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Farm workers at the farm

The plight of the farm worker will continue as the topic of a class offered next spring from Chicano and Latino Studies (CHLS).

Luis Arroyo, former CHLS chair and expert on the 20th century Latino experience, seeks to explain to CSULB students about the work, lives and families of farm workers, why so many farm workers are from the Filipino and Mexican communities and what conditions need to be created to achieve social justice.

“My most difficult task this spring will be to explain California’s agribusiness which is one of the most sophisticated in the U.S.,” said Arroyo, who joined the university in 1995. “Many Americans do not perceive farmers as sophisticated. But that impression changes when you look at agribusiness. You see people who are not only hardworking and determined to succeed but are well-educated about 21st century economics. And agribusiness’ success depends, in part, on maintaining a plentiful supply of underpaid and exploited workers.”

The class will look at the daily lives of farm workers with the goal of understanding why that community has among the shortest life spans of any U.S. population.

“Look at the health issues associated with pesticides and other chemicals in the agribusiness workplace,” he said. “Fields are workplaces where the working conditions are extremely difficult. Most of us are unwilling to get up between 3 and 5 a.m. day after day. Look at the extreme range of temperatures in that workplace. There is extreme cold in the morning and extreme heat when the sun comes up. Look at the month of July in the San Joaquin Valley. There will be a number of farm workers who succumb to heat exhaustion.”

Arroyo seeks to help his students distinguish between the office work they know and the world of the farm worker.

“One of the problems in farm work is the economic imperative on the part of some employers to ignore safety regulations,” Arroyo explained. “Why have the workers leave the fields during crop dusting? Why not have them return to the fields before it is safe? Most Americans are tempted to see working outdoors from the romantic side. But the reality is that nature is very tough.”

Arroyo reminds his students that farm work, by definition, is seasonal and therefore part-time and many workers seeking to eke out a living must patch together employment throughout the year.

“Plowing or preparing the soil or seeding is a time of low demand for labor,” he said. “Harvest time is a time of high demand. Raising food calls for variable labor. Historically agricultural labor has been poorly paid. Combine poor working conditions and poor wages with the imperative to get the work done and that adds up to a very tough life.”

Arroyo pointed to the original farm worker communities from the Chinese and Japanese populations in California.

“But then there was a public backlash against both those communities resulting in the 1882 Exclusion Act against the Chinese and a number of laws passed by the California legislature beginning in 1913 which were aimed at preventing the Japanese community from owning land or becoming sharecroppers. When Mexico underwent a revolution between 1910 and 1917, Mexicans became available as an uprooted population. As U.S. nationals, the Filipinos took up work in California’s fields in the 1920s. The Filipinos and Mexicans experienced social discrimination and economic exploitation.”

One of the biggest challenges faced by farm workers is constant movement. Working conditions in the U.S. are terrible but, compared with what they have in central and South America, farm workers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Over time, those who can escape the fields do so.

“That was the case of my mother’s family,” he said. “My mother was born in the great state of Colorado and when she was 2, her family moved to the San Joaquin Valley where they settled in Porterville. She eventually became a farm worker.”

Her family experienced the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

“I remember the pressure of community groups to ‘get rid of the foreigners’ which meant my mother’s family,” he recalled. “That meant the Mexicans were fired and replaced by the Oakies who were profiled in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. This class will look at the experience of farmworkers of all communities as far away as Wisconsin and Texas to help open students’ eyes to the fact that farm labor is not just a local or U.S. problem. I want this class to have a transnational perspective.”

A top focus for the class is social justice. “The struggles of farm workers are over more than money and better working conditions. One of the most important issues is worker dignity,” he said. “In order to understand how things have changed, students must learn about the reality of farm work.”

Arroyo hopes students take with them a new understanding of the challenges involved with bringing about social justice for farm workers.

“Social justice is not something we do in the morning before resting in the afternoon,” he said. “I want our students to understand the importance of organization. No one person will ever save farm workers. Leadership is what we need to bring together all the different ways of looking at the world. If students can get that out of this class, they’ll go far.”

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.

Ray Rodriquez isn’t exactly a household name, but the prolific writer and historian clearly was a force, particularly in the Hispanic community.

Rodriguez, a former Long Beach City College administrator and long-time columnist for the Press-Telegram, died in 2013 at the age of 87.

His works, too many to mention all, were too important to just leave sitting idly in the garage of his long-time Long Beach home. If that happened, they could possibly be innocently discarded years from now by someone unable to attach any historical significance to some dusty and tattered boxes.

But, thanks to the Rodriguez and Ayala families, a collection of his works was recently donated to the CSULB University Library’s Special Collections and Archives for access by future researchers.

University librarian Susan Luevano brought the collection to the attention of Chloe Pascual, CSULB’s librarian for Special Collections and Archives. Rodriquez’ widow Almira and nephew John Ayala, were interested in donating the materials to CSULB because he was an alum and had a deep connection to the local community.

Of course, before accepting the collection, Pascual had to do her due diligence and investigate who Rodriquez was. What was his connection to the university, to the Long Beach and Los Angeles areas and what were his scholarly contributions? And, maybe most importantly, she needed to determine if CSULB was the appropriate repository for his materials. Sometimes a person might have a very compelling resume and be important, she noted, but there might be another place that can better serve their materials.

That wasn’t the case for Rodriquez’s work.

“This was pretty much a slam dunk that we wanted to bring it here,” she said. “We just had to make sure that we could process it properly and give it the home that it needed.”

The collection included 16 boxes of materials amassed by Rodriquez and his writing partner, Francisco Balderrama, a professor emeritus of History and Chicano Studies at Cal State University Los Angeles. Together, they conducted years of research before writing their book titled Decade of Betrayal in 1995. The book focused on forced deportation and repatriation of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans during the Great Depression.

Pascual, who has a great appreciation for organization as one can imagine simply based on her position, admitted that even she was impressed with Rodriguez’s collection from the outset.

“He actually had his research files in beautiful order. He would have made a great librarian,” she said, noting it took about two months for her to go through the collection. “His research files and all the material he collected from the U.S. government, from the Mexican government and from various newspaper were all put together in this collection that led up to the writing of his book.”

Born in Long Beach in 1926, Rodriguez, dropped out of high school in his senior year and joined the Navy, serving in the Pacific during the war. Afterward, he went to college on the G.I. Bill, and earned a general education degree from Long Beach City College (LBCC) in 1951 before entering CSULB, where he received a bachelor’s in elementary education in 1953 and a master’s in education administration in 1957. In 1962, he earned a master’s in U.S. history from USC.

He went on to teach elementary and secondary students in the Long Beach Unified School District for nearly a dozen years. He then taught history and political science at LBCC and also served as its affirmative action officer and dean of personnel for two decades, retiring in 1988.

Part of the Ray Rodriquez Collection housed under glass in the University Library.
Part of the Ray Rodriquez Collection housed under glass in the University Library.

But, Rodriguez was always writing. When not working on a book, he was a regular columnist for the Press-Telegram and also wrote a weekly column in Spanish for El Economico and for Impacto, USA. His focus ran a fairly wide gamut of Hispanic issues.

In addition, Rodriguez was the founder and president of the statewide California Community College Affirmative Action Consortium, and the founder and president of the Long Beach Chapter of the Association of Mexican American Educators.

“He was important to the City of Long Beach as a columnist for the Press-Telegram,” said Pascual. “He was an important voice in the Hispanic community and through his columns his words could be heard in the larger community. He talked about not only personal issues, but political issues as well, trying to increase Latino participation in government affairs and making sure voices that sometimes were marginalized were heard.”

Pascual’s hope for the collection is that professors in Chicano and Latino Studies (and other departments as well) promote it to their students to use, especially when they get into upper division and graduate students. His works not only can provide a rather hearty glimpse into Hispanic culture, but also a real understanding of what kind of primary research they can do and of the kind of deliberate work that goes into creating a book.

“His family was extremely generous in donating this material. This is an important piece for our library,” said Pascual. “I think it adds to the way we serve our students. We are a Hispanic-Serving Institution and have a diverse population of students, faculty, staff and community members, so it’s important that our collections reflect that. And we have a diversity of voices in what students can study when they get here and what voices they can hear from when they get here. This collection from Ray Rodriguez certainly provides one of those voices.”

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15.