- Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest by Mario Jimenez Sifuentez
There are no Mexicans in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.1 Why? As Mario Jimenez Sifuentez postulates in Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest, “perhaps Ecotopia does not need any Mexicans because it does not need any workers.”2 In Of Forests and Fields, Sifuentez resists Ecotopia’s erasure of Mexican communities in the Pacific Northwest by insisting on the centrality of Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Pacific Northwest landscapes. His work not only offers a nuanced history of Mexican and Mexican American immigration to Oregon and Washington but also reveals the ways that Mexican and Mexican Americans were crucial actors in the environmental history of the region. After reading Sifuentez’s work, the absence of a Mexican presence in Callenbach’s imagined and idealized Cascadia appears as stark and problematic as Callenbach’s depiction of a self-segregated black population and vanquished indigenous peoples.
Sifuentez’s book, which draws on extensive archival materials and numerous oral histories, has at least three aims. First, he describes the subsequent waves of Mexican immigration to the Northwest. Second, he offers a nuanced labor history for Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Pacific Northwest that encompasses organizing in both national forests and agricultural fields. Finally, he integrates Mexicans and Mexican Americans as actors into the production of Pacific Northwest landscapes. The hydroelectric projects, timber harvests, and agricultural productivity of the Pacific Northwest would not have been possible without the work of Mexican Americans as well as both documented and undocumented Mexican workers. Sifuentez’s monograph represents a new wave of environmentally oriented scholarship that helps us think about and address issues of race, labor, and immigration in forested [End Page 176] landscapes; agricultural landscapes; and more broadly, in places, like the Pacific Northwest, that are often falsely construed as white.
Scholars interested in agriculture will appreciate the extensive history of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) and its predecessor, the Willamette Valley Immigration Project (WVIP), the largest Latina/o organization in Oregon and its only farmworker union. Sifuentez usefully addresses the differences between Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and the WVIP, particularly their approaches to undocumented workers. While the United Farm Workers was infamously hostile to undocumented workers, the WVIP maintained a commitment to immigrant rights, including deportation defense work and helping members acquire visas.3 PCUN’s and WVIP’s work around immigration became central to their organizational and organizing success. PCUN’s history reinforces the centrality of immigrant and migrant rights to equitable labor treatment and thus the centrality of immigrant and migrant rights movements to food justice.
PCUN is unique in the linkages it forms between farmworkers and reforestation workers. PCUN recognizes the ways that logging in national forests operates as an agricultural pursuit. Their stance fits with the narrative of national forests that environmental history often provides. The contrast between John Muir preservation and Gifford Pinchot conservation as commonly presented in introductory classes and reviewed in contemporary scholarship often includes a reminder that national parks are housed in the Department of the Interior, while national forests are managed from within the Department of Agriculture. This understanding of national forests as a type of cropland is enhanced when Sifuentez, drawing on PCUN’s organizing work, reveals that many of the same people who work seasonally in Oregon’s fields also work seasonally in Oregon’s forests.
The national forests in the Pacific Northwest that Sifuentez describes are full of Mexican immigrants. From thinning and planting trees to digging fire lines, these workers face harsh conditions and low wages. Describing replanting work, Sifuentez explains, “Depending on the altitude, workers encounter heavy rain or deep snow, and only the vigorous physical effort that tree planting requires keeps them warm. Workers trudge up the steep slopes of the mountainsides for as many as fifteen hours a day while carrying a forty to sixty-pound sack of seed-lings.”4 Sifuentez, moreover, details the terror of...