The Working Life

UC Irvine professor examines roots of our love affair with Mexican labor

Orange County is at it again with its Mexicans. The latest front: the streets. Cities from Mission Viejo to Costa Mesa to Lake Forest have passed resolutions harassing day laborers with the threat of arrest. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant goons now make it a weekend habit to picket day-laborer sites in Dana Point, Laguna Beach—really, any city without a majority Mexican community but a need for cheap labor (let's see them try their schtick in SanTana).

Antagonism toward Mexican workers in this county is nothing new, as UC Irvine Chicano Studies professor Gilbert Gonzalez can tell you. He's the county's preeminent labor historian and the author of Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900-1950, a history of Orange County citrus pickers that remains the best exposé of the county's much-mythologized orange groves. But in his latest work, Guest Workers or Colonized Labor?: Mexican Labor Migration to the United States, Gonzalez sidesteps county history to tackle the biggest question facing this country: why won't the Mexicans stop coming?

The answer: it's your fault, America.

Gonzalez's thesis isn't new. Blaming the United States for Mexico's woes is one of the central tenets of Chicano studies, and is gospel for a Mexican ruling class looking to eschew responsibility for the woes of millions. But Gonzalez isn't interested in whining; his specialty is empirical research, and the good profe delivers his thesis in well-researched, finely crafted prose.

Gonzalez begins by contrasting the relationship between Mexican laborers in the United States with those of Indian and Algerian indentured servants in Trinidad and France, respectively. It seems tenuous at first—after all, the United States only took half of Mexico, not the whole tamale—but Gonzalez argues that American economic domination in Mexico amounts to de facto territorial domination as well. He points to the early 20th century, when American capitalists bought millions of acres in Mexico then laid out railroad tracks deep into the country that connected it with the United States. This development not only displaced thousands of Mexicans, Gonzalez shows, but also provided them with arteries that led them to jobs in los Estados Unidos.

This period—and not the Mexican Revolution—provoked the flood of Mexican labor that has rarely ceased since. Gonzalez then examines the infamous bracero program, which allowed big business to alleviate worker shortages during the 1950s but unwittingly also gave millions of Mexicans a taste for these parts that has never been satiated. His description of Mexican men being herded into rooms naked, with only a paper as a means of modesty, to be inspected for lice is sparse and damning; he should read it to Congress next time President Bush proposes a guest-worker program. And, Gonzalez being a naranjero to the core, he delightfully throws in some Orange County Mexican hating tidbits: Did you know that Yorba Linda didn't allow braceros to live within its city limits during the 1940s? Working in the Land of Gracious Living, though, was apparently fine.

The book loses focus toward the end when Gonzalez decides to take on Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, author of an infamous 2004 essay that argued large-scale Latino immigration is harming the Anglo-Protestant bedrock culture of the United States. And Gonzalez doesn't care much to examine Mexican governmental culpability in regards to its country's development. Nevertheless, Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? offers well-written insight into a symbiotic relationship that roils both while improving neither.

GUEST WORKERS OR COLONIZED LABOR?: MEXICAN LABOR MIGRATION TO THE UNITED STATES, 224 PP. PARADIGM PUBLISHING. $66 FOR THE HARDCOVER AT UC IRVINE'S BOOKSTORE; ASK THEM TO STOCK THE MUCH-CHEAPER PAPERBACK PRONTO.

 
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