Pick and Leave

Mark Wyman offers perspective on the boom-and-bust labor cycle in the West

Between 1910 and 1930, some 750,000 Mexicans entered the U.S. labor market, primarily as itinerant harvest workers in the West.

Fleeing the Mexican Revolution and grinding poverty, the agricultural West's latest immigrant labor force would become its last, following a familiar pattern of exploitation. Mexicans had worked in the region's mines for years and helped build the railroads that, along with government-subsidized irrigation projects, made large-scale agriculture possible in the arid West—but it wasn't until the Mexican Revolution that they began migrating north in great numbers. Of course, they were also invited north, often trucked here at the expense of large growers who needed cheap labor.

"A major change had taken place, and the two governments seemed unaware of it: The Rio Grande was no longer the border between the United States and Mexico—the real border was becoming racial rather than geographical," writes Mark Wyman in his enlightening new book, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West. "Voters in neither country had approved the change. Rather, Mexican laborers had voted with their feet, and U.S. farmers and companies ... had voted with their hiring practices."

Wyman continues: "In 1930, the U.S. Census Bureau classified Mexicans as a separate racial group; then, during the Depression, high U.S. unemployment sparked campaigns to deport many back to Mexico. But eventually the bracero program brought them back again. Arguments on the need for Mexicans would take several different forms, and their presence would become a national issue for the rest of the century, and beyond."

The railroad opened up world markets for the fruits of that sparely populated Western land. Cotton and other crops followed the Reclamation-era dams west from the Old South. But there were never enough hands come harvest time, and farmers often watched their profits die along with unpicked fruit on the vine.

While the intensive agriculture economy of the antebellum South relied on slave labor, Western farmers had to pay their pickers, if only nominally. This seems to have been a reality that growers could never quite accept, as they used up one immigrant labor force after another while steadfastly refusing—save for a few isolated incidents spurred on by union organizing—to improve the living conditions and pay of their seasonal employees.

Early on, white American men—the hoboes of the book's title—dominated the fields, and the old, wandering, rail-riding bindlestiff of legend retained a small presence in Western agriculture into the 20th century, though he was better represented in logging and mining regions, and only worked the fields when he was "starved into berries."

The Chinese came in large numbers in the latter half of the 19th century, fleeing uprisings and other turmoil to work the gold fields, the railways and the hops fields. The Japanese did their time in the orchards and fields, as did Native Americans, German-Russians and other immigrant populations.

The growers could influence immigration policy, but, as Wyman—a professor emeritus of history at Illinois State University and the author of several books on American labor and immigration—explains, they couldn't calm the racism and economic fear of the region's fulltime inhabitants, who drove the Chinese and the Japanese out with racist laws, just as they had driven out white hoboes, after the harvest was over, with anti-tramp laws.

During and after World War I, the nation's increasingly xenophobic immigration policies left growers with few options for seasonal labor other than Mexicans. They began to speak of the Mexican in the same racist and self-serving way that they once spoke of the Chinese and Japanese laborers, arguing that the Mexican was made for "stoop work" because of his small stature. A big white guy just couldn't do it comfortably, and a self-respecting white guy wouldn't do it for the wages offered, they said.

Sound familiar?

Wyman's book provides a much-needed historical perspective on the immigration debate. It demonstrates, in a very readable and informative fashion, the human cost of the boom-and-bust economic ethos that has ruled the West since at least the Gold Rush.

Over the last 20 years or so, the crops in the West's fields have been replaced by strip malls and single-family tract homes, also built with immigrant labor. Has the foreclosure crises caused the end of this latest tail-chasing boom? We can only hope.

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