- Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement by Lori A. Flores
With California’s Salinas Valley as her backdrop, Lori A. Flores has written an engaging, nuanced history that shows how the region was, from the 1930s through the 1980s, “a center, a microcosm, of significant transitions and moments in U.S. labor, immigration, and Latino history” (2). Following the story from the era of Steinbeck through the rise and slow collapse of the United Farm Workers (UFW), Flores both complements and complicates much of the emerging historiography of this era of rapid change and continual struggle. Although Flores covers a lot of ground familiar to labor historians, Grounds for Dreaming makes a compelling argument for historians to focus more on “agriculture-centered communities” (220) in writing about the history of immigration, ethnic and racial conflict, and labor relations.
Three primary themes propel Flores’s narrative as it traces the history of the people of the Salinas Valley over a period of more than fifty years. The first and most central of these themes is the inherent difference of rural, agricultural regions from the urban areas that have received much more attention from historians. The towns and rural regions of the Salinas Valley were not cut off from the rest of the state and nation, but the centrality of agriculture and agricultural modes of labor relations created different dynamics and tensions from those that existed in urban environments. As Flores argues in the book’s introduction, by moving “the analytical focus from the cities to the fields, this book revises the cast of characters, turning points, and landmark moments in the postwar Mexican American labor and civil rights movements” (4). Flores fleshes this idea out most fully in her examination of the bracero program and its effects on agricultural communities throughout its two decades of operation as a source for temporary Mexican farmworkers. The bracero program and the economic and political power it gave agribusiness elites helped to stifle political activism in ways that were both more rigid and more complicated than the political struggles that occurred in urban areas.
Flores’s second major theme, the persistence of intraethnic tension within the ethnic Mexican population of Salinas County, expands further on her argument that rural, agricultural populations confronted different dynamics from those of urban populations. The presence of large numbers of braceros, migrant Tejano farmworkers, and local Mexican Americans created a complex dynamic of both contestation and affinity that emerged from class distinctions and notions of social status (often bound up in citizenship status). While racial segregation in the farm towns of the Salinas Valley did create meeting grounds for the ethnic Mexican population, they also frequently became, in Flores’s words, “battlegrounds” (40). She shows this most distinctively in her examination of zoot suiters in the Salinas Valley during World War II. Unlike their counterparts [End Page 84] in Los Angeles, who famously became the targets of racist attacks by Anglo servicemen, zooters in Salinas were often the aggressors, attacking braceros as stereotypical embodiments “of the poor, stooped-over Mexican farmworker” (69)—an identity the zooters vehemently rejected and scorned. While these actions obviously represented an extreme reaction by Mexican Americans toward braceros and Tejano migrant farm-workers, Flores does reveal these intraethnic conflicts as an important factor in shaping the history of this agricultural region. She does not see—as David Gutierrez does in Walls and Mirrors among urban Mexican American groups—a shift by Mexican American groups in the 1950s toward closer relations and political alliances with Mexican immigrants. The presence of the bracero program and the different economic and political pressures of an agricultural region slowed these alliances from forming until much later in the Salinas Valley.
These sorts of intraethnic alliances did finally emerge during the Chicano civil rights struggles of the 1960s, most famously with the rise of the UFW. Flores shows quite clearly, in the third major theme of her book, however, that Cesar Chavez and...