

AS GEOGRAPHER TREVOR PAGLEN SAYS, “Geography . . . sculpts the future. The spaces we create place possibilities and constraints on that which is yet to come, because the world of the future must, quite literally, be built upon the spaces of the past. To change the future...

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13. The Demise of the Bracero Program: Closing the Gates of Cheap Labor?

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pp. 371-396

ON THE ROAD, prospects for domestic workers were not very good. At the end of 1961, there were 8,145 farm labor camps in California; only 18 of these were farm labor supply centers operated by local PHAs—the old FSA camps. According to an...

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Landscape: Power Materialized

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pp. 397-399

GEOGRAPHY SCULPTS THE FUTURE, for sure, but where does that “geography” come from? How is it produced? What is it? To return to one of the early questions of this book, just what gives “things on the land” their shape and structure (and thus their power...

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14. The Ever-New, Ever- Same: Labor Militancy, Rationalization, and the Post-bracero Landscape

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pp. 401-418

PERHAPS THE MOST SURPRISING THING about the bracero era is how little the California landscape changed over its twenty- two years. Though they were occasionally militant, arriving in California with Octavio Rivas Guillen on September 22, 1942, were...

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Conclusion. “They Saved the Crops”

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pp. 419-422

Just about a year aft er the bracero program began, Carey McWilliams penned a propaganda piece extolling its virtues. Despite whatever private misgivings he may have harbored, he argued in the August 1943 pages of The Inter- American (a mouthpiece...

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pp. 423-427

This production has been made possible by a cast of thousands. I would like to acknowledge a few of its members and I hope those I miss will forgive the oversight. A small grant from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University launched the...

Archives Consulted

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pp. 429-430


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pp. 431-501


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pp. 503-514


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pp. 515-529

E-ISBN-13: 9780820344010
E-ISBN-10: 082034401X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820341750
Print-ISBN-10: 0820341754

Page Count: 576
Illustrations: 50 b&w photos, 5 maps, 6 tables, 3 figures
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Human geography -- California.
  • Migrant agricultural laborers -- California -- History -- 20th century.
  • Foreign workers, Mexican -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Agricultural laborers -- California -- History -- 20th century.
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