America's Migrant Farm Workers Endure Invisible Struggle


By Daniel Rothenberg

Harcourt Brace

334 pp., $28

For the most part, America's 1.5 million seasonal farm workers remain invisible, little more than unskilled laborers, callously disposable. In "With These Hands: the Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today," Daniel Rothenberg takes us into their world and their lives.

"The more one listens to workers, to their personal stories, their tales of struggle, travel, romance, or adventure," Rothenberg promises, "the more complex and compelling their world becomes." It's a promise his book keeps.

The heart of "With These Hands" is a wide range of interviews, organized thematically. Rothenberg begins with chapters on farm workers and the growers and contractors they work for. He then shifts to more specific topics: tensions along the US-Mexico border, what approximates de facto slavery, farm-worker unions and politics, migrant children, the Mexicanization of small farm towns in America, and the Americanization of Mexican "ranchos."

Aside from his introductions of the interviewees, Rothenberg's own narrative is respectfully distanced, providing textured background information, giving his subjects room to stand on their own and engage the reader directly. Yet, his invaluable narrative helps us intuit who may be more typical or idiosyncratic, more honest or self-serving, more insightful or self-deluding.

Perhaps Ed Zuroweste, a medical practitioner who treats migrants alongside millionaires, best captures the book's central tension when he observes, "Although emotionally and spiritually, farmworkers are sometimes extremely strong, politically they are very weak."

As James "Shorty" Spencer Jr., a middle-aged migrant worker puts it, "Arnold Schwarzenegger? I'd like to see him run from 6 o'clock in the morning till 7 o'clock at night with a bucket of potatoes on his back. He can't do it."

It may seem natural that such strength goes with low skill and low pay, but there's nothing natural here. Agricultural workers were purposely excluded from the whole range of New Deal protections - "minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, child labor provisions, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and legal protections for union organizing."

If that weren't enough to keep them down, writes Rothenberg, the agricultural lobby has repeatedly been able to flood their labor market with cheap foreign workers - many now here illegally - further depressing the wages of all.

Against this background of political power, the repeated complaints of growers, contractors, and their allies can seem ludicrously self-pitying, but Rothenberg firmly reminds us of the real difficulties they face: above all, the inherent uncertainties of farming and the market for farm goods, the dominance of large producers (6 percent of farms produce 75 percent of all fruits and vegetables), and the lack of control over non-labor costs.

"With These Hands" is filled with firsthand testimonies that exemplify the incongruities between values and viewpoints, rural and urban life, modern and premodern work, individual and community responsibilities. In tackling these issues, the book demolishes the notion that poor, undereducated farm workers are less reflective, self-aware, or articulate.

In the end, Rothenberg notes, "farmworkers represent an alternate history of American society, an image of what life could have been like for countless other laborers" without the hard-won protections of the New Deal. As those protections are subject to continued attack, the fate of farm workers has increasing resonance for the lives of us all.

* Paul Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Long Beach, Calif.

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