- Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest by Mario Jimenez Sifuentez
Of Fields and Forests is an excellent work detailing the history of Mexican agricultural labor in the Pacific Northwest. The son of a Tejano father and Mexican immigrant mother who both migrated to work in the Oregon fields, Mario Jimenez Sifuentez brings great passion to this deeply personal and highly valuable study that effectively uses a variety of sources, including oral histories, to paint an in-depth picture of an often forgotten labor force.
The book is composed of three stories about Mexican laborers in the Northwest. First, Sifuentez explores the history of braceros in the Pacific Northwest during and immediately after World War II, noting a very different history from those working in the Southwest. Braceros in the Pacific Northwest had significantly more control over their labor than those in the Southwest due to the Northwest’s labor shortage and the distance from the Mexican border, making the cost to growers of replacing them high. This allowed workers to demonstrate greater militancy on the job, including successfully striking for higher wages, skipping out on their contracts, and using the Mexican consulate as a defender of their rights.
The second story Sifuentez tells is a fascinating tale of Tejano laborers recruited from Texas to work in the fields of eastern Oregon. Japanese Americans who had moved there during and after World War II often owned onion farms in the area. Their own history of exclusion, Sifuentez argues, made them more sympathetic with the plight of Tejanos, and they provided these workers with better housing than white farmers did and gave them year-round work that allowed for the creation of a long-term Tejano culture in the region. In both of these stories, Sifuentez effectively paints a portrait not only of labor rights but also of the social and cultural life of the laborers, including the complex experiences of women, for whom migrating could bring freedom from patriarchal families but could also put them at risk of sexual assault from fellow workers or employers.
Sifuentez’s third story makes up the heart of the book. That is the story of farm-labor organizing in western Oregon that developed first under the Willamette Valley Immigration Project (WVIP) in 1976, which became the Pineros y Campesinos Unidos Noroeste (PCUN), a union of agricultural laborers, in 1985. WVIP organized farmworkers around issues relating to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raids and deportations, providing undocumented workers with legal defense in deportation hearings, publicizing their plight, and building confidence in the immigrant community. It moved into labor organizing as they confronted growers over working conditions. PCUN created boycotts of recalcitrant growers and their buyers, ran crop-specific campaigns to gain attention for the plight of workers, and organized strikes against [End Page 113] particularly antilabor farmers. It also worked with other left-leaning organizations in Oregon—involving itself, for instance, in the fight against Measure 9, the state’s notorious antigay ballot measure—and thus demonstrated a broader social justice agenda that drew valuable allies.
A central theme of Sifuentez’s study is thinking about how labor organizations can successfully deal with the complex issues of organizing undocumented workers who compete with other workers for jobs. He contrasts PCUN’s strategy with the United Farm Workers (UFW), noting that for all the Oregon union borrowed from the UFW, it completely rejected Cesar Chavez’s antipathy for undocumented workers. Rather, serving the needs of undocumented workers—even if they were not union members—was PCUN’s fundamental strategy and core value. It did not necessarily lead to a large union with negotiated contracts, but it did serve its agenda of justice for all farmworkers, and it united rather than divided the labor force. Sifuentez also bemoans the failure of what should have been an alliance between Mexican immigrants working on reforestation projects and the Hoedads, a countercultural reforestation cooperative active in Oregon during the 1970s and 1980s. But while Hoedads...