Race and the Real California

Against the Current, No. 188, May/June 2017

Seonghee Lim

The Nature of California:
Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl
By Sarah D. Wald
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016, 312 pages, $30 paperback.

SARAH D. WALD in The Nature of California examines how meanings of citizenship, labor and farming have been contested and represented in literature since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although the “ideal images” about the farmer have changed over time, they have been closely related with claims of who deserves substantial citizenship or who belongs to this nation and has rights to its resources and landownership.

For Wald, the ideas about who are “natural” citizens cannot be understood without examining the dimensions of race and gender. The white male has been perceived as a natural (and thus “universal”) citizen who “receives the promise of equality before the law,” whereas the “nonwhite nonmale subject” has been marked as “different” and existed “outside of, or on the margin of, universality.” (7)

The Nature of California is part of a “third wave” of ecocriticism that incorporates politics and theories of race, as well as gender, queerness and anti-colonialism, into understanding environment and environmentalism. Human society and nature cannot be separated, just as discourses about nature and those about race have been closely intertwined.

For example, those who were concerned about the “purity of nature” often blamed nonwhite immigrants for “polluting” it by taking up and using natural resources (land, water, etc.) as well as polluting “racial purity.” The fear of immigrants was often presented in the fear of “invasive foreign flora and fauna.” (15)

Through introducing literary works by Japanese Americans, a Filipino worker, Mexican Americans and United Farm Worker (UFW) activists, as well as images used by contemporary immigrant rights activists, Wald presents how ethnic minorities, farm worker organizers and immigrant activists expressed their viewpoints about nature, citizenship, race and U.S. imperialism.

Racial Assumptions

Juxtaposing two different representations in each chapter, Wald begins in the first two chapters discussing four books, all written in the late 1930s by white writers: Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field, Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s Of Human Kindness, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown.

Well-known for their progressive politics, McWilliams and Steinbeck criticized land monopoly and advocated the idea of small farm ownership by those who toiled on the land. However, Wald discusses the authors’ limitations that reflected “the depth of American agrarianism’s racial assumptions about who should own land,” in that they failed to include nonwhite workers as deserving citizens who were entitled to enjoy landownership. (31) Wald notes there seems to be a disjuncture between what McWilliams wrote in Factories and his subsequent work: “In other venues McWilliams actively agitated for nonwhite and noncitizen workers’ full inclusion.” (29)

Steinbeck’s book presented the deservedness of white Dust Bowl migrants to landownership. Examining how Steinbeck portrayed landowners as being similar to Southern plantation owners to argue that white migrants should not be treated like Black slaves but should be treated better, Wald points out that Steinbeck might have chosen to portray farm workers as white in the belief that readers would be more sympathetic to the workers.

But Steinbeck also may have truly believed that nonwhite workers were “passive and complicit” to agricultural industry and an obstacle to unionization. Wald thus claims that this was “a common refrain among white progressive farm worker advocates of the time, despite Mexican worker militancy in the strikes of 1933-34.” (60)

By including Mitchell’s book, Wald presents a right-wing response to McWilliams and Steinbeck. Mitchell portrayed farm owners as pioneers and hard workers who deserved their wealth — an argument reflecting her social standing as the wife of California Senator Sanford Young who was also a member of the Associated Farmers of California.

Nevertheless, Mitchell regarded poor whites as being “capable of assimilation” to “right American values” and thus saw their potential for landownership, although she did not perceive of that kind of possibility for nonwhite workers. (45)

Unlike McWilliams and Steinbeck, according to Wald, Babb’s novel showed a possibility for white workers to see the similarity between their conditions and those of other oppressed groups, including Mexicans, Filipinos and Blacks, and demonstrated that “all workers deserve dignity, freedom, security, regardless of race.” (53). Wald states:

“Whereas Steinbeck affirms Dust Bowl migrants’ whiteness in the face of this crisis, Babb depicts a multiracial ‘we.’ The dispossession of white Americans from their land provides an opportunity for white migrants to develop solidarity with black, Asian, and Latina/o workers, remaking a more inclusive political community.” (67)

The novel also presented “a proto-ecofeminist” viewpoint by recognizing land as an equal partner of human beings, rather than an object to be exploited, and by celebrating the agency of women in expanding democracy and forming class unity.

Wald suggests that Babb could develop these positions not only because of her connection with the Communist Party and some of the writers of color, such as Richard Wright, Carlos Bulosan and Ralph Ellison, but also because of her firsthand experiences about farm workers’ lives while volunteering for the Farm Security Administration of the CP in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys. Nonetheless, Wald points out that both Steinbeck and Babb depicted “farm labor and farmland ownership as the sites that determine national belonging and citizenship.” (53)

Land and Citizenship

White communities tried to prevent those born in Japan from landownership by enacting various legislation like the Alien Land Laws. Moreover, acquiring farm land did not protect Japanese Americans’ rights as citizens — as became evident during the Second World War.

Farm labor and farmland ownership were promoted by Japanese American mainstream newspapers as a way of proving their U.S. citizenship and loyalty to the nation. Examining the Japanese American newspapers Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles Japanese Daily News) and Kashu Mainich (Japanese California Daily News), Wald argues that they portrayed the Japanese immigrants as the embodiment of the Jeffersonian ideal, having a rightful place as landowners.

They encouraged second generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) to pursue farming as a career and claimed that landownership would show their loyalty to and citizenship of the United States. Moreover, they tried to align Japanese Americans with white growers against Mexican and Filipino workers who organized themselves in a strike or a labor union.

In Wald’s words, the newspapers attempted to claim agricultural citizenship not only by relying on “the whiteness of land ownership” but also by distancing themselves from “other groups racialized as abject aliens.” (76)

However, only about a third to a half of all Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were farmers or farm workers, and less than a third of a percent of the total farm acreage in California was owned by Japanese Americans. (77) They raised labor-intensive crops, such as strawberries and tomatoes, rather than crops suited to large tracts like wheat and potatoes, meaning that they did not compete with white farmers.

Wald compares the newspapers with Hiroshi Nakamura’s novel Treadmill, the only known novel about forced relocation written by a Japanese American during internment, which presented the viewpoint that the United States treated Japanese Americans as “perpetual foreigners,” regardless of their assimilation through hard work or farm ownership. (92)

Internment, by taking away their land and educational opportunities, prevented them from being productive citizens, resulting in creating rather than responding to Japanese American disloyalty. For Wald, Nakamura repudiated assimilation by making Teru, the novel’s main female protagonist, choose to be relocated in Japan, rather than accepting a position through which she would be expected to play a role in mediating between the Japanese American and white American communities.

Wald argues that Nakamura, by ending the novel with Teru’s letters to her sister, makes Teru become the narrator of the novel and thus a subject (not an object) who speaks her mind — a symbolic moment when Teru becomes an “abstract universal U.S. citizen.” For Wald, this transformation occurred precisely at the moment when she was expecting to be relocated to Japan.

In other words, to become the universal citizen, Teru as “nonwhite nonmale subject” must “escape the relationship between racialized landscape and racialized citizenship that structures her family’s previous agrarian life.” (95) Through Teru’s voice, Nakamura emphasizes that an international anti-racist coalition is necessary to make the United States a democratic place.

Violent Nature and Society

Wald dedicates another chapter to examining short stories written by the Japanese American female novelist Hisaye Yamamoto, who was influenced in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the Catholic Worker movement that advocated anti-capitalist pacifism and participatory democracy.

Examining “Seventeen Syllables” (1949) and Yoneko’s “Earthquake” (1951), Wald points out that Yamamoto’s texts lack romantic views about nature. Rather, nature is violent, as the earthquake that shakes the protagonist’s house in “Yoneko’s Earthquake” and causes her father’s immobility.

Violence in Yamamoto’s stories signifies the destructive characteristics of capitalist economy and its exploitation. (122) Further, Japanese men were emasculated due to a racialized economic system in which they were not treated as equal citizens.

Writing about love affairs of Japanese American female protagonists with Filipino and Mexican American men, Yamamoto not only challenged new gender roles imposed upon women during the Cold War, but also implied a formation of multiracial solidarity — an aspect that also contradicted the portrayal by the newspapers of Japanese farm workers aligned with white growers against farm workers of ethnic minorities.

Nevertheless, women’s sexuality and creativity were violently suppressed by their husbands and their bodies worn out due to their farm labor and childbearing. For Wald, the stories signify that Japanese American families had no firm ground in this nation. In her analysis of a car accident scene in a story, in which a Japanese American man is hit by a white driver, Wald further claims:

“Japanese Americans were not just excluded from national socioeconomic mobility. They also were harmed by white Americans’ access to it. The achievement of freedom, independence, and wealth by white national subjects came at the expense of this uprooting of Japanese American families.” (129)

Wald also examines the viewpoints of a Filipino American worker and a Mexican American scholar: Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (1946) and Ernesto Galarza’s Strangers in Our Fields (1956). Bulosan’s novel reflected the history of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. When the novel was written, Filipino Americans could not be legal U.S. citizens but were “deportable aliens” because the Philippines were classified as “unincorporated territories.”

Wald emphasizes the significance of the beginning of the novel where Bulosan described the protagonist’s early life in the Philippines in over 100 pages. For Bulosan, “the Filipino subject and the Philippines are the center of the U.S., including at the center of the U.S agricultural empire and resistance to it.” (135)

The story claims the landownership of those who work on the land in both countries. Because the U.S. landscapes reminded him of the Philippines, he embraced the United States’ beauty. For Wald, Bulosan’s idea about “ownership over America” transcended its territorial meaning or the “nation-state concept.” In her words, it was “an act of repossession rather than an attempt at assimilation or integration.” (138)

Ernesto Galarza’s Strangers in Our Fields is a work based on his study of the Bracero program. Wald points out that Galarza saw the program as a process in which the workers lost their identity, agency and nationality as well as humanity.

The United States treated the braceros as the “latest natural resource” extracted from Mexico and transformed them into a commodity. (147) They were treated in the same manner as the crops they harvested, hauled by the same trucks that carried the tomatoes.

 Galarza saw the bracero program as a space outside any protective regulations for the workers from both countries, although the Mexican government initially insisted that U.S. government authorities should protect the workers and the latter promised to do so.

Unlike Bulosan, Galarza believed that the braceros would be better off if they were “renationalized” as Mexican nationals under Mexican jurisdiction, rather than stay in the United States. Because of this belief, according to Wald, Galarza depicted the braceros as “victims” who needed assistance from the reader, on the one hand, and as “strangers” who needed to be eliminated from the U.S. landscape, on the other.

Wald claims that by portraying the braceros as helpless strangers and advocating the idea of sending them back to Mexico, Galarza’s viewpoint reinforced the unequal relationship between the nations. (153)

Ambiguous Environmentalism

By the mid-1960s there was a shift in the idea of who were assumed as “natural” and “authentic” agrarian workers, namely farm workers of Mexican descent.

Many environmentalist supporters of the United Farm Workers (UFW), for example, believed so based on the idea that Mexican American farm workers lived outside the mainstream culture of artificial urban lives, corruption and manipulation by the mass media. (158) Peter Matthiessen saw UFW leader Cesar Chavez and farm workers’ resistance as “a renewal of one’s connection to the happiness” of traditional living. (165)

Comparing Matthiessen’s Sal Si Puedes and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring with the UFW’s theater troupe El Teatro Campesino’s plays and its anti-pesticide campaign, Wald examines in Chapter 6 how the focuses of the discourses about environment and environmentalism differ between mainstream environmentalists and farm worker organizers.

According to Wald, Matthiessen believed that cities were decaying due to overpopulation and that the landscape of California was “empty, barren, and vacant of life.” (164) Matthiessen emphasized Chavez’s simple manner of talking and his Native American looking appearance — characteristics that Matthiessen thought to be close to a “natural way of living.” He also argued that “Chavez’s race” worked as a strength in resisting industrialization.

For Wald, this romanticization of Mexican descendants (and Native Americans) was problematic because it placed Mexican American workers’ traditions as “timeless and immutable.” (159) Moreover, Matthiessen’s focus reflected a sense of population anxiety of the environmentalists of the period.

Unlike Matthiessen, the plays conducted for farm workers by El Teatro Campesino focused on the problems of inequality in property ownership and emphasized farm workers’ collective power to change both social hierarchy and natural environment.

In their anti-pesticide campaign, UFW organizers also emphasized the importance of worker control over pesticide usage because farm workers were the most directly affected. By doing so, they believed that they could also protect consumers.

In contrast, Carson did not differentiate who were more vulnerable and who were not, as if all humans suffered from pesticide at the same level and in the same manner. Wald thus claims that Carson’s viewpoint by which “abstract universal citizens” suffered “indiscriminate death” from chemical toxins neglected “human’s differing chemical vulnerabilities based on factors such as race, citizenship status, class” and produced “the very invisibility that magnifies the violence facing certain groups of people.” (175)

Wald also finds the problem of invisibility of workers in the discourse of contemporary “consumer-focused” alternative food movements. Although there have existed “worker-centered” movements that prioritize the perspectives of agricultural workers and criticize the inherent injustices in the food system, many others have focused on urging consumers to change their attitudes toward food consumption and tried to change individuals’ purchasing habits.

These movements suggest a “decentralization” of the food system or small organic farming as a solution to the industrialized mass food production system that has caused obesity — an illness that the promoters of the movement identify as the main problem of contemporary society.

Wald presents Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) as an exemplary work in this line. This kind of movement reinforces the polarized social order and ignores the social constraints imposed on the communities of color, let alone failing to critically question who prepare the meals. Wald states:

“Mainstream celebrations of local and organic produce often privilege a relationship between land ownership and white citizenship through romanticizing the family farm, ignoring the labor needs of such farms and their frequent reliance on the same racialized hierarchies that mark industrial agriculture. As Margaret Gray’s Labor and the Locavore makes clear, buying local offers no assurance of fair labor treatment. The environmental and social injustice that runs to the core of the modern U.S. food production cannot be fixed by adjusting the scale of agriculture. Rather, as food studies scholar Julie Guthman asserts, it is the process of agriculture that must be transformed. This transformation must prioritize the perspective of food systems workers. The energy that workers contribute and the experiences they have as food producers should be recognized as key components of the moral calculus that determines what Pollan terms our meals’ karmic price.” (192)

Wald further argues that the rhetoric of individuals’ purchasing habits resonates with neoliberal framework:

“Whereas the welfare state sees a social contract in which the state protects its citizens in return for productivity, the neoliberal state sees the ideal citizen as a ‘minimal consumer of state health and welfare services.’ Making healthy choices becomes a marker of proper neoliberal citizenship. In this neoliberal model, state regulation is outsourced to consumer self-regulation.” (198)

Wald contrasts the movement to Helena Maria Viramontes’ novel Under the Feet of Jesus (1995), which presented a farm worker perspective through a 13-year old Chicana farm worker named Estrella. Wald discusses the grocery store scene in which Estrella sees the image of the girl in the Sun-Maid raisin box and thinks that the girl is nothing like female farm workers whose bodies were aged, worn, and sick due to the harvesting of grapes. Rather, she is more like a consumer who got raisins as gifts from somebody else.

Moreover, in this scene Estrella is a consumer in the store — an assertion that “not all consumers have the same experiences or opportunities.” (204) For Wald, the novel also showed that workers, more than consumers, have knowledge about how work is done from their own experiences in the production process.

Continuing in her epilogue the examination of Viramontes’s work, Wald further expands her main arguments. In a scene where Estrella confronts a nurse who refuses to treat her boyfriend for being incapable of paying, Estrella thinks about how the gasoline that the nurse needs to drive her car is originated from “their” fossilized bones. Estrella thus believes that nurse owes people as much as they owe her. (209)

For Wald, Viramontes shows that humanity and nature are “interconnected and permeable.” In other words, nature affects human bodies and society and vice versa, but the human is part of nature as well. (209) Wald employs the term “more-than-human” nature, rather than nature, and introduces such terms from other scholars as “viscous porosity” and “trans-corporeality” in order to describe the relationship between human and more-than-human nature.

The Right of Belonging

Wald interprets that Viramontes advocates for one’s citizenship based on “inhabitation rather than documentation” when Estrella’s mother tells her that they belong to where they are, because they live there and because the earth is their mother, instead of invoking Estrella’s “legal” citizenship to claim their belonging to the United States. This challenges the assumption that the nation-state and its boundaries are natural, and all ensuing notions from that assumption. (208)

Wald thus states that Viramontes’ work “disrupts the Jeffersonian assumptions and racial logic at work in texts such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, offering instead an earth-based belonging rooted in an interactionist model of humans’ relationships to the more-than-human world.” (210)

Wald sees the monarch butterfly images that 21st century migration rights movement use as representing what Viramontes embraces. Butterfly images have been used for a quite some time by activists, but they became prominent as a result of their adoption by the UndocuBus Project in 2012 and the solidarity actions that it inspired.

Butterflies are traditionally considered to be linked to the human soul, and their migration is a transnational and multigenerational movement. By using a butterfly that has human faces in its wings, migrant rights activists proclaimed that migrants should be welcomed and protected, as the migration of butterflies were welcomed and seen as beautiful. In so doing they question the concept of what is natural and challenge the dominant ideology that places migration as unnatural and abnormal and that even criminalizes migrants:

“The monarch butterfly is a call not for rights of inclusion within the nation but for the rights of all human beings to cross borders . . . In this model, one need not belong to a particular nation to be guaranteed rights and equal protection within that nation.” (215-16)

Wald concludes her book discussing the linkage of migrant and environmental movements by examining how the migrant rights contingent in the People’s Climate March in 2014 participated with a large banner on which the image of a butterfly had human faces in its wings and corn in its body — an image symbolizing all the ideas above, including that the “human and more-than-human struggles to survive” are intertwined.

Throughout, The Nature of California asks the reader to question what is seemingly natural under existing society. Wald urges those who are familiar with McWilliams’ and Steinbeck’s books to unwind their preconceived notions about the authors, as well as their own ideas about landownership and citizenship.

The book is especially valuable for its discussion about literature written by ethnic minorities and farm workers, which are less well-known to the wider public. By presenting their viewpoints, Wald provides alternative ways of looking at and thinking about the meanings of nation-state, labor, and the environment. Wald also adds to the scholarship new analytic tools and contexts in understanding deeper meanings in the literature. The Nature of California will make the reader curious about the original sources and read them to get a better understanding of her analyses.

Although each chapter can stand on its own as different texts are discussed by chapter, the reader will find the epilogue to be essential to understand Wald’s overarching arguments. She reminds the reader of the importance of the idea about one’s citizenship not based on labor, not based on nation-state, not based on race, but based on one’s inhabitation on the earth, and the relationship between human and more-than-human nature.

Wald’s book shows that these ideas and concepts have already been imagined and presented by writers, scholars and activists. How to substantiate these ideals into social changes remains our job.

May-June 2017, AT 188