C is for the Central Valley: Agricultural Paradise or Immigrant Hell?

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The whole gigantic sweep of the San Joaquin expanded, Titanic, before the eye of the mind, flagellated with heat, quivering and shimmering under the sun’s red eye. At long intervals, a faint breath of wind out of the south passed slowly over the levels of the baked and empty earth, accentuating the silence, marking off the stillness. It seemed to exhale from the land itself, a prolonged sigh as of deep fatigue. It was the season after the harvest, and the great earth, the mother, after its period of reproduction, its pains of labor, delivered of the fruit of its loins, slept the sleep of exhaustion, the infinite repose of the colossus, benignant, eternal, strong, the nourisher of nations, the feeder of an entire world.

~ Frank Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California

For people like us, who live near the coast, the Central Valley is almost invisible and only becomes visible when we drive to LA along the monotonous Highway 5, or… if we pick out our fruits and veggies at the local supermarket.

The Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world: of the 10 kinds of soil that exist in the world, the Central Valley has 9. And because of this, the Central Valley grows more prunes, kiwis, apricots, oranges, olives, nectarines, celery, lemons, limes, peaches, grapes, lettuce, walnuts, carrots, melons and tomatoes than anywhere else in the the US. Every year, the Valley produces more than 300,000 tons of grapes and it has the biggest almond plant in the world. In 1997, the Valley produced so many strawberries that they could form a chain around the earth 15 times! Plus for dairy products, too, California is number 1.

Yet the Valley is bone and bone dry in the summer with temps that hit 100+ Fahrenheit. However, due to the river delta of the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River, the Central Valley has water (though clearly not enough) and has become the fruit, vegetable and dairy supplier of the US.

Demographically, it’s an interesting area as well. During the 1930s many farmers came West because of Dust Bowl. This included many people from Oklahoma (Okies) and when you visit the Valley, you can still experience that Oklahoma accent and the conservative culture which belongs to it (such as the right to bear arms and Christian fundamentalism). Getting an education is prioritized less or as Peter Schrag writes in America’s High-Stakes Experiment, California, “the kids would rather have a pickup truck than an education.”

But in order to harvest all those tomatoes, prunes and peaches you need manpower and that is the shadow side of the Central Valley, because aside from former Okies, there are many illegal Mexicans who work in agriculture, sometimes as temporary seasonal workers while others are here permanently. 95% of the agricultural workers are born in Mexico, 63% is illegal and 26% has lived here for less than a year.

So, in spite of the agricultural wealth the Valley produces, most people in the Valley are poor (26% of the children who live in the Valley live below the poverty line). Mexicans may live with 6-8 people in garages, mobile homes or shared rooms and maybe it’s for this reason also that the Central Valley is sometimes called California’s Appalachia

While every California governor in office has been trying to stop illegal immigration, it is of course a matter of private vices, public benefits. In other words, you will have to tolerate a level of illegality, because otherwise the strawberries won’t get picked and the grapes will rot on their vines. While conservatives may think otherwise, I think no American wants to risk a heat stroke by pulling oranges from trees at $6/hr (or less!).

In 1997, an interesting study of the National Research Council showed that immigration has positive effects on the economy and that it doesn’t endanger job opportunities for Americans, unless they themselves don’t have a high school diploma. At the same time, the report showed that Mexicans are nonetheless a fiscal burden (i.e. about $1178 per California family) because they use public services (schools, hospitals, etc) for which they don’t pay taxes if they are illegal.

Finally, the demographer and sociologist, William Frey, has written that while California is experiencing the largest import of immigrants, it’s also experiencing an export of people who have lived in California for years: especially the struggling middle classes find life in California too expensive and move elsewhere for a cheaper way of life.

So does this mean that California, and the Central Valley in particular, is changing into a Mexifornia? This seems an indisputable development and time will tell, but illegality is also a fact of life in California and especially now that the global economy plays into it, with countries like Turkey, China, Mexico, Chili and South Africa who also want to sell their agricultural products for competitive prices. Xenophobia or hatred towards immigrants is, at any rate, not the American way: research shows that while the first generation does identify with Mexico, and therefore often doesn’t speak English well, by the time the third generation comes along, Mexicans have assimilated completely whereby 97% of them refers to themselves as “Americans”. There’s a lot that needs improvement in the US, but the immigration model works as in no other country, so long live the melting pot, or maybe we should say salad bowl to stay on topic…

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