- Viewpoint: A Contemporary VernacularLatino Landscapes in California’s Central Valley
Driving across California’s San Joaquin Valley, past miles of fields and orchards, the traveler encounters small farm towns every few miles. Along one particular country road, off Highway 99 almost twenty miles southeast of Fresno, a 1960s-era neon sign catches the traveler’s eye (Figure 1). Unlike the many signs in this part of the world that promote nearby hot dog stands or taquerias, this one points the way to a small town that it promises is “A Fine Community.” The town is Parlier, population 11,000, whose small houses and apartment buildings are barely visible from the highway that connects the town to the network of communities in California’s Central Valley.
Parlier is not only a fine community, it is an essential component in the landscape of agribusiness of California, and it is this last aspect that has ensured that Parlier, however pleasant or proper, remains almost completely unknown to most state residents. Fresno County, in which Parlier is located, is the most productive farm county in the nation, and the fields in which Parlier residents work have been shaped by some of the most innovative mechanical and chemical technologies for growing fruit and vegetables. 1 Like a number of communities in the San Joaquin Valley, Parlier is home to a large population of low-wage, transnational farmworkers who labor in the surrounding fields and orchards. Parlier offers these workers and their families a wide range of housing types that cater to their various needs—shanties and other ad hoc construction in the field, backhouses (small cottages situated behind larger residential units) in town, public housing for the neediest, and suburbanstyle homes and apartment complexes that serve households who have achieved middle-class status (Figure 2).
The field hands and packing workers who find shelter in places like Parlier are critically important to California’s huge food production industry, but their itinerant patterns, avoidance of official notice, and low social status have made their home turf practically invisible to the rest of the state. Workers from throughout the Americas make their way to this quiet corner, but even with a highway sign, few outside the community know who lives there and how they live.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
A place like Parlier prompts several questions in the minds of curious architects, planners, geographers, and historians: What kind of community do people create here, with so many residents having lives that bridge multiple cultures? Is there an opportunity for them to achieve some [End Page 1] social and economic advancement from these modest conditions? How do they connect with the larger system of agribusiness that feeds so many? Is there a contemporary vernacular of global migration worth studying here in the Central Valley? Parlier serves for us as one example of the challenges we face in understanding immigrant communities in our own backyards today, even as we struggle to decipher local landscapes on other continents and in other eras. How might the vernacular methods we employ to investigate historical cultural transfers help us study the ways transnational migrants navigate the economic and social currents in our own time?
Click for larger view
View full resolution
In order to expand our understanding of Parlier and the landscape of the agricultural industry in the San Joaquin Valley, the authors—along with University of California, Berkeley Professor Paul Groth and Kevin Enns-Rempel, a historian with Fresno Pacific University—organized a tour of farms, orchards, and packing operations around this area during the 2008 Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference in Fresno.2 The tour followed the typical VAF practice of uncovering physical landscapes that are usually hidden from view; in this case, we explored sites that took us behind the scenes of the corporate farming that dominates the tourist’s view in this region. Growers and local boosters want visitors to see the plentiful fields of produce...