California Obscura

By AMANDA MEI KIM

In 1976, when I was eight years old, my Korean American father, a produce wholesaler and former farmworker, decided to become a full-time farmer. My Japanese American mother, descended from a long line of farmers and farmworkers, wanted it too. They had spent their childhoods dreaming of a home on the land, so we moved from Los Angeles to a tenant farm thirty-five miles away.

One afternoon, I was standing up to my shoulders in our new pea plants, which, in the coastal light, shone powder-blue and silver, when a sedan with chrome trim pulled off the long frontage road. A woman in polyester shorts stepped out with a camera strapped around her neck. “Hello, little girl!” she waved at me. “How cute! Aren’t you supposed to have a little pail with you? Where’s your little pail?” I pointed to my white five-gallon bucket with the Kikkoman label, the kind my father picked up from restaurants when he delivered vegetables.

“Lift it up,” she said. “Show me.” It was already half full, too heavy to lift. “Come over here, I want to take your picture. Hop over those plants.”

I turned away. I was not tall enough to “hop over,” or foolish enough to harm a pea leaf or tendril for a photo.

She curved her hands like a bunny, her tone sharpening ever so slightly. “Hop over!”

I ignored her. My orders came from the workers, my mother, the foreman, and ultimately my father.

Over my shoulder, I heard my mother call from half a field away, “What are you doing?” Sure that she was talking to me, I put my head down and kept moving.

The woman didn’t respond either. She was lost in the viewfinder of her camera, framing me with a battered truck in the background, with the fluttering edge of a eucalyptus windbreak, with the stacks of full boxes, with the lemon groves that my father tended in exchange for this patch of farmland, with the other workers who were also listening, observing the woman. “Smile,” she said, when she had her shot.

“Hey, lady, what the hell are you doing?” My mother’s voice got louder as she got closer.

“Taking pictures.”

“Get out of here.” In her sun hat, gloves, faded button-down shirt, patched pants, and bandana, my mother looked the part of a humble farmworker. But she was not acting it.

“Is this your daughter? I just want to…”

“I said get OUT of here! She is not your pi—n–ny!”

The slur hit the woman squarely in the chest, causing her to stumble backward, mouth wide open. Her pastoral scene was collapsing, and, as her arms started to slowly windmill, she realized that there was nothing to protect her from the hoe-wielding woman striding toward her. She turned and ran to her car, fluttering her hands at her sides.

My mother went back to her row. I did too, pushing my bucket ahead of me.

We were so committed to our roles—the white woman arranging her mise-en-scène of a happy child laborer, and me, the daughter of a tenant farmer, ignoring anyone outside the chain of command. Our story had been cast six hundred years before, when the Portuguese word pequenino first started to float around African ports and colonies.

My mother was calling out a very specific, racist trope of a Black or Indian child who was always outdoors, happily mugging for strangers, and stalked by an ever-present tiger. This character had faded from view in most of the world, but was alive and well on California’s “Gold Coast,” which was the home of the first and last Sambo’s restaurant, located on West Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara. According to company lore, “Sambo” was an innocent portmanteau of the founders’ names, Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett, but the menus and interior murals told the story of Sambo, a child of color living in a colony, who is chased by a tiger until he turns into butter—a frighteningly apt metaphor for our food system. The restaurant’s first tagline was “The finest pancakes west of the Congo.” It wasn’t until 2020 that the last Sambo’s was renamed Chad’s, after the current owner and Battistone’s grandson.

It’s not clear how Ventura and Santa Barbara counties adopted this nickname, the “Gold Coast.” It could have been a nod to the state’s citrus industry, which had made more money than the Gold Rush. Or it might have been a reference to the actual “Gold Coast” in what is now Ghana. Local leaders didn’t seem to mind that it had a whiff of azaleas and slavery, a scent that the white settlers, the Mexican rancheros, and the Spanish missionaries all wore on their collars.

Plantation agriculture, with its suns and shadows, was baked into our bones, too.

 

My mother’s family first arrived in the region in March of 1946 to pick lemons. The war had ended six months before, but the incarceration continued, and the camp where my family was held, Tule Lake, was the last to close.

My grandparents and their four children, like 125,000 others who lost their farms, homes, horses, trucks, boats, nets, greenhouses, nurseries, cattle, pigs, chickens, tanks, baths, beds, cars, books, tractors, tools, seeds, watches, pottery, recipes, kettles, quilts, photo albums, dogs, cats, records, radios, artwork, baby shoes, and a million other things that represented the everyday fullness and complexity of their lives, had no option other than farmwork. In fact, the federal government had started planning the use of Japanese Americans as prison labor at the start of the war, often to increase agricultural production on Native lands.

When I was a child, we would take the breezy highway up to Ojai, to visit the hot springs or to pick fiddleheads from the creek beds. An adult would always point out the labor camp on the side of the highway. It was a cluster of six or so white barracks under some walnut trees, tucked between four arteries: the highway, the Ventura River, the oil pipeline jointly owned by Shell Oil and ExxonMobil, and the seven-mile aqueduct that Chumash people had built by hand when they were enslaved by Spanish missionaries. This camp didn’t have a park or playground, so children crossed the highway to play in the river. Having spent their childhoods in desert camps, my mother and her siblings didn’t know how to swim, but that didn’t stop them from climbing onto the oil pipeline that spanned the river, to look for a spot in the water deep enough to break their falls, but not so deep that they would drown. My mother almost drowned anyway.

Labor, lemons, water, and oil was the formula for much of California’s wealth.

 

If you flip through the pages of Western Grower & Shipper magazine, every farmer is shown upright, smiling, often offering a bounty of fresh produce, and is white. Every worker is hunched over, with faces obscured by a shadow or a hat, photographed at a distance. Sometimes their faces are cropped out or appear to be darkened and blurred digitally. You can see similar images in dozens of other trade magazines that serve California farm owners, ninety-seven percent of whom are white. For decades, California’s agricultural leaders claimed that European bodies are genetically incapable of stooping like a Latino or Asian body. Every year, suburban high school boys would come to Saticoy to sign up as strawberry pickers. They had heard that they could make three times what they would have earned at a bowling alley or burger shop.

“Couldn’t even finish a shift!” they would joke after they quit, as would their mothers and fathers (“Not for our boys”). This is what was called “stoop labor,” or sometimes “unskilled labor.” Because they weren’t eye-level, they couldn’t see the berries they had ruined or the fields full of people who would do anything for their families and communities, who were creating a better future, and who would finish that day and many, many more days.

 

Like the woman in polyester shorts, my mother also pulled over to watch farmworkers. Especially at the start of celery season, when highly skilled workers arrived in their Cutlasses and LeBarons—cars big enough to sleep in, but also fancy and well-cared-for, shining with the pride of ownership.

We watched them whirl their machetes like the arms of a clock, slicing the root stem as precisely as a chef, then flipping the celery in the air to trim the outer ribs and square off the top before laying them neatly on the raised beds.

“See that?” my mother asked. “Incredible, isn’t it?”

It was. We watched in wonderment.

“Do you know what a bracero is?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“It’s a man with really big, strong arms. They are heroes. They leave their families every year and travel the world to bring money home, like sailors.”

I thought about that. “Like Popeye?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Just like Popeye, with his big arms. Popeye is based on the braceros, but not too many people know that. They had to change him to a white guy for TV.”

My pre-education had begun.

 

In the third grade, our teacher shared a poem that, at the time, I thought was pretty clever. It was about a brown monkey named Con who was so loyal to his master, a Spanish explorer, that when the Spaniard died, the monkey spent the night kissing his bedroom door. Con kissed the door. The teacher said it fast, running the words together, Con kissed da door, Conkisseddadoor, Conquistador—get it? The teacher, a middle-aged white man in an orange sweater, read the poem from his spiral notebook. On the edge of his desk, he had lined up pieces of chalk to flick at students who interrupted him. He knew that we didn’t adore him.

Outside the school building, the air smelled of lemons and eucalyptus. Birds-of-paradise tapped gently against the windows, but we couldn’t see them through the safety glass. On the other side of that window were two sites of enormous social and historical significance. One was Saticoy Springs, a Chumash gathering place that had been in use for the last 7,400 years, where we could have learned about land management, democracy, trade, geology, history, and water justice. The other was Cabrillo Village, the farmworker-owned housing development that was formed when lemon pickers stood shoulder-to-shoulder to block the bulldozers that were about to tear down their camp. They pooled their resources to buy the twenty acres from their employer, Saticoy Lemon Association, for eighty thousand dollars—a valuable lesson in microeconomics and civic engagement. We weren’t taught any of that.

 

When we weren’t listening to the teacher’s poetry, we were building missions out of popsicle sticks, and drawing pictures of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to see California. He was both a conquistador and a slave owner, and is memorialized across the state. Just five miles up the road from my home is a supermarket on El Camino Real with a huge tile mosaic featuring Cabrillo on horseback, flanked by Christopher Columbus and Franciscan priests. The mural is full of people who are bearing, preparing, and cooking a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. None of them are white.

One day, the teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.

“Deliver the mail,” I said with certainty. He looked slightly up and away.

“No,” he said. “Those are hard jobs to get. What about a parts store?”

I thought about that.

“Which one?” I asked. There were three in town.

“You can pick,” he said.

 

Many of my third-grade schoolmates worked in the fields after school, but I was fortunate that my parents had a beautiful new fruit stand on a dirt lot. We painted a glossy California sunrise on the outside, with a strip of blue sky, a strip of brown dirt, and a golden sun. My brothers and I made handprint flowers along the bottom border. Within a few years, someone tried to set it on fire—not because of any economic threat, but because of the aspiration it represented. Our next fruit stand was built on a trailer, so we could wheel it away at night.

In addition to the produce that we grew on that lot, we also sold pomegranates, walnuts, and avocados gleaned from abandoned orchards, and verdolagas, bay leaf, and nopales that we foraged. I was joined by Juan García, who lived in the camper shell behind our house and shared a bathroom with my two brothers and me. Often, he and I worked in the fruit stand together, running out to the fields to pick something for a customer. During quiet times, we would see who could eat the most or the hottest peppers. He would save our pepper stems and give them to our angriest and most aggressive rooster.

After he gathered eggs in the morning, Juan would squeeze my bicep and ask me how strong I was. He would interlace my fingers and place the egg in the cup of my hands and tell me to crush it. I couldn’t. I sweated and struggled. My brother told me that if I poked a hole in the egg’s air pocket and gave it back to Juan, it would break, which I did, and when he crushed the egg all over his shirt, I realized what a terrible mistake I had made.

Looking at his tan shirt, spattered with egg, I was so ashamed that I cried and cried. I offered to eat a hot chili pepper as punishment. He laughed and put his arm around me. “Don’t worry,” he comforted me.

 

Throughout my family history, people were banned from owning land: they moved, were removed, and migrated. They never had a place to call home, and yet they were always connected to others in deep and mysterious ways.

“Do you remember Juan?” I ask my mother.

“Who are you talking about?”

“Juan, the worker.”

“We never had a worker named Juan.”

“The one who lived in the camper.”

“Are you talking about Juan García, who would go fishing with us?”

“I think so.”

“That’s my friend Juan,” she says, irritated with me.

 

I ask my uncle next.

“Juan García was a bracero who spent part of the year in Oxnard and part of the year on his own ranch in Guanajuato. In the fifties, when Pop raised enough money to become a sharecropper, he hired Juan. He would pick him up at the labor camp in the morning and drive him back home after dinner.”

“Dinner with the family?”

My aunt cuts in: “Yes. They admired him so much, they drove to Central Mexico to visit him.”

“Who did?”

“Your uncles, both of them, on two different trips.”

“How long did that take?” I ask my uncle.

“Weeks.”

“What was his farm like?”

“It was okay,” he says. “He bought a well with the money he made in the U.S., but he had to leave the ranch with his family when he came back to the U.S. He brought his son one time.”

“How old was his son?”

“Enrique was in his twenties.”

“How old was Juan when he worked for Jichan?”

“In his forties.”

“So when he lived in the camper, he must have been in his sixties?”

“At least, probably seventies. Even when he was in his forties, and I was a teenager, we would race down the rows with a short hoe. I wanted to get done because I wanted to see my friends. Juan wanted to make more money for his family, so he wanted piece-rate. Using the short hoe is fast, but it is brutal, backbreaking, even if you know how to use one. Other workers said, ‘Heck no—give me the long hoe and pay me by the hour.’”

By the time I met Juan, he was using the long hoe—not because the short hoe had been banned, but because it was time. When he took an occasional nap under the lemon trees, nobody said a word.

 

This county is also called “Ventucky,” and has a bloody history of labor abuse and resistance. In 1903, over two hundred Mexican betabeleros (beetworkers) and nine hundred Japanese buranke katsugi (blanket carriers)—the workers who slept outdoors under their blankets—struck against starvation wages in the sugar beet fields. They struck even when their compatriot Luis Vasquez was murdered and four others were shot by a deputy. They struck through the deputy’s murder trial, in which Japanese workers were banned from testifying because of their race. They struck when the deputy was found innocent, even though the coroner wasn’t given enough time to submit all the evidence. They struck for two months without money or support. They struck until they won.

After, Samuel Gompers, president and founder of the American Federation of Labor, offered membership to the Mexican workers but not the Japanese. The secretary of the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association, J. M. Lizarras, responded, “We are going to stand by [the] men who stood by us in the long, hard fight which ended in a victory over the enemy. We will refuse any other kind of charter, except one which will wipe out race prejudices and recognize our fellow workers as being as good as ourselves.”

In the twenties and thirties, police, newly deputized guards, and white mobs continued to attack labor activists and organizers of all races, including the great Filipino writer and activist Carlos Bulosan. In his autobiography America Is in the Heart, Bulosan described “the feeling of growing with a huge life” as Mexican and Filipino workers marched to a barn outside Oxnard to hold a joint meeting. Gunfire from a group of unidentified white men ended the meeting before it started. Afterward, Bulosan said, “There was only our closeness and the dark years ahead. There was only the dark future.”

Césár Chavez arrived into this dark future as a child. His family had just lost their home and land in Arizona, to a conspiring Anglo neighbor and lawyer. When they arrived in Ventura County in the late 1930s, the region was roiling from inhumane work conditions, extrajudicial punishment, and worker demands for safety and kept promises. In 1933, the agricultural establishment was rocked by a major strike of 1,300 Mexican and Filipino sugar beet workers. It failed, but frightened other farmers into raising their wages. In 1941, there was an even greater strike of six thousand Mexican citrus workers. For generations, pickers, packers, migrant workers, mushroom house workers, lettuce workers, and more, would continue to strike, often with the support of the United Farm Workers of America.

 

And the dark future continued. Growing up, it seemed like every person I knew had either been involved in a strike or supported a striker. We heard their stories at the coffee shop, the hardware store, the barbershop, and the fruit stand—where we also learned math, statistics, and health. We could identify carpal tunnel syndrome when an old man pressed his hand against the tabletop to straighten out crooked fingers. We knew about packinghouse accidents and workplace safety, cancer and chemicals. In that small community, we had experts in biology, faith, and organizational culture. Juan knew that hot peppers boosted the immune system and that seemingly fragile things were also extraordinarily strong.

When I was in my teens, women packinghouse workers redefined the struggle when they filed three class-action lawsuits against Dole, Oxnard Citrus Association, and Saticoy Lemon Association for gender discrimination. They won over $1.4 million for four hundred women.

At the same time, Edwin Ives, a flower grower ten miles west of Saticoy, was charged with enslaving 150 people in decrepit dormitories behind barbed wire. For over a decade, he hired a smuggler to traffic rural Zapotec and Mixtec people, knowing that it would be harder for them to get help. I used to pass that farm several times a week on my way to and from the farmers’ markets in Los Angeles. When I read the news, I thought, “Wow, the last slavery case tried in the U.S.” At the time, I didn’t know better. After the trial, dozens of workers received a combined $1.5 million in awards, mostly back pay, which they used to buy homes, farms, and businesses. Twenty survivors built a collective furniture factory in Oaxaca. After Ives’s one-year stay in a halfway house, his lawyer said that the business hadn’t suffered much from the fines, closures, or damages paid. “There was a time when he thought he would lose the business, but things have gotten beyond that and are going pretty well now.”

Like the refinery at the north end of town, where the world’s third and fourth largest oil companies teamed up to pull crude from the ground, Saticoy Lemon Association merged with other associations to pull wealth from the fields. Today, it is the largest and, likely, the richest lemon cooperative in the world. After nearly a century of concessions to labor, they are still vastly wealthy. So, if the abuse wasn’t needed for the profit margin, what was the purpose?

 

My parents’ time on the land ended when the landlord died and the heirs sent us an eviction notice. It didn’t matter that my parents had produced a profit for them the last twenty-seven years or that my parents had an understanding with the heirs’ deceased father. Like most California lemon growers, the heirs were absentees who had no sense of the work, the land, or the community, which was horrified by the eviction of an elderly couple.

As I was cleaning out the last of my parents’ belongings, a farmworker in his eighties arrived with his adult grandson. It was Juan. My heart stopped. He had traveled 1,700 miles with the trust that my parents would honor their forty-year connection and make room for him, and they would have if they could.

“I think it would be okay to stay here for a while,” I said, pointing to the near-empty house.

“No,” Juan said. They worried they would get in trouble if someone saw them.

Juan turned to his grandson, and then to me. We had not seen each other in twenty years. He told me he was going to see some friends. I assumed at the time that he had someone to see, but I understand now that he probably did not.

 

Every year, I visit Oxnard, even though we no longer have family there. This time, I am drawn to a lovingly carved wooden sign in front of a new restaurant called Julian’s Aguachiles. I’m the only customer here for a late lunch, so Julian and I talk for a bit. He and his wife, Mayra, started out making aguachiles for friends, coworkers, and neighbors on the weekends, then pop-ups in the historic farmworker community of La Colonia. The recipes are his wife’s, his sister’s, his mother-in-law’s, his own, and his father’s.

“When people ask, ‘Are you the owner?,’ I feel guilty saying yes, because it feels like it’s everyone’s. We wouldn’t be here without other people, their help, their encouragement, their advice—without them,” Julian says.

I think I know a little of what it took for them to create this beautiful restaurant, here. We slip into a conversation about the ancestors, about what brought them here and what they found, who helped them and who didn’t. At some point, we are both crying for our departed fathers. His, a Mexican farmworker who loved to cook, and mine, a Korean wholesaler who learned to farm.

“Thank you for this meal,” I say. “It was so delicious, even more so because of your family story. Thank you for staying with me while I ate. I am so honored.”

“I am too. My father liked to say, ‘Siempre hay que ser gente con la gente.’”

“I love that—qué verdad.”

My plate is almost empty. Between our tears, I had managed to slurp up a dozen salty, spicy shrimp. I place a slice of fresh avocado on a tostada and scoop up the last few drops of his father’s salsa.

When I step outside, I am standing at the corner of our histories: in a farmworker community, inside a web of rail lines and shipping facilities, surrounded by miles of fields that are saturated with tons of chemicals. Across the street is the spot where striker Luis Vasquez was murdered 120 years ago. Next door is Asahi Market, which was called Los Amigos during World War II, when the owners were incarcerated and a neighbor volunteered to tend it. For generations, strangers of different backgrounds met at this corner and said, Your fight is my fight. Before I leave town, I will drive to a fruit stand up the highway to visit Manuel, my father’s friend, who offered my parents the use of a mobile home in his orchards when they were evicted.

 

Amanda Mei Kim writes about the ways that collective power, racism, nature, and capitalism weave through the lives of rural Californians of color. Her work has appeared in LitHub, PANK, The New York Times, and Discover Nikkei. She grew up on a tenant farm in the agricultural worker community of Saticoy, California.

[Purchase Issue 26 here.] 

California Obscura

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