Harvest of Tears
Expanded from the 3-20-2005
Daily Sparks Tribune
And the 3-25-2005 Comstock Chronicle
My mother came home with another mother's tears in her eyes. I was only about 13 years old, but she could not contain herself. She knew that I would pester her until I found out the cause.
"I went to collect the rent from Mildred. I've never seen anyone cry such big tears. I felt so sorry for her," my mother sobbed.
Mildred had rented my late grandmother's house which still stands today near the humid fields of west Fresno, Calif. Mildred was a farm worker and single mother raising two daughters about my age. The girls were usually alone in the afternoons after school as Mildred worked picking the San Joaquin Valley's cotton crop back when the air was so clear you could see the mountain ranges to the east and west.
An Italian-owned grocery store operated a block away from grandma's house. The owners made their biggest profits running a bar out of the back room. Somebody nicknamed it the Hole in the Wall and the very descriptive name stuck.
The bartender served drinks out of the open rear of the store. Patrons, fresh from the fields in their work clothes, would imbibe while standing outside on the dirt behind weathered wooden corral fencing. Labor contractors' buses would pick them up in front of the grocery store at dawn and deposit them in the same place after 10 or more hours under the sun. I saw dice games as I walked past.
No one felt any danger from the afternoon drunks. My grandmother would often send seven-year-old me to the store to fetch some pasta on a sweltering afternoon. To my brother and me, the sweaty boozers of summertime were loud and harmless curiosities. Child abuse horror stories were still decades into the future for most, but not me. Not after the day of the two mothers' tears.
"Some drunk came to Mildred's house and raped her two girls while she was away," my mother said robotically, wiping her eyes, shaking with sorrow.
I don't know if the perp was ever caught. Justice for black people was hard to come by in the 1950s. Not too much has changed for the farm workers of today.
Those old emotions all came rushing back last week as I watched the Discovery-Times cable channel airing of Edward R. Murrow's legendary 1960 CBS documentary "Harvest of Shame." Murrow and his collaborators spent an entire season following families of migrant farm laborers around the country.
Like those I grew up among in California, they were of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. Both sides of my family were farm workers who worked their way west to the promised land of the golden state. Murrow's program was about my people.
The insensitivity of the growers was chilling. "We used to own slaves, now we rent them," one was quoted as stating. Another talked on camera about how happy the migrant farm workers were. Not a care in the world at a dollar a day.
Murrow interviewed Eisenhower administration Secretary of Labor James Mitchell, who deplored the poverty afflicting those who placed inexpensive fruits and vegetables on America's tables. Mitchell talked about the workers' need for a comprehensive national law to protect them. Fast-forward 45 years and such legislation remains a dream. Seeing a labor official from a Republican administration advocating for workers is amazing by today's screw-the-little-guy standards.
Murrow's cameras showed unsanitary working and living conditions in disgusting detail. Both the secretary and Murrow noted that real hope for the future lay in educating the migrants' children. A couple of years ago, a Florida newspaper tracked down a boy featured on Harvest of Shame displaying the rat-chewed mattress he shared with his toddler sisters. He is today an uneducated farm laborer.
Murrow noted that the AFL-CIO had budgeted $100,000 to organize farm laborers. The emergence of César Chávez was still a few years away. Today, unionized farm workers have a better lot in life, but like workers in every other field, they are a tiny minority.
The arguments of 1960 employers were the same as today. Mandating better wages for workers in one state would give another farm state an advantage. That's the same argument used to keep U.S. wages down because Mexico or some third-world nation might out-compete us. Nothing was done about the death-spiral of the American workplace then. Today, all our movable jobs are being exported to the likes of infanticidal Communist China and daughter-torching India.
Toward the end of the show, Murrow showed a soupline comprised of Florida workers displaced by a frost.
"This happened in the U.S. in 1960, a line of humans waiting for a ration of tin goods, milk and bread," Murrow said.
On the very day I heard his words, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada announced a major expansion made necessary by escalating demand for its services. Today, in the richest country in the world, one in five lives in poverty as opposed to one of fifteen in Italy, the land my ancestors escaped a century ago.
Northern Nevada celebrates César Chávez's birthday at the Reno Hilton on March 31. Members of his family will attend, as they did last year.
Chávez's historic march from Delano to Sacramento began 39 years ago last St. Patrick's Day, ironically the same day Murrow's show reappeared nationally. Some of those marchers will tell their stories at the Chávez event.
Figuratively and literally, the rape and pillage continues. It falls to us to remember and remedy. Too many mothers have shed too many tears.
Be well. Raise hell.
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Copyright © 1982, 2005 Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a 36-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com. He sits on the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee.
Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.
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