California’s San Joaquin Valley, from Stockton in the north to Arvin in the south, is 234 miles long and 130 miles wide. If you drive there from the Bay Area, in less than an hour the temperature will go from 57 to 97 degrees. It will keep rising. The radio stations are predominantly Spanish.
Measured by yearly production, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the highest-value stretches of farmland in the country, and is dominated by large growers who preside over a labor force of migrant workers in a way that has not changed much since Carey McWilliams described it in his 1939 book, Factories in the Fields. The revenue from all the crops harvested here and elsewhere in California is $47 billion a year, more than double that of Iowa, the next-biggest agricultural state.
When Cesar Chavez started organizing farmworkers in the 1950s, his son said, 12 to 14 percent of field hands “were still Okies and Arkies, the Steinbeck people,” and 8 to 10 percent were African-Americans brought in by cotton planters during the boll weevil infestation in the 1920s. About 12 percent were Filipino, and 55 percent were Mexican, “half of them Mexican nationals, the other half first-generation Americans like my father.”
Today, at least 80 percent of farmworkers are undocumented Mexicans, the majority of them Mixteco and Trique, indigenous people from the states of Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Guerrero—the poorest regions in Mexico—who speak no or very little Spanish, much less English. Most of them have been working the fields for at least a decade, have established families here, and live in terror of la migra, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is called, and instant deportation or imprisonment that would wrench them from their children.
From “In the Valley of Fear” by Michael Greenberg in the New York Review of Books: