Tag: Labor


Hanging Out with Cyclists

Noam Shoked

Editor’s Note: In 2014, architecture Professor Margaret Crawford and Associate Professor of Art Practice Anne Walsh taught the first University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative research studio course, called No Cruising: Mobility and Identity in Los Angeles. Then a Ph.D. student, Noam Shoked traveled to LA as part of the class to study bicycling communities there.

When we asked Crawford to tell us a little bit about the class, she wrote that “while preparing for the course, we spotted a photograph of a roadside ‘No Cruising’ sign, which opened our minds to the possibility of an ambiguous and open-ended understanding of mobility in LA and aided our investigation. Urban Dictionary’s two definitions of cruising both emphasized nonproductive mobility: first, ‘just driving around with no clear destination’; second, ‘trying to pick up someone for anonymous gay male sex.’ We added the subtitle ‘Mobile Identity and Urban Life’ to underline mobility as a social and human condition rather than a traffic problem to be solved.

“The adaptation and appropriation of words and concepts used to define ‘mobility’ opened doors to additional varied and unexpected interpretations as ten students majoring in art practice, art history, architecture, and performance studies, each selected a dimension of mobility they sought to identify on our field trips to LA. One goal of these field trips, or research studios, was to get students out of their comfort zones to explore new approaches and methods. We encouraged students to draw on each others’ disciplines, so art students undertook archival research while architectural history students, like Noam Shoked, used interviews and photography to investigate contemporary conditions.”

Los Angeles, known for its uncompromising car culture and unending urban sprawl has in the past year added more than one hundred miles of bike lanes, and intends to add forty miles more this year. In addition, with more than 100,000 participants, the car-free biking event CicLAvia takes place three times a year and is the country’s largest event of its kind. These initiatives are supported by multiple nonprofit organizations and bike co-ops such as the Bicycle Kitchen, Bikerowave, and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.


I made my first visit to Los Angeles to study this emerging culture in the context of the global urban bicycling movement, including that of my home country of Israel. I met with activists young and old, as well as officials dedicated to transforming much of the city by promoting a multimodal model, if not a car-free one. I was ready to leave the city and start analyzing the data I gathered, but on my way out of town, waiting at a gas station on Spring Street in the downtown area, I noticed someone riding slowly on the sidewalk. In heavy clothes and an old hat, he didn’t look like the young cyclists in spandex shorts and glossy helmets that I’d been interviewing. His bike was not as fancy as theirs and carried storage baskets on both sides. A few seconds later, I noticed another cyclist. Like the first, he was also riding on the sidewalk and wore a large hat that made it near impossible to see his face. It didn’t take long before I noticed that the sidewalks were crowded with cyclists. Most of them seemed like they were in their forties, maybe even fifties. All were men. Their lived experience of biking in the city was so different from what my research had led me to understand was the norm in Los Angeles. I had to learn more.

By the end of my second trip, my research project, my assumptions, and my view of bicycles in the city were turned inside out by a series of conversations with bicyclists who were part of no particular movement or organization, but who depended for their livelihood on their two-wheeled vehicles.

On my second visit to Los Angeles, I went to the area where I last saw these men and stumbled upon the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) Downtown Community Job Center on Main Street, a facility that helped day laborers find work. Many bikes were tied to the bars by the entrance, and I assumed the men who came to the center looking for work rode their bikes from home each day. Inside I met José, a short man, probably in his forties. José was born in El Salvador and moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. His bike was in good shape—painted red and blue, and on one of his wheels there was a light refractor. He told me that when he was a kid in El Salvador, he also rode a bike.


José said he got to the day labor center by bike, insisting that he rides only on the sidewalk. He explained he was afraid of getting hit and complained about the merciless car drivers in the city. Accidents, he told me, can also happen on the sidewalk, and so he rides very slowly. I asked José if he used to ride on the sidewalk in El Salvador. José was amused. He said it was simply impossible in El Salvador, where the sidewalks were narrow and too crowded with people, vendors, and other obstacles.

Trying to understand his regular commute to the day labor center, I asked José where he lived. He wouldn’t tell me. At that moment, another worker, Miguel, intervened and announced, “He is homeless!” José seemed uneasy with Miguel’s comment and explained to me that he owns a cart and a bike, and stays near the intersection of Spring Street and Cesar Chavez. He even invited me over and said he would love to show me his place. By any standard definition, José was homeless, but not according to him. According to him, he owned some property—a bike and a cart—and had his own spot on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The bicyclists I met last time I was in Los Angeles saw bikes as a matter of mobility, but for José, his bike was the opposite. It gave him a sense of belonging, a way to put down roots.


I was curious to learn more about why it was important for him to declare that he owns a bike and a cart. José pulled a receipt from his pocket and explained that he usually doesn’t get jobs through the day labor center. Instead, riding his bike, he collects cans and bottles, and sells them to the Downtown Metals & Recycling Center on Alameda Street. José’s receipt indicated he received $11.23 from the recycling center. He said he rides his bike to different areas of the city on different days of the week. He usually goes to the area around Temple and Glendale on Wednesdays, and to Skid Row on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, he makes a big loop from Cesar Chavez, south to Washington Boulevard by way of MacArthur Park, and then back up Alameda to the recycling center, where he gets paid for his haul. Mobility, then, for José, was also a matter of inserting himself into the city’s economy.

Through José, I met Diego, who was younger and seemed rather stylish. Four years ago he moved here from Colima, a small city south of Guadalajara. Diego explained that he lives on Third and Los Angeles streets. It wasn’t clear to me whether Diego actually had an apartment there. I wondered if perhaps, like José, he was also homeless. By now I realized such designations were irrelevant to those at the day laborer center, and I worried about imposing my own norms on Diego or, worse, causing him discomfort, and so I didn’t ask him to clarify this point. A more definitive study might have required such information, but I was after something else. I wanted to learn about the city through Diego’s terms. Diego then told me that in order to get to the day labor center, where we met, he rides on Third Street and then takes a left turn onto Broadway. Sometimes he goes from the center to the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on Fifth Street.

Like José, Diego also collects recyclable material across the city, though he has his own route. He starts near his home and bikes eastward on Third Street. Along his route, Diego passes by the jewelry and wholesale stores downtown, a Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, as well as the art galleries and lofts in the Arts District right before going up on the bridge and crossing the LA River. Along this route his attention is divided between looking down at the sidewalk and up to the urban landscape. Once on the east side of the river, Diego stops at Hollenbeck Park where he can rest and relax for a short while. Then, cycling westward, back toward downtown, he stops sometimes by Mariachi Plaza before crossing the bridge again. From here, he turns to Alameda Street and goes straight to the recycling center at 1000 North Main Street.

Diego’s route traverses multiple landscapes and social scenes in six different neighborhoods. Riding on his bike, he sees difference, not sameness. While on his bike, even though inequality is not erased altogether, urban segregation is diminished. His freedom is limited only by how far his legs and two wheels can take him.

And they can take him far. He prefers riding even longer distances just for fun, and he belongs to a cyclists’ group with whom he goes on long rides once a month, usually from Montebello to Whittier and around Rose Hills Memorial Park—a twenty-seven-mile ride. He rides for necessity, but not unlike those young men whom I talked with on my first visit, he also biked for the love of it.

Before leaving the day laborer center, I also met Pablo, an undocumented immigrant who was born in El Salvador and moved to the United States seven years ago. He first lived in Las Vegas, where he worked for a furniture company; but early in 2016, he lost his job and moved to Los Angeles with the hope of finding another. For the time being, he registers every morning at the day labor center on Main Street.

Pablo told me he lives in Boyle Heights, not far from Mariachi Plaza. In order to get to the center, he rides his bike on First Street, crosses the LA River, and then turns onto San Pedro Street. When he gets a job through the center, he can ride his bike to almost any location in the city where there is work. One time, Pablo recalled, he biked all the way to La Cienega Boulevard. At another time, he even made it to Santa Monica. On his bike, Pablo covered an expansive geography.

At one point, while we were talking about the city and how different it was from Las Vegas, I asked Pablo what would he change in the design of the streets of LA, if he could. After a few seconds of silence, Pablo replied saying, “Not to have bicycles on the streets.” After a few more minutes of talking, I learned Pablo didn’t really want to eliminate all bicycles from the city. It was bike lanes he didn’t like. He didn’t want the visibility that came with riding on city streets. When riding on the sidewalk, he felt invisible to most passersby. When riding on the newly painted bright green bike lanes, he was just too visible. I am accustomed to thinking that visibility is a source of political power. For Pablo, invisibility is a tactic, or a means through which he can insert himself into the social fabric of the city without attracting the notice of anyone who might not want him there.

Before our interview ended, I asked Pablo about his income: How much money was he making every month? Was he getting a lot of jobs through the center? Or, was he relying on other sources of income like José and Diego? Pablo, who, unlike José and Diego, did not collect recyclable materials, explained to me that the day labor center to which he biked every day was not a source of reliable income. Instead, it was an institution that provided him with care, a form of compassion and friendship. Away from his family and home, the center was important for his emotional well-being.

On my way back to Berkeley I realized how much my understanding of biking culture had changed over the course of these two visits to LA. If, originally, I intended to learn more about an obvious problem—the lack of bike lanes—I was now faced with a completely different set of problems. Biking was not just a healthy and green mobility alternative in Los Angeles. It was also a matter of social mobility, citizenship, and visibility. In addition, while the biking activists I intended to study had a straightforward outcome in mind, the cyclists I ended up documenting resisted neat solutions.

And instead of finding a solution, through listening to these few cyclists, I found an alternative landscape. This landscape of cycling paths, economic activities, and squatting spots seems to exist almost secretly, despite taking place out in the open, right on the city’s sidewalks.

Photographs by Noam Shoked.

Noam Shoked is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. Before coming to Berkeley, he worked as an architect in New York and Tel Aviv.


The Tomato Harvester

by Carolyn de la Peña

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

If you’ve driven the highways and back roads of the Central and Sacramento Valleys in the summer, when the tomatoes are at their ripest, you may have seen them. And maybe like me, the first time you saw them you had to stop and watch for a while. It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the strangeness of a tomato harvesting machine. “Factories in the field” is what some scholars have called them, and it’s easy to see why.

The most visible component of the harvester is the men and women on its sorting crew, who work on each side of the machine, almost as if they’re on a stationary assembly line. Yet the machine itself is constantly moving. Up and down the rows of tomato plants it travels, pulling with its giant blade whole tomato plants into its body, shaking them to free fruit from vine, tossing the vine back out into the field while pushing the fruit up onto conveyor belts, where human hands and machine processes merge as the sorters quickly separate bad fruit (along with the occasional snake or mouse) from good fruit, allowing only the good to move into waiting bins that will eventually be transported to processing plants.

The individual elements of the harvester seem incongruous. The object, as a whole, appears unstable. And yet, somehow, it achieves something that is difficult to imagine. It pulls ripe tomato plants from the earth, subjects them to blades, shakers, conveyor belts, and metal bins, and, at the end of this violent process, delivers not field-made gazpacho—but piles of ripe, intact, harvested tomatoes.

There are many stories we could tell about the harvester and its impact on California agriculture, California eating habits, and California’s farm labor. One of them would explain how it displaced thousands of mostly Mexican-American farm laborers in the 1960s, and then became the subject of a major lawsuit against the University of California, ultimately resulting in a new ethos of worker-impact-centered agricultural research on our campuses. Another would illuminate the lightning-fast implementation of the machines and the rapid changes they brought to farming and consumer practices.

In 1963 about one percent of California’s industrial tomato harvest was picked by about 60 machines. By 1968, there were over 1,450 machines across the state delivering 95 percent. Almost as quickly, tomato growing shifted geographies, moving from the small fields of the Sacramento Delta and the Davis/Woodland/Sacramento region to towns around Fresno, in order to find the flat land and consistent irrigation possibilities required by the machine.

With its price tag reaching $200,000, the farmer using the harvester needed higher tomato acreages. Small side-line tomato farmers were pushed out and mega-farms moved in. Farmers in search of higher yields layered on new pesticides, beefed up irrigation, and eliminated competing crops. The proliferation of tomatoes for processing enabled food companies to produce cheap sauces, catsups, and pastes. These things, in turn, fueled the ever-expanding industry of fast and convenience foods.

Still, watching a harvester in motion, it’s difficult to avoid pondering the machine itself. And this is good. We should spend time thinking about the machines that have industrialized our food supply and displaced field labor in California. Thanks to the work of scholars like Deborah Fitzgerald, Julie Guthman, and Michael Pollan, we understand that industrialized agriculture has had negative environmental, human, and health consequences. Matt Garcia and William Friedland explore in depth the devastation mechanization brought to farm worker families across the state. These are important stories of consequences. Still they do not fully illuminate the human motivations that created the objects—like the harvester—which enabled our agricultural systems in the first place. This can more easily come into view if we study the machines. If we want to create a better agricultural system we need not only to advocate for what we want; we need to also understand the human motivations that delivered what we have to us. Tomatoes, it turns out, have not been the only things made in these fields.

Building the Machine and the Tomato

When UC Davis seed specialist Jack Hanna began to work with aeronautical engineer Coby Lorenzen in 1949 to create a machine that could pick and sort tomatoes, no one seems to have thought they would succeed. As one professor who worked with them during those years put it, the two men were “kind of the laughing stock around here” for nearly a decade.1

The main problem was the tomato. While varieties could be easily manipulated through seed selection and cross-breeding, no tomato existed that could withstand the violence of mechanized cutting, separating, sorting, and loading. Hanna, a vegetable crops researcher with previous experience in asparagus crops, spent years traveling the US, exploring variations on tomato seeds, creating new hybrids, and raising the seeds to plants, only to fail time and time again when the fruits came into contact with Lorenzen’s prototype harvesting machines. Some tomatoes were too soft, and squished on contact with the cutting blades that detached the stalks from the ground just below the soil. Others were too fixed on the vine, and refused to separate when pulled into the machine’s internal shaker, turning to sauce instead. Even when a tomato could make it through those rigors, it failed to move regularly up the conveyor belt, or its skin thickness wasn’t quite sufficient to withstand the eventual hurl off the harvester into the tight compression of waiting bins. Well into the 1950s, few people took their efforts seriously. They had limited funds, no research assistance, and an industry that in spite of rumblings about the end of the Bracero Program, did not yet prioritize a push to develop tools for automation. For colleagues at UC Davis, the repeated attempts and failures continued to be “highly amusing.” 2

It’s hard to know exactly what kept Hanna and Lorenzen working through these apparently insurmountable problems. One thing we do know is that both of them were fascinated by the requirement that they think about tomatoes through the machine.Historical evidence lets us imagine what the two might have experienced on one of their typical annual road trips to El Centro to test the latest model harvester in a field of experimental tomatoes. The date might have been 1956. Hanna, after six months of hybrid seed development and months of waiting for the plants to mature, has just watched the latest prototype fail with each of the varieties. Some tomatoes refused to separate from the stem. Others smashed on contact. Others made it through the process, only to collapse under the weight of their fellow fruit in the bins. Lorenzen, an aeronautical engineer by training, has just watched his machine, perhaps his eighth or ninth prototype, liquify the fruit. It’s a long drive back to Davis. Nevertheless, Hanna remembered years later, that these drives—with hours on the road and nothing to distract them—was when their most fruitful collaborative thinking took place. They’d analyze the problem, reconsider the plants and the machine process, and come up with their next set of modifications. Gradually, as the years passed, Hanna knew nearly as much about the machine as Lorenzen did. He understood the limits of what the machine could do in the field, and, with this machine perspective, set about finding the fruit that could succeed. The key was a change in perspective. Instead of looking for flavor, texture, or even color or appearance, as he would have otherwise, he had in this project to learn to “look at a plant mechanically.” Flavor, liquid content, shape, and appearance were secondary to finding the properties that could be run successfully through the harvester. For Lorenzen, who in 1949 knew “nothing about tomatoes,” exchanges with Hanna, and years of watching tomatoes, allowed him to build machines that bent ever closer to the specifications of nature. In 1959 the team at last discovered, in tandem, a tomato whose thicker skin and oval shape could survive an automated harvest and a machine that could pick it. Called the vf-145 (sometimes referred to as the “square tomato”), this valuable seed proved that an unlikely and imperfect collaboration had finally blossomed.

Learning to Master the Machine

If the tomato was the puzzle for the engineer and plant hunter to solve, the machine was the puzzle for the grower. In the early years of production, the harvester broke down almost as often as it ran. First, there was the night before its big debut, when journalists and growers from all over the state were invited to see the harvester process the vf-145 on a real farm near Davis. One of the conveyors broke, and no one had a replacement part, and, as one machinist on the scene recalled, “it didn’t matter who you were, you jumped in with a monkey wrench” to get it going again. In the first year of the machine’s mass production, nearly all of them had to be brought back to the machinist for repairs and imperfections.

The first commercial harvesters were produced by Ernst Blackwelder, a local machinist who became one of the project’s later but crucial collaborators. By 1965, when the machines were mass-marketed, their imperfections had been recast as appealing challenges for prospective buyers. Advertisements featured growers like Al Fornaciari, of Roberts Union Island in the Delta, who had harvested an “amazing” 4,290 tons of tomatoes over 36 days without a single breakdown. It was Fornaciari’s skills as a machinist (not as a farmer) that made the difference. Only with “preventative maintenance” could the machine stay in the field. In another ad, Steve Arnaudo looms large in front of his harvester, weeds held authoritatively in his hand, with the statement “weeds didn’t stop my UC-Blackwelder” stamped over the scene in bold. In spite of following extension agents’ recommendations for irrigation, row spacing, and heavy fertilizing for weed control, weeds controlled his field, threatening repeatedly to down the machine. Arnaudo’s skill directing the harvester and navigating the weeds meant the difference between epic failure and his successful “four to five loads a day.” 3

The truth, really, was that no one knew how to grow for the machine or how to run it successfully through the fields once that crop was grown, universally ripe, and in need of immediate picking. At $50,000 to $200,000, each machine was an enormous investment, and risk, for the growers who bought it. To get their money back, growers had to expand their holdings. Many had to move to new fields where irrigation was more constant. All had to learn new pesticide practices and adjust to timetables in seed planting and harvesting so that as many fruits as possible could be picked in a single pass through a field. As one extension agent put it, in the early years of harvester experimenting, “we are all going to have to re-learn how to grow tomatoes.” The “we” here was, not so subtly, the growers, in a trial by fire. By 1967 most farmers who were growing tomatoes in 1960 had been pushed out. Those few who succeeded commanded not only fleets of machines and acreage quadrupling their old holdings, but respect as leaders. Tomatoes had become a crucial industry for the state. For Ernst Blackwelder, the reason other farmers failed is because they just couldn’t get the machine. If you could not “grow for the machine,” he explained, you simply “fell by the wayside.” 4

At each phase of its development, the tomato-harvester project threatened to collapse and to take its human participants down with it unless they learned to think for the machine. In the end, a sufficient number of those humans did just that, thereby turning probable failures into success. They did this because the complexity of the task—the need to alter one’s way of thinking entirely about machines, tomatoes, harvesting, and irrigation—demanded that they tie their personal and professionalidentities to the success of the harvester. Yes, the goal was to make money, keep the tomato crop in California, and address what many believed was a permanent labor deficit because of the end of the Bracero Program. But on the way to those practical goals, farmers, seed specialists, machinists, engineers, plant hunters, and extension agents also enhanced their opinion of themselves as innovators, risk takers, and leaders in California agriculture. This, as much as the industrial tomato, was what was made in the fields.

And maybe this is at least part of what we see when we’re hailed from the road. Watching the tomato harvester at work, marveling at the synchronicity of metal and fruit, and puzzling over how such a thing can be even possible, we become simply the latest in a long line of believers thinking ourselves into this machine.


*A fuller version of this piece is forthcoming in Food, Culture, and Society, volume 16.3.

1. Interview with Ray Bainer, A.I. Dickman, The Oral History Accounts of the Development of the Mechanization of the Processing Tomato Harvester and of the Breeding of the Machine-Compatible Tomato, Oral History Office, Shields Library, The University of California 1978, 29. See also 38.

2. Interview with Charles Rick, Dickman, 27.

3. For advertisements see The California Tomato Grower(March 1966; November 1966)

4. Interview with Ernst Blackwelder, Dickman, 67.


Jobs. Good Jobs.

by Wade Collins

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Nothing’s simple in the vineyard

On some level I knew it wasn’t going to work out when the manager of my new job asked me if I could give her a second emergency contact phone number—someone to call besides my wife, in case the bobcat who had been patiently picking off some of the resident poultry decided to up the ante and go for larger fare, or the orchestrators of the illegal pot-growing operation, recently discovered out beyond the vineyards, decided one day to start taking hostages in exchange for safe passage into Mendocino county.

“Hmm … like my mom?” I asked.

“If you wish,” she responded.

“Sure,” I said, “but you could only call her for minor emergencies—like infected hairs, or a really bad sunburn, that sort of thing—she is eighty-two, you know.”

In most circumstances in my life, this obvious attempt at humor and levity would have, at the very least, met with a polite chuckle—a gracious nod to the effort that one has made to lighten a particular moment, even if that effort had been less than fully realized. Here though, my remark was swept aside as if unspoken and with thinly disguised annoyance, a second request was made for an additional emergency contact phone number.

“This is going to be tough,” I thought to myself, “it really is—for both of us,” suddenly sorry that I would undoubtedly be bombarding this poor soul over the course of our professional working relationship with countless unwanted attempts to make her laugh. This apparent incompatibility, in and of itself, was not enough to sour me on the job, however—after all, I’d met plenty of people in my life who hadn’t thought I was funny. I even dated a few of them (for reasons best left to a pedigreed professional with a spiral notepad and leather couch). In every other way my new manager was seemingly a lovely person—kind, generous to a fault, and accommodating. No, what sealed the fate, so to speak, of my new job were the ATVs.

Photo by Guy Foster

Vineyards are big places. They consist of row after row of neatly manicured and trellised grape vines coursing over the contours of the land, seemingly oblivious to concerns of slope, marching up and down the rises of the Napa Valley foothills like obedient columns from Caesar’s legendary legions. Access to all the far-flung outposts of this empire of wine is provided, by and large, courtesy of the ATV, that boisterous vehicle of teenage restlessness, here domesticated for its predilection for traversing sometimes difficult terrain, quickly and easily. One of the first tasks of my new job was to master the operation of the two resident ATVs the estate owned. Although I was not being hired to work in the vineyard, per se, the ATVs had numerous uses around the gardens, grounds, and orchards, and I would be expected to use them whenever necessary. So, after some embarrassed fumbling of gears, and a period of furtive stopping and starting—akin to an unwelcome case of inebriated hiccupping, until the correct amount of throttle to use was discovered—I was soon on my way, barreling down the graveled, tree-lined, and shade-speckled roads with, if not the boyish aplomb of youth, an ableness nonetheless.

Now, an hour of jostling, bouncing, and jiggling may be, to most, an adrenaline-tinged amusement, but to me it was something quite different. Nearly three years ago, in a remote section of northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, while harvesting dead wood for fence posts from a section of forest devastated by the pinyon bark beetle, the top portion of one of the trees broke off—striking me on the head. And I have to say, if you are ever in your lifetime presented with a choice about this, I would strongly advise an unwavering course of action to prevent said tree from hitting said head. Other than the initial amazement that one is, in fact, not dead after such an encounter, there is nothing to recommend it. Once an impact great enough to cause the skull to strike the fragile tissue it encases occurs, there is, like a lost virginity, no going back. Repairs are made, neuronal networks are reorganized, but the brain will never regain the original vigor and elasticity of the pre-concussive state, and will be forever susceptible to further injury.

Dismounting from the ATV, my speech slow to form and slightly slurred, my gait unsure and unsteady, I knew I had crossed the imaginary line that my now fragile brain—with its circuitry pruned, but not for strength and productivity like the vines I had just been whizzing past—was ill-equipped to tolerate. Like myself three years previously, my new job was then and there concussed—and ultimately, there would be no going back to it.

Perhaps it was prescient that during my drive down from Washington state to Napa, I had listened to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” that epic narrative of forced wandering in which the idea, and the ideal, of California play such a prominent role. The promise of “jobs, good jobs,” pushes the Joads and hundreds of thousands like them westward, driven from their lands by poor soil and greedy bankers. I, too, was in flight, away from two years of unemployment—looking for a job, any job. And in this, I imagine, I was not alone. With a national underemployment rate stuck, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’, at around 16 percent over the past two years, and with home foreclosures at historic highs, I wondered about all the modern-day Joads being created—pushed out of their homes, unable to find work, government assistance running out—where do they go? Where do we go? Toward jobs. In my case, like the Joads, toward California.

By the time the Joads arrived, during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, California, the place, was “all bought up” and remains so today. Land here has either already been intensively developed or is in large-scale commercial agricultural production. In Napa, where I was headed, that meant one thing—wine.

Photo by Jens Dahlin

Although Napa arrived a little late to the scene (archeological evidence suggests that the first properly aged wine originated about eight thousand years ago in what is now the modern Republic of Georgia), the combination of a favorable climate and the setting aside of some thirty-eight thousand acres for permanent agricultural use in 1968 have made the area one of the preeminent wine-growing regions of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that wine grapes are big business here. With $5 billion in annual revenue, they are California’s second most-valuable agricultural commodity. In Napa, where the majority of that crop is grown, a ton of grapes can fetch upward of $4,000. Compare that with the going rate for a ton of Fresno grapes—$260—and you start to have an appreciation for the reverential esteem in which Napa Valley grapes are held. But for all the abundance, there is an unease here as well. Bankruptcies and mortgage defaults are at an all-time high—and consolidation of smaller, privately owned vineyards into larger corporate holdings is occurring with startling rapidity. Add to that mix the almost certain dislocation of the delicate Napa Valley climate by global warming, and the patina of unworried affluence begins to show itself for what it is: brittle, and potentially hollow—and perhaps just one more example of the reckless denial that has come to typify our current age.

The most important crop in California, however, in terms of revenue is, by far, marijuana. Statewide, it is a $15 billion a year industry, and growing. Here in Napa, it is second only to grapes in economic significance, bringing in about $350 million annually. But, in spite of its undeniable economic muscle, it still largely exists in the shadows, both legally and geographically—a point which was soon to be brought home to me on my very first day in the state.

Not long before I arrived, on the estate in which I was newly hired to work, a discovery was made in a wooded area just beyond the sun-soaked vineyards. Six lines of irrigation hose leading off in different directions were found emanating from an all but forgotten cistern. Those hoses led to areas being prepared for marijuana cultivation. Since, however, no crop had been started yet, the county sheriffs who had been called to inspect the operation took no actions to confiscate the equipment. Upon receipt of this information, in a sort of informal pre-work orientation with my manager over tea and avocado sandwiches topped with homemade pickled fennel (delicious, by the way), I was, to say the least, surprised. I especially found the live-and-let-live approach to law enforcement in evidence here somewhat peculiar. The officers would, they said, come back to check up on the operation nearer harvest time, but until then, the landowner (and their employees—i.e. us) would be very much on our own.

“Carry a gun,” they advised. “They’ll be armed; it would be better if you were too.”

To the police, it was a fairly common occurrence, vineyards being favored locations for illegal grow operations owing to their proximity to water, the ready availability of irrigation equipment, and the presence of skilled horticultural workers. But I’m not so sure the picture I had of growing Swiss chard and tending fruit trees in what I thought to be a somewhat bucolic Napa included holstered weaponry—in fact, I’m sure it did not. Thankfully, in this my manager and I were of like minds, and so she had, so far, resisted the call to arms. But the hoses were and are still there. And so is the danger. Three people were killed at grow camps the previous year, all growers slain during raids by police as part of the thirty-year long CAMP (Campaign against Marijuana Planting) Program. When next year’s raids start up again in August, there will, undoubtedly, be further violence.

When the raids do happen, though, I will not be there. Seven days into the job, my head still reeling from my stint on the ATVs, I broke the news to my manager that due to the damage to my brain that had occurred, and might in all likelihood recur in the future, I would be resigning. And I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to write these words. Back in December, a week before Christmas, when my wife and I learned that I was going to be offered the position—we cried. It had been a little over two years since I had been laid off from my job. My position as a department head at an organic seed company had been eliminated due to a corporate restructuring. With my ninety-nine weeks of unemployment insurance exhausted, all the future held for us before the offer was made were food stamps and a continued reliance on family for housing. Now, we believed that my two years of unemployment, and along with it our uncertainty, our fear of the future, would be but a memory—that period of our lives that we got through—the bridge that connected one settled bit of security to the next. But instead of signing a lease on a rental house and making a reservation for a moving truck, I was back on the 101, headed north—headed home.

For the Joads, the real California was a place of hardship, regret, and loss—but also a place that tested and deepened their humanity. And while I in no way endured, in my two weeks, the same sort of trials and tribulations that they did, the journey had taken something away from me that I couldn’t get back—the job, obviously, and all that it represented—but something else too. I was forty-five, with a recurring brain injury. I could no longer do the sort of work for which I was trained. Where did that leave me? Adrift, in search of a new identity—disoriented, but also possessing a sort of hard-won sense of opportunity that was no longer contingent upon false hopes. California had taken something away, that’s true, but it had also given me something new—and perhaps that is what California, the place and the idea, does for people. And maybe that’s enough, sometimes.


Framing Farm Labor

by Michael Ziser

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

Coming into focus

Richard Steven Street, Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Jan Goggans, California on the Breadlines: Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and the Making of a New Deal Narrative (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

Rick Nahmias, The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).

We are all familiar with California’s privileged relationship to the visual technologies that captured the twentieth century—photography, film, television—but less well-known is the fact that during the same period the state was at the vanguard in the production of equally influential forms of invisibility. As large landholdings were snatched up by wealthy and often absentee owners in the late nineteenth century, California’s agricultural sector became a key site in the broader American shift from reliance on relatively small resident farmers to the post-Civil War reconfiguration of farmwork into a form of wage labor paid by distant corporate owners of land and equipment. The corporate ownership/wage labor model has come to dominate our agricultural landscape so thoroughly that most middle-class Californians today have no personal experience of agricultural labor, regarding it (if at all) as something outdated and alien. Indeed, farmwork is now largely performed by “aliens,” migrants from Mexico and Central America who speak languages other than English and carry Latino cultural traditions.


Chronically impoverished, politically disenfranchised, and largely excluded from the dominant culture, California fieldworkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—historically hailing from China, the Philippines, India, and Japan, as well as Latin America—found themselves in the curious position of living and laboring unseen at the very epicenter of what another immigrant, Theodor Adorno, famously described as “the culture industry.” In the unprecedented concentration of technological and human resources dedicated to producing and distributing visual images, there was a powerful tension between farmworkers’ material presence and their social absence. Still photography, which emerged just as California agriculture was getting established, was particularly well-suited to capturing this paradox, and the long, mostly underground tradition of photojournalism in California’s agricultural interior is a prime study in the relationship between politics and aesthetics.

The three books reviewed here all focus on the century-plus tradition of documentary and artistic photography centered on farm labor to explore its role in the history of professed American ideals like shared economic prosperity and the democratic mediation of cultural difference. Richard Steven Street’s Everyone Had Cameras is a historically comprehensive survey of visual records of farmworkers over the past 150 years; Jan Goggans’s California on the Breadlines pursues a narrower and deeper engagement with the most effective photojournalist in that tradition, Dorothea Lange, and her economist husband, Paul Taylor; and Rick Nahmias’s The Migrant Project exemplifies the ongoing personal and political value of taking a camera out among the furrows.

Street’s Everyone Had Cameras is the comprehensive history of the subject, and it is difficult to imagine it ever being superseded. Street has devoted more than thirty years to the history and continued chronicling of farmworkers in California, and his long immersion in the subject shows in the astonishing level of historical detail and analytical good judgment he brings to this crowning work. Richly illustrated with 149 photos, Street’s book spans the entire post-contact history of California. Opening with a discussion of Spanish painters such as Padre Ignacio Tirsch and José Cardero, who recorded distant images of native Californian field hands laboring at coastal missions in the mid-1700s, Street moves on to the drawings produced by American military artists from the 1830s forward. Those panoramic images are geographic and documentary in intent, aiming to inform distant audiences of the geology, people, and agricultural practices of what was then an isolated outpost of European civilization. When photography first came to California, its application was limited to portraiture by the heaviness and delicacy of the equipment and the long exposure times required. During this period, Euro-American (and occasionally Native Californian) farmworkers on trips into town sat for their portraits in one of the studios to be found in every city of size, purchasing prints in the form of small cartes de visite or slightly larger cabinet cards.

As technological changes allowed the camera to move outdoors, California landscapes began to appear in the works of entrepreneurs who took the images on touring exhibitions through the United States and also in the collections of wealthy landowners who commissioned a photographic record of their holdings. Among the most significant of these patronage relationships was the one between Jonathan Bixby, a wealthy landowner with land in Los Angeles, Orange, and Monterey counties, and William Godfrey, a stereographer from the then-tiny town of Los Angeles. In 1872 Bixby invited Godfrey to document his Los Cerritos Ranch (near present-day Long Beach), and the stereographs of the land he produced, featuring Chinese and Mexican ranch-hands, are some of the earliest in situ photographic records of farm labor in California.

The pattern of commissioned work combined with retail stereograph sales persisted through the latter third of the century with Eadweard Muybridge, the technical master and colorful pioneer of moving-image technology. Like Godfrey, Muybridge did not limit his photography to white subjects, taking many neutral and even sympathetic images of the mostly Chinese field hands who brought in the grape harvest at Buena Vista, the massive and storied Sonoma vineyard of Agoston Haraszthy. In the 1880s, photographer Carleton Watkins was drawn into the infamous Lux v. Haggin irrigation dispute when he was hired by the attorney for Miller and Lux, Hall McAllister, to document the Kern River and its associated sloughs. Watkins later returned to Kern County, where he advertised his services to local farmers who wanted images of their operations. His photos from this commercial tour, which number over 750, contained many images of the Chinese and Mexican workforce, and his negatives were printed and perhaps also captioned by his Chinese American colleague, Ah Fue, in a San Francisco studio. Godfrey, Muybridge, and Watkins never intended anything in the way of an overt political statement by such inclusions, but in retrospect the mere presence of these poor and nonwhite faces is of great significance, given the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and the resulting systematic exclusion of the Chinese from California society and from much of the historical record of the late nineteenth century.

Photographers became more firmly allied with the perspectives of big growers and their marketing associations as commercial demand for their work grew alongside the expanding national markets for California produce and the accompanying advances in printing and packaging technology. The major images from 1890 to 1910 tended to be promotional rather than documentary, and they downplayed the social questions associated with the modern farm economy. Instead of an exposé of conditions in the raisin-packing sheds, for example, we see the carefully managed image of Lorraine Collett, a packer who became the face of Sun-Maid raisins. Mexican workers, who by the 1910s had largely replaced the legally excluded Chinese, often appeared on marketing labels of the era in the form of caricatures of malingering campesinos purportedly representing the obsolete culture of the region before annexation. (“Lazy Peon” was one brand of avocados in the era.) Women, who in this pre-bracero era contributed significantly to the agricultural work force, especially in the sorting sheds, also found themselves represented in cartoonish, highly sexualized images emblazoned on the fruit crate labels of brands like “Buxom,” “Squeeze Me,” and “Nudist.” These images were part of a larger branding of California as a wealthy, fertile, and white agricultural paradise during the first half of the twentieth century.


“Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California” by Dorothea Lange, 1937. (photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Contradicting this image were photos of much more limited circulation, such as those associated with the trial of the 1913 Wheatland hop rioters, or the series of criminal mugshots and case histories recorded by Clara Smith between 1900 and 1908. These photos reveal the racial diversity, extreme poverty, and poor living conditions of a California demimonde the agricultural marketers were eager to suppress. The advertising men were aided in their effort by the outbreak of the first World War, when agricultural labor shortages were met with government campaigns to bring women (The Women’s Land Army) and children (The Boys’ Working Reserve) from the cities into the fields at key points in the growing season. These atypical workers were frequently photographed in the smiling attitudes of picnickers in the countryside, a living version of the illustrations of contented laborers on boxes of fresh fruit shipped eastward decades before. Beneath this veneer, however, was the advent of the labor system we know today: in 1917, immigration restrictions and taxes that had somewhat restrained the northward migration of Mexican workers were lifted, and these workers, fleeing the disruption caused by the Mexican Revolution, came by the thousands to work in California fields. The racial and cultural divisions between the Mexican agricultural labor force and the Anglo middle class deepened over the next thirty years, so that by the mid-1920s a subgenre of newspaper photography emerged that recorded lurid images of the rural poor whose lives and deaths increasingly took place beyond the experience of the average newspaper reader.

The Great Depression both interrupted and ultimately reinforced the disappearance of the migrant labor force from the concerns of the urban public. In the aftermath of the worldwide economic downturn after Black Friday, two remarkable German immigrants, Otto Hagel and Joanna (“Hansel”) Mieth, emigrated to California and began to tumble aimlessly across the American Southwest, travelling and working with migrant laborers, documenting their lives with an intimacy and sympathy unmatched by their American colleagues. But it was a transplanted Iowan, Paul Taylor, who first exploited the power of the photographic image in the service of a larger vision of social and economic justice. A WWI veteran who came to California in the 1920s to rehabilitate lungs damaged by mustard gas, Taylor was driven by a now-rare sense of patriotic obligation to his less fortunate countrymen. Pursuing an academic career in labor and agricultural economics at UC Berkeley, he put the plight of the largely Mexican migrant population at the center of his research. Taylor sought early on to record some of his field experiences in California and Colorado, and as photography became a more common element in academic social science publications he included his images to illustrate the more abstract principles and data sets in his essays.

Hagel, Mieth, and Taylor were being swept along in a greater change in the relationship between workers and their employers. In the 1930s, the laboring classes in California began to assert their political, economic, and physical power, organizing across agricultural and industrial lines to put pressure on the ownership class. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, formed in 1930, called for a farmworkers’ strike in 1931 after a grower-imposed wage cut. This was followed by a large and bloody cotton strike in 1933. Such strikes, key moments in the consolidation of both union and anti-union organizing, were directed by Communist organizers aiming to create solidarity among workers of all types and backgrounds in order to secure higher wages, better conditions, and greater control over decision-making from the politically powerful owners of land and capital. In the summer of 1934, dockworkers in the San Francisco office of the International Longshoremen’s Association called for a waterfront work stoppage and, eventually, a general strike. Although violently put down by private corporate militias, city police, and the National Guard, the strikes heralded a new balance of power between labor and capital that would play out in New Deal policy debates. Recognizing their significance, Taylor coauthored an article in the progressive journal Survey Graphic offering historical context and political analysis of the strikes. While waiting for an editorial response, he attended a photography exhibition in Oakland, where he was struck by a set of images depicting workers during the 1934 General Strike. At the last moment, and without knowing the photographer, he sent photos of the strike from the Oakland show to the publisher as replacements for his own illustrations. The photographer responsible for the photos was the young Dorothea Lange, a transplant from New York, studio photographer, and budding chronicler of life on the streets of Depression-era San Francisco, and this conjunction of the photographer’s art with the economist’s science was just the first chapter in what would become a lifelong professional collaboration and personal romance between Taylor and Lange.

While Street’s book devotes much of seven chapters to Lange and Taylor, providing crucial historical details about the context of their ascension as national spokesmen for the poor, Jan Goggans’s California on the Breadlines tells their remarkable tale with a storyteller’s ear for all of its human dimensions—as a key moment in the development of activist art, a rare and inspiring example of political ideals being realized in one’s work, a major chapter in California’s long-running struggle over how to pursue agricultural development, and as the subtitle suggests, an important prelude to national reforms implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. This last element, which perhaps owes its prominence to the publisher’s need to address a national audience, is in fact the least original and convincing strand in Goggans’s argument, as the evidence points toward a fortuitous convergence among Lange and Taylor’s interests and the needs of Roy Stryker, head of public relations for Rexford Tugwell’s newly established Resettlement Administration, tasked with reconstructing the country’s devastated farm communities from 1935 forward. As much as we now associate Lange’s famous photos with the Depression and the New Deal programs designed to alleviate it, the evidence is thin that the photos led to any major coalescence of public opinion, or that Taylor’s work was picked up by FDR’s Brain Trust and incorporated into national policy. These were largely parallel phenomena that are all too easily read, in retrospect, as cause and effect.

“In a carrot pullers’ camp near Holtville, California” by Dorothea Lange, 1939. (photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)

Fortunately, Goggans provides a wealth of other interpretive handles for us to take hold of, the most striking and unexpected of which relates to the gender roles and sexual mores at work beneath the surface of the Taylor/Lange collaboration. Their advocacy of better physical living conditions for migrant laborers had, of course, a common-sense rationale: social justice includes indoor plumbing, access to clean water, and protection from the elements. But as Goggans makes clear, Taylor’s politics in particular were deeply informed by a domestic ideology that went beyond a simple pragmatic interest in physical conditions, to the point that he regarded the traditional household as the moral basis for egalitarian social relations. His embrace of this ideology may have stemmed in part from the updated Jeffersonian ideal so often invoked by farm and labor activists of the time, but it was also reinforced by contemporary factors operating in the society at large. During the Depression, when pressure rose on women to leave the work force so that male breadwinners would face less competition for scarce jobs, the traditional domestic “women’s work” that had been increasingly outsourced to the market was now reabsorbed into the informal, and unpaid, economy. The vision of a self-sustaining family farm, operating smoothly along old gender divisions of labor, became all the more broadly appealing. There were also strong aesthetic conventions at work for Lange. The documentary photography of earlier urban reformers, like Jacob Riis or Margaret Bourke-White, often had relied on images of decrepit or incomplete houses to compel the attention of audiences, and many of Lange’s photographs of migrant camps followed suit in highlighting the relation between maternal subjects and their distressed or dysfunctional homes.

This element of Taylor and Lange’s photojournalistic project becomes more complex and interesting when we broaden our scope to include their own romantic entanglement. At the same time that they were making strategic use of traditionalist iconography to broadcast the plight of farmworkers, Lange and Taylor began an affair that would culminate in their marriage in 1935. Lange’s first marriage was to Maynard Dixon, the bohemian scion of an established California family and an artist whose long painting expeditions Lange subsidized with her studio portraiture. There was a long foreground to Lange’s decision to engage in an affair with Taylor: frequent separations, difficulties at home, and political differences wore down the Lange-Dixon marriage until at the end it was little more than an economic partnership. Taylor’s situation was even less traditional. His wife, Katharine Whiteside (his college fiancée), aware of their sexual and temperamental incompatibilities, proposed that they establish an open marriage. Taylor, however, could not abide so radical a challenge to the domestic structure that organized his world view, and after an awkward period of quasi-open marriage, he insisted on a divorce (and marriage to Lange).

An undercurrent of feminist liberation and a halting revision of sexual mores is thus a significant part of the Taylor/Lange story, and with a little imagination we can use these currents to enrich our understanding of Lange’s iconic images. Take Migrant Mother, the most famous of her photos. The most common version of the photograph shows an intent migrant woman from Oklahoma clutching her two shy children and staring anxiously into the distance. Other images from the same roll of film show the context of the portrait (a worn tent in a temporary pea-pickers’ camp). The most striking image, however, is of the woman, Florence Thompson, preparing to breastfeed her youngest child, a pose in which Lange often placed her subjects. It is an allusion to the Madonna, of course, but Goggans argues that it partakes in another visual tradition, that of the glamorous modern woman whose sexuality is a part of her strength rather than a defect in her character. If Goggans’s hunch is right, then images like Migrant Mother draw their power in part from the contrast between an ancient image of traditional femininity and a heterodox image of a strong, unrepressed woman unaccompanied by any males, a figure often demeaned as a “whore” but here celebrated and promoted. Lange’s frequent identification with her female subjects may go beyond their shared interest in economic reform to an underlying feminism that is not usually stressed in treatments of the period. Of her encounter with Florence Thompson, Lange recalled that “there was a sort of equality about it.”

Paul Taylor’s major academic focus had always been on Mexican migrant farm labor, which had risen in the first decades of the twentieth century to become the linchpin, alongside large irrigation projects, of dramatic growth in the Western and Southwestern agricultural sector. Almost alone among economists in studying what would become a lasting phenomenon, Paul Taylor integrated cultural and ethnographic insights into his more traditional economic methodology. He learned Spanish and recorded corridos during his trips into the field in California and Colorado. The presence of white farm laborers in California fields was an anomaly of the 1930s created by the economic and environmental catastrophes of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, which led to the deportation of vast numbers of Mexican migrants (regardless of their immigration status) and the influx of immigrants from Oklahoma. Even then, the rural work force was significantly nonwhite, and a substantial proportion of the “Okies” were themselves of native, Mexican, and/or African American ancestry. Florence Thompson, the woman pictured in Migrant Mother, was born on an Indian reservation, was married to a native man, and perhaps—there is some dispute about this—was herself part Native American.

César Chávez addressing strikers at DiGiogio’s Sierra Vista Ranch, March 1966. (photograph by Gerhard Gscheidle, courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)

As Goggans reveals, the apparent whiteness of the iconic images of Depression-era poverty was deliberate, a strategy to disassociate the white Okies from the “gypsy field hands,” whose race, culture, and domestic habits (conditioned by legal discrimination) kept them from becoming viable objects of sympathy for the middle-class voting public. John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle are to the literary history of Depression California what Lange and Taylor’s works are to the photojournalistic tradition, was quite explicit about this, frequently drawing sharply racialized distinctions meant to benefit whites at the expense of nonwhite migrants. After public and private publishers passed over many images of native and Latino workers, families, and children in Lange’s early work, eventually Lange herself obliged this appetite by seeking out young, white, often very beautiful mothers for extensive portrait sessions.

During and after WWII, the Bracero program radically altered established patterns of Mexican migration to the fields of California. Although they had a laundry list of rights on paper, braceros proved readily exploitable. Delivered in groups to isolated farms where they had no independent means of shelter or sustenance, no family or social support, and no recourse against those who would short their pay, overcharge on rent, or ignore unsafe conditions, they represented the legal codification and institutionalization of the farmworking underclass. The photographic record of this era is relatively thin, owing in significant part to an increasingly aggressive campaign by growers to sue or otherwise punish photographers, filmmakers, magazines, and distributors guilty of what they termed “libel by visual innuendo.” The most famous of these campaigns was pursued by the DiGiorgio Company against the makers and backers of Poverty in the Valley of Plenty, a National Farm Laborers’ Union film that was shown to pro-labor audiences and aired on a few public television stations before being suppressed and destroyed per court order. With the DiGiorgio case, a new era of sophisticated visual campaigns began, culminating with César Chávez’s careful cultivation of news photographers in his successful attempts to organize and advance the United Farm Workers.

Street’s history carries us all the way up to the end of the millennium with more images and anecdotes than can possibly be conveyed here, and the visual chronicle of farm labor has continued to evolve in the work of contemporary photographers drawn to what Street calls the “picture of how the system of farm labor developed [and] . . . the price it extracts from a class of people.”

Rick Nahmias’s contribution to this body of work, The Migrant Project, is notable not for any special aesthetic achievement or unusual subject matter, but rather its sheer lack of artistic or sociological distinctiveness. Struck by his deep ignorance of the sources of California’s famous food culture, Nahmias set out on an adventure of self-discovery in the fields of his home state and underwent a conversion from blithe consumer to impassioned advocate for the people he found there. The photos he took along the way might have been taken by anyone with a camera, a roll of black-and-white film, a smattering of Spanish, and the desire to cross the boundaries that history has made. By the time one has finished leafing through The Migrant Project, one grasps that in our moment the mediocre snapshots and secondhand history are beside the point, and what really matters is only that last quality—the interest in finding out how our fellow Californians are faring.

The power of the photographic image to produce icons and influence policy appears to be on the wane, the victim of the dilutive power of a fragmented public sphere so saturated in arresting images that even the most effective photos often find no significant audience. But if Nahmias’s work suggests that the value of twenty-first-century agricultural photojournalism lies not in the images produced but in the photographer’s experience of crossing the linguistic, cultural, economic, and geographic lines that separate most of us from migrant farmworkers, the democratic access enabled by cheaply available digital cameras may be something to embrace. Everyone really does have a camera now: the average Californian has on his or her person a pretext for undoing the century-long isolation and invisibility of California farmworkers. You, too, can become a part of a tradition that is as much about sharing a world with the disempowered and keeping them in your thoughts and actions as it is about capturing the perfect image. Because they have few political rights and exist in innumerable jurisdictions, migrant farm laborers will never be able to directly secure their own just treatment, social inclusion, and prosperity. But those visual images of them in our cell phones and on our hard drives might, if we let them, act through us at the ballot box, the grocery store, and the meeting hall.