Migrant Labor-1/4: Migrants Are Who We Are


In my Jack Liffey mystery, No. 11 titled Palos Verdes Blue, I write about Latino day laborers living rough (as the British say) between the fancy houses in pseudo-rural, wealthy and horsey Palos Verdes in south L.A., living in tents and cardboard camps in the deep canyons. In fact, I have no documentation for this being true in Palos Verdes, but it would not surprise me.

Migrant Mexican farmworker living in a trench.  Photographer and date unknown.  Location: California

Migrant Mexican farmworker living in a trench. Photographer and date unknown. Location: California

I know that hundreds of Mexicano farmworkers lived rough along the banks of the Santa Clara River in Ventura County as far back as the late 1920s. How do I know this?

Hundreds of their bodies were washed downstream after the catastrophic St. Francis Dam collapse and flood of 1928. Our celebrated city-engineer William Mulholland built this dam at a site that is now several miles east of Six Flags Magic Mountain to hold the Owens Valley water that the city basically stole. The dam was built over a fault line, one wing supported on a red conglomerate so crumbly they couldn’t get core samples to the test machine no matter how carefully they carried them and so water-soluble that a lump of it would disintegrate totally in a drinking glass in 30 minutes. The other wing rested on mica schist fantastically criss-crossed by slippage planes. The dam was up and full for one year—probably a world record in dam-brevity – before it collapsed in 1928.

The frothing 120-foot wave from 12 billion gallons of water released all at once churned at 20 MPH down San Francisquito Canyon toward the sea, obliterating several small towns, killing about 600 “named” people (local Anglos), plus roughly 430 unnamed (except to God) Mexicano farm workers camping near the river. Their bodies were still turning up or washing ashore as late as the 1950s. (I had a big concrete chunk of this dam for years as a souvenir and finally threw it away in disgust.)

And another instance. In the early 2000s, a good friend of mine who was fluent in Spanish worked for the San Juan Capistrano School District down the coast and was sent up into the local hills to talk Mexicano farm families living in makeshift tents and shanties up there to bring their kids down to the school system. Many finally did.

One more: I’ve just seen photographs of Latino workers living in plastic tents in the hills above the famous Carlsbad flower fields that draw thousands of tourists every year to north San Diego County.

Whether or not there are gardeners, houseboys, stonemasons and other laborers living in cardboard jungles in the canyons between the big Palos Verdes homes where they work, they’re definitely living in destitution somewhere nearby, ten to a room, trying to save a few dollars to send home.

We all see jornaleros (day-laborers) all the time at the moscas (labor markets) in front of Home Depots and lumberyards. Or do we see them? Are they invisible if we don’t need their labor right now?

First, why are they here at all? Here’s a big part of it: the best farmland in Northern Mexico is now owned by American agribusiness companies, who of course are underpaying and mechanizing. And American NAFTA corn (subsidized) is much cheaper than theirs.

Not unlike what happened to California’s central valley. Over the last half century and more, perhaps twenty giant agribusiness companies have taken literally trillions of dollars out of this intensively farmed fertile valley, the most productive farming valley on earth, they say. And here’s a surprise for you: it’s almost impossible to find out who most of the owners are, but you could start here and here.

Here’s what I do know: Individual owners, there’s J.G. Boswell and Red Emmerson, probably the two biggest of all. There’s Mobil Oil, there’s the successor to the Southern Pacific – the Tejon Ranch, then the King Ranch, Gallo and other grape empires, and there are a dozen giant combines that masquerade as “co-ops” of family farms but are really dominated by the biggest members: Dole, Provide, Sunkist, Blue Diamond, Foster Farms, Driscoll, etc. If somebody can get me a better list, please do. Virtually all these entities have their home offices in places like West L.A., Beverly Hills, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Sacramento. God forbid that the execs have to live near the abject destitution that they’ve caused.

What’s left behind after these massive fortunes are extracted from the dominated and cheap labor in the central valley? Impoverished small all-Latino towns with boarded-up downtowns, swap meets, and failing schools. Many don’t even have a supermarket, none have a tax base to speak of.

Instead of roaring through on Highway 99 and I-5, stop sometime in Maricopa or Buttonwillow, McFarland, Delano, Coalinga, and on and on. Try Chowchilla or Earlimart. Look around; richest farm valley on earth? Why do I see only poverty? You’ll see what rapacious and unscrupulous economic power can do when there’s no countervailing force. (The crushing and collapse of the farmworker unions, from the 1930s through the 1970s, is a story for another day.)

But I’m really talking now about the more recent arrivals, Latinos coming for city work, would-be town workers living at best in repurposed old Hawthorne motels, “hot beds” that swap three times a day in crowded back rooms and converted garages.

I want to talk about their plight later – how they cross the border and what it feels like to be an ignored jornalero – but for now here’s something important that we never consider. This migration north is an economic disaster for Mexico and Central America themselves.

· Who bore the cost of feeding, raising and educating the estimated 11 million Spanish-speakers who are in America without documents? People don’t sprout and grow by themselves, for free. The best estimate I’ve seen is that their upbringing to age 18 cost their national economies, in dollars adjusted over time, about $23,000 per person. Mexico and Central America paid this (you can do the math times 11 million persons) and now all this investment in future labor is lost to their home countries. Quite a gift to America. Okay, I’ll do the math for you: $253 billion dollars. And many don’t even stay to collect the Social Security and Medicare they paid into.

· In addition, because of the difficulty of the trek to el Norte, these are some of the most enterprising of their generations. It’s impossible to estimate what the loss of them means to their home countries.

· Whole villages have been stripped of their young and able-bodied men and become ghost villages of old people where farming continues to deteriorate.

· If the migrants do come home, they have few new skills and little to return to except migrating again to the largest nearby cities where there are jobs. This is why Mexico City has become arguably the most populous city in the world. Metro areas are notoriously hard to compare, but it’s between 17 and 22 million.

· And, ironically, much of the money they remitted home was spent on appliances and other commodities made in the U.S. or used in the U.S. Truckloads of old refrigerators head south every day from L.A., even old garage doors that are used to build shanties.

· I’m not competent to comment on what our banks, the IMF and other forms of international debt manage to extract from these countries for our benefit (or, really, the benefit of our banker-parasite 1% class.)

So what do I mean by the title: “Migrants Are Who We Are”?

Do you work in the town or city or suburb where you were born? I’ll bet you don’t. You had to go somewhere else to find work. It’s only an accident of history if you were able to go to a place that already speaks your language and has your culture. Migration and displacement are the human condition.

Next week, Part 2/4 of Migrant Labor

About the author

John Shannon

John Shannon is the author of a series of mystery novels based on L.A. and California social history, The Jack Liffey novels. This blog is from a series based on the labor and social history contained in these novels. The blog only goes out by e-mail and if you’re interested please write jxshannon2@aol.com. He has also written a three-generation saga novel of the American Left—Socialist, Communist, New Left—called The Taking of the Waters. This was published in a small edition here and in France but got him more-or-less “blacklisted” in New York from his major publishers. It will soon be reviewed at length in the L.A. Review of Books and republished as a Kindle e-book. View all posts by John Shannon →

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