Jack Pickering reviews Gabriel Thompson’s collection of stories from the lives of migrant workers in California’s agricultural sector.
Gabriel Thompson, (ed.) Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers In California Agriculture (London: Verso, 2017). 320 pp. £14.99
Chasing the Harvest is an edited collection of stories with contextual information provided by the editor/interviewer Gabriel Thompson. The stories are written by those involved in the agricultural system of California, a mix of workers, mayordomos (a kind of foreman or crew-chief) and some of the farm owners. There is a close focus on the work itself and its products, the effect of the work on the families of those involved, and the consequences of this kind of work on workers’ bodies. The writing is mostly naturalistic, suggesting that there has not been too much editing, which feels honest and allows the stories to emerge clearly. Memorably, it features accounts of the rash caused by handling peaches all day, the difficulties of harvesting onions, and the fumigation of earth with pesticides. I was left wondering about the interviewing style of the editor – to lead people to produce such interesting and honest stories and vignettes is an empathetic feat.
The stories are not limited to details of the work, as they are interspersed with biographical detail or background information about places being described, often from the editor. Those featuring in the book often tell of the times before they crossed the border into the US, but their stories are not directly framed around the border-crossing itself, and instead are part of each person’s description of their origins and culture. Agricultural workers in Mexico experience grinding poverty, through a combination of the effects of climate change and trade policies. The desire to improve their lives drives many workers north, often to northern regions of Mexico, before they decide to cross the US border. The worsening of the climate for farming in the southern Mexican states appears to be a significant factor pushing migrants northwards – and climate change knows no borders. Continuing the same kind of work, which they are often skilled in, is important for these workers, not just because of their experience but also to create a sense of continuity.
Many of the agricultural workers whose stories are featured in the book cross backwards and forwards across the Mexico-US border, or talk about returning home as an essential part of who they are, and grieve when they are unable to visit sick relatives. A number of them also talk about the differences and similarities in agricultural practices between the two countries. Through their relationship to the food they are producing, and often to the food that they eat, there emerges a sense that the great agricultural hinterlands of California, Central Valley and Salinas, and the agrarian Mexican lands, Sinaloa and Waxaca (among others) are being stitched together by people’s journeys. The names of the places they move between recall the intertwined colonial histories of the US and Mexico.
Thinking about the movement patterns of people up and down the long Pacific coast (as far as Washington at times) to work, and their pride in much of their work despite the enormous challenges and costs involved, it is hard not to deplore the actions of those who erect borders, patrol airports and exploit the desperate. In large part, the industries that employ these migrants rely on their criminalization in order to exploit them. The key strength of this book is that it drives home the human cost of the exploitation in California’s agricultural system, while still paying attention to the lives that it creates and the patterns of movement that result. As the editor and participants in the book relate, the history of labour organising in California is a rich and troubled one which we could learn from in the UK. Paying attention to our relationship to land and borders, on a human and social level, could be a powerful way to revisit this in our current era of climatic change.
One of the most striking motifs that emerges in Chasing the Harvest is how workers use their hands to inspire political sentiment. They are damaged and worn, but also strong, made rough by working to produce the crops that people eat. One worker in the book uses his hands to point out a stand of celery, rhetorically asking the president of the United States to remember that it is this celery which flavours his soup, and his are the hands that pick it.