Inter State

A writer traces the journeys of his abuelo and California’s migrant farmworkers

In the digitized Hi8 footage, my abuelo’s home remains: the massive fruit tree and retaining wall dividing the backyard from the shared neighborhood rear alley. An old California farm town with mini-ditches in the middle of the alley dead-ending at the wash carrying water down from the San Gabriel Valley foothills of San Dimas, Mt. Baldy, Mt. San Antonio and beyond, down and through the suburbs and river of the same SGV namesake somewhere near El Monte’s collision with the Irwindale mineral mines and drag races, that infamous 10-605 interchange. Clipped to his white undershirt is the lavalier mic I’d just purchased at the RadioShack up the street that used to house a remodeled Kmart and no longer houses kids skating its loading docks before stealing rolls of film. The lavalier is plugged into the wrong part of the Hi8 camera, which had been boxed and unused for years on my dad’s dresser. Thankfully, the camera’s built-in microphone catches Abuelo’s words clearly after a brief test shot of him curiously introducing himself to the camera—“Antonio Gomez”—the expression on his face like he was hearing his name aloud for the first time.

My abuelo exists between my first and last names: José— which I share with my father—and Vadi, the last name of our Afro-Boricua ancestors, who took the name of their Corsican sugar-plantation landowner Vadi, erasing their Indigenous name Ballé, according to my dad—José Miguel—whose first name I bear before Antonio, my mother’s father. José Antonio Gomez Vadi: two patriarchs resting like gargoyles on either side of my tongue, multiple namesakes for a world view inherited to honor and evolve.

I begin my interview. My mom sits behind me, playing translator, my original Spanish lost by kindergarten. Still, Abuelo and I have communicated through the fragmented fluency I’ve smoothed into proficiency. My questions are about him and his life, his origin story, those stories we’ve heard growing up about hopping trains as an Okie and heading west from Nebraska to California, of running away from immigration, of slowly getting the entire Gomez tribe into the States in piecemeal stages, of working before settling in the towns a few miles west of where my sister and I were raised but in as seemingly distant an era as our father’s childhood in East Harlem by way of Santurce, Puerto Rico. That side of the lineage, however small, benefited from my historian father’s ability to remember and research. The larger Gomez side’s roots start here, with a man who wouldn’t let me in the house without a clean shave and short hair, the same Abuelo who told a cousin not to come inside wearing an early-1990s hoop earring slightly dangling from his ear, because he looked like a girl. Just a handful of the residual conservative qualities reminding my generation that the generation before us did not experience such a benevolent man, while I, sitting behind the camera, exploit the benefit of the doubt incarnate that is being a grandchild, finding the answers few in our family have documented.

He sits poised in a sullied but functional white plastic chair, one of many that never went inside a neatly arranged garage, tools chaotically framing an uncle’s Honda driven almost exclusively during their biannual visits from Aguascalientes. A long, fold-down pool chair adorned with pillows and old shirts rests on the other side of his lemon tree, his outside napping area for the last 30 years.

He was already in his late 80s at the time of filming, and I was sober enough in my somewhat reckless 20s to know that this access, like his memory, would end sooner rather than later. I didn’t know he had already purchased his own burial plot, right next to the one where the grandmother I barely knew had been resting since just before I turned two years old—both plots just off the main road in Rose Hills, purchased for 600 American dollars, unfathomable now when the state’s real estate economy still hits families’ pocketbooks from six feet under, the cost of California soil. I didn’t know sitting there, kneeling next to the makeshift tripod, that nearly four years later, I’d be sitting in that same front room of his house, watching him transition into an afterlife I don’t hope to see anytime soon. His medical bracelets and wallet, his bandannas, those odd Mickey Mouse white gloves I used to hold the reins of his casket and other ephemera are still in my possession, as I’m trying to hold on to these things and this person, and if those four years studying history in Berkeley did anything—the years he instructed me to charge con ganas—it was to prove the power not just of being there but of telling different stories than the supposed exalted victors of Californian land.

I was sober enough in my somewhat reckless 20s to know that this access, like his memory, would end sooner rather than later.

Toward the end of our interview, I ask Abuelo if Mexico circa 2007 will become like Colombia, with the cartels and governments in a dance with US aid on all sides via paramilitaries and whatnot.

“Ya es,” he replies.

We both laugh slightly at this, the most progressive of comments you will find from someone who probably still disapproves of my Rage Against the Machine T-shirts that I hid under hoodies on sunny days when stopping by.

I don’t know why it took me years to digitize this tape. To see him and hear his voice again. It’s still hard to drive by his former home, which was also my home. I am lucky this tape outlived my laziness, these memories I am still trying to hold while watching my abuelo, mi chaparro, appear on a screen before me, stooping slightly with his cane at this age, showing my uncle a particularly new harvest of tomatoes he’s proud of, which, if picked and boxed, are less than a full field’s row, a thimble of its lucrative worth, which doesn’t matter now that the tomatoes are grown by him, for him. I take screenshots from the film to hold these moments with me wherever I go, new images of a house I visited daily, its phone number as memorized as the feel of the furniture, the smell of the varnish, the cabinets now in my sister’s home in a different part of a still unfamiliar state, a state that I’d rather die in than live outside its borders. Tomatillos de Mexico greet me on sight when I reenter the backyard, filming his truck and the chair and all the small new crops he’d just reintroduced to his son, before I settle on the shot of Abuelo, finding his chair and sitting again now, his cane-assisted walk a long one for him at that stage, his eldest child and his youngest child, my mother, standing near him under his lemon trees that smelled so fresh in our hands or beneath the stickiness of our shoes as kids. They all stare back at me now, camera in hand, eye in the viewfinder, devoid of questions and shooting instead the security found within our familial silence, giving voice to these harvests, on his Californian land, to testify.

• • •

In my 30s, some family members see me as ripely capable of receiving and comprehending those lesser-known family histories: the girlfriends that existed before the tías that raised me, or the relatives with racist fears, worried the Mexi-Rican children of my mother and Afro-Boricua father would be some type of Bermuda Triangle-infused mestizo beasts. Between the chisme and the facts, I knew my grandfather picked crops as a migrant throughout California. That he’d avoided immigration by having Black and Brown allies sneak him out of bars and the like when raids were imminent. There are tales of him being tall and light-skinned enough to blend back into a reentry line after being deported. Despite the Smithsonian’s impressive but inherently loose curated collection of bracero workers’ names and photos, few exist of those generations of intentional ghosts like Abuelo, who headed west from Oklahoma and Nebraska to work through the dead of California’s nights, wiring money to the other side of those borders that only gringos deem southern.

I knew that on much of the California-bound trail, he encountered other Okies, Brown, White and Black alike, on their way from Barstow either down into the San Gabriel Valley, where he’d eventually settle, or across toward the Tehachapi Mountains before the Central Valley begins. These valleys are the hallowed halls of the long-running marriage of seasonal agricultural demand and systemic poverty that hasn’t been paved, like everything west of Riverside all the way to the coast.

There’s never been a time that I’ve driven through the Central Valley without thinking, “Is this where he worked?” Those orchards, buzzing by in rows of skeletal wrath—did he rest in their shade, away from the highway? For years, I thought Abuelo’s work stopped at the Salinas Valley, before I heard about trips as far north as San Jose. I can’t trace all the miles, but I can go to those fields that have been razed and seeded and destroyed and reirrigated and dammed and flooded and manipulated by a science so exploitative that the soil barely recognizes itself in these valleys of abundance, exportation, growth and water—I can trace those parts of the regurgitated, re-profited California to which he contributed his labor, his blood, his life.

• • •

I map some points across California that intersected with my grandfather’s history and plot a few trips when I can find time. I fly to Burbank a day before a work conference, rent a car and head toward one of the most well-preserved labor camps of the Dust Bowl era, Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center or Sunset Labor Camp, in Arvin near Bakersfield, just on the other side of the Grapevine, the brutal northbound drive that’s a rite of passage for any Southern Californian. I remember driving it for the first time solo when I was 16, visiting my sister at Cal, driving an automatic Ford Tempo that would stall at stoplights while idling but somehow got me and a friend to and from the 909 and Berkeley before it nearly exploded in Upland, my mother arriving to a southbound plume of smoke wafting over Euclid Avenue, and me smiling at the journey I didn’t die on. On this trip, I decided to go around the Grapevine, through Palmdale and into that high desert mass from Mojave to Barstow that I imagined as a kid, staring at the San Gabriel Valley’s foothills and wondering what exists on the other side of the Angeles National Forest.

There’s never been a time that I’ve driven through the Central Valley without thinking, “Is this where he worked?”

As the October clouds attempt to hide an uninhibited sun, the billboards advertise new solar-powered communities the farther I drive north, passing Edwards Air Force Base. A fleet of turbines from the Alta Wind Energy Center stands in formation west of Highway 14 as the once-new tract homes and permanently parked motor homes of Mojave appear to the east, extending perpendicularly from the highway. I pull off for a bottle of water in the middle of a desert, and behind the gas station stands a local veterans hall next to a union hall that both seem empty, deserted, like a quiet trap.

On a nearby corner, a sign made of wide wooden slats screams in engraved caps, I HAVE CHOSEN YOU, AND ORDAINED YOU, THAT YE SHOULD GO AND BRING FORTH FRUIT. It faces the intersection from a barren dirt lot, where water hasn’t made a street-side cameo for generations (less the miniature ocean swirling inside the plastic bottle at my feet) my hands steadying a disposable camera, snapping a picture, wondering if Abuelo passed through here and what fruit God told him to harvest on His behalf.

I head north until Highway 58 takes me west toward Bakersfield through the Tehachapis and away from the rest of the northbound path that will scale the Sierras along the California and Nevada border, up toward Manzanar, the Japanese American concentration camp, just before Bishop near Yosemite. Massive flint mountains soon appear, surrounding the town of Tehachapi and reminding the nearby wind turbines of a previous natural order. I wonder if this town alone could finance its budgets from commercial film permits for TV truck ads, before I glance in the rearview again at those prehistoric ridges nobody can see from Interstate 5.

It’s through this passage that a promise was supposed to be kept and delivered to thousands of displaced sharecroppers, a promise communicated through leaflets and other grower-made and nationally syndicated propaganda promising work, good wages and fields upon fields to till after the sharecroppers watched their family farms turn from cornucopias to skeletons, their families devolving just the same.

On the passenger side of the curving highway, a small, older brown sign announces the upcoming historical city of Keene; a large, newer green sign announces NATIONAL CESAR CHAVEZ MEMORIAL at the next exit. I didn’t even know one existed, let alone in a part of the state many would describe as the middle of nowhere. I immediately exit the highway and follow the handmade signs through the town of Keene down into a parking lot. Three flagpoles hoist different flags: the United States, the state of California and the United Farm Workers, with its signature red background, white center circle and black-bar eagle.

The grounds of Nuestra Señora Reina de La Paz, where Cesar Chavez lived and worked beginning in the early 1970s and where he died, still house the UFW’s headquarters and staff members. The union purchased the former tuberculosis treatment center through a White ally in the wake of several bomb threats against the lives of Chavez and other UFW members, according to the welcome sign greeting visitors between the parking lot and the buildings. All the signs are in English and Spanish. It’s sunny and cold, and I’m noticeably alone and feeling claustrophobic stuck in the middle of these mountains dividing valley from desert. A consistent drone from the trains idling at the nearby railroad comes from behind a row of Italian cypress separating the monument site from the train tracks. I debate the environmental impacts of this railroad’s proximity before entering the open grounds. The sound of running water greets me, the water exiting a massive stone mural recreating one of many UFW demonstrations, below which is a well-manicured lawn with two perpendicular tablets that I realize, getting closer, are tombstones: one for Cesar Chavez and one for his wife, Helen Fabela Chavez. There’s a morbid tranquility with no other visitors around this morning, one I didn’t expect would begin with graves.

I stay on the concrete instead of the grass and admire the detail of the mural and the solemnity of the tombstones, names and dates only. For some reason, my hands do a loose genuflection upon the shocking realization that this entire monument indeed exists; I missed the 2012 memo that President Obama had recognized La Paz as a national historic site, despite initial efforts by the conservative Congress to defeat the implementation of a Cesar Chavez Day, still not as widely recognized as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday.

The museum guides visitors through the best known periods of Chavez’s life in a series of photographs and installations predominantly featuring the Delano grape strike of 1965 and Chavez’s eventual move, or escape, to La Paz. There’s a remake of an old one-room bunkhouse, the likes of which Chavez and thousands of workers like him would collapse in seasonally. I don’t know how my six-foot-two-inch body would stretch inside its small box of a frame, or how my grandfather would have either, his body just two inches shorter than mine, the two of us some of the tallest of our bloodline, two generations apart. How he’d stretch in a bunkhouse like this after picking cherries between San Jose and Santa Clara, a crop Abuelo told me he hated to work on, the pain from this elevated, thorn-ridden labor lasting for days, no matter how many bottles of rubbing alcohol he poured over his body. Chavez picked the same crops, also near San Jose.

• • •

The road barrels through the Tehachapis until the base of the Central Valley appears. Rows of green fields and orchards, the mountains receding behind me, small two-lane roads diverting the northbound Highway 58 traffic westward into town, like Comanche Drive, my exit, a straight shot to Arvin. The exit conjures the song “Comanche” by Jorge Ben to my lips, and I sing as loudly as my non-Portuguese-speaking self can sing, the chorus a joyful and rambunctious LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA sung against the sight of fields and the occasional oil well extracting what it can. A slower modern-day contrast to—and reminder of—those long, isolated shots of the fictionalized Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. The actors were paired with found-on-site Okie families paid by director John Ford’s team to caravan with their cinematic representations, the Joads, all the way to Fresno, allegedly for solid work. This scene comprised the final shots of Ford’s Oscar-nominated and impressively shot film. Steinbeck’s landmark novel concludes with a different image: a young mother nursing an old man to quell his starvation—circumventing social norms in the name of survival. Yet the movie ends with matriarch Ma Joad delivering her sermon about the proverbial People, assumedly the American people, finding a way to survive on the land. The studio asked director Ford for something a bit more optimistic for the film’s ending, given that the film itself documents the Joads’ impoverished journey west, the family evading everything from cops and grower goons in between, all in the pursuit of an advertised California, anything away from the book of Revelation that propelled thousands west to unincorporated grower-controlled non-cities like so many across this massive expanse. I pass Arvin High School, where kids hold signs announcing a car wash to the infrequent local car and truck traffic, and head toward the only local landmark I know: a skate park.

Emiliano Zapata stares at me from the wall of a halal market across the street. My feet are on the coping of the bowl occupying most of this ashtray of a fairly pristine skate park, a claustrophobic sort of starter park that thankfully exists here. Three road trippers end a warm-up session before they silently pass the skate-park baton to the handful of Brown rollerblade locals sitting on the one skateable hubba in the park. Now, the rollerbladers huck around the park at their leisure, pulling out phones and beginning to film, a hierarchy from best to aspiring to sedentary among their crew immediately taking shape, much like among the out-of-towners who have already left, maybe toward Visalia. But I’m probably too early, anyway—it’s barely past noon, the old-timers are still molding themselves into their fold-out chairs under the shade of the biggest trees in the park, and I’m reminded of how I always called my friends first thing in the morning to go skate somewhere in Pomona.

Emiliano Zapata stares at me from the wall of a halal market across the street.

Nearby, a radio plays songs and commercials in Spanish from one of the homes across the street. A single cop car lurks in the distance (also in the shade) while parents stroll with handfuls of kids on the playgrounds far bigger than the skate park. It’s hot as hell, and everything seems painted sepia with or without sunglasses on, my eye twitching from being outside, which is sad considering it’s how I was raised. Adulthood gives you fluorescent lights and a key to your office drawer, where parts of your identity hide in secure cubicles, but I grew up like these kids, skating until my legs were numb after checking on Abuelo after school.

I drive along Sunset Boulevard toward the camp referred to by many names—Arvin, Weedpatch, Sunset Labor Camp—one of the most notably humane camps for migrant farmworkers during the Dust Bowl, compared to the heavily policed camps owned and administered by growers who were morally against the federally regulated camps. The sun-faded wood signs extending toward the street from the camp’s fence indicate that this is indeed the historical site where Dorothea Lange, John Steinbeck and others spoke with farmworkers, documented their plight and performed acts of immediate assistance and relief when necessary, like transferring workers to hospitals, often without the permission of certain grower-controlled camps.

Three historical buildings and a large marble plaque officially announce the grounds as Sunset Migratory Labor Camp, Arvin, California. The famed community hall to my right has somehow withstood generations of storms, unwilling to meet the same fate as those faded Okie shacks almost melting into the San Joaquin Delta near Stockton. Standing in the hall’s entryway, I wait for an older and a younger woman to notice me before they welcome me inside. I reintroduce myself to the older woman, whom I had called the week prior, asking if she’d be there and willing to show me around. We walk slowly into the hall, where a massive open area precedes a small knee-high stage against the back wall. It’s on this stage, in this room, with these original speakers, that Merle Haggard and many more played, helping to create the “Bakersfield Sound,” making Arvin a premier folk and country venue. The floor is so weathered because of the still-damaged roof that it can barely withstand the changing climate, just like some of the crops outside, so worn it appears suede to the eyes and the touch.

The Dust Bowl’s history is spread across fold-out tables on the dance floor, the skeleton of a makeshift museum of thematic dioramas for the annual celebratory Dust Bowl Festival here in the coming days. Around the hall are reprinted screenshots of the places on the grounds where The Grapes of Wrath was shot: the original family tents, the outdoor dance hall, the first permanent structures, all protested by the growers. Photos of the nearby Sunset School and classrooms converted from planes, students standing on the wings for their class photos. This part of the valley is as dedicated to airfare as to agriculture via nearby Air Force bases and small country runways for dusters and growers alike, they tell me, with small planes once flying low through the Tehachapi Pass between California’s valleys.

I try to envision the final Dust Bowl annual celebration, wondering if they’ll have a band or even a mariachi for the occasion, but my mind drifts back to the story of how Abuelo learned who his allies were in Oklahoma: in a dance hall in a Midwest town, Abuelo danced with the wrong White woman and was approached by several White men ready to kill my wetback of a grandfather, before Black Okies stepped in and one said, “You mess with him, you mess with all of us,” and the fray was settled for the night. Similar scenes of potential dancehall violence are given Ford’s cinematic treatment, but not the dynamics implied and masked through the era’s black-and-white films and subsequent Black and Brown faces on White actors. Would my grandfather be welcomed here in Weedpatch on a dance night, or would he end up facedown in the gutters, blood flowing through the grounds and canal all the way past Arvin to the base of the Tejon Pass?

The Dust Bowl’s history is spread across fold-out tables on the dance floor.

We go inside what was once the office of the fictionalized Tom Collins, played by Grant Mitchell, who greeted Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. This is one of the settings where Fonda made his award-winning name, the literal setting of his performance. I ask the younger woman about DiGiorgio, the nearby farm magnate whose unincorporated community still has his name written on the water tower looming over old, densely populated homes closer to Arvin, and she replies with what her daddy apparently always told her: DiGiorgio was a generous man who took care of his workers. Likewise, many historical narratives are quick to note his holiday-timed announcement to (re)build a school in Arvin, still active today. Few note that he was one of the first owners that the unions, like the United Farm Workers, fought against to win better contracts for workers. Yet his last name still hangs over a town as a reminder of generosity and jobs, a narrative bent by revisionist hands.

We talk about the fields next door (they didn’t know what was growing there) and the types of crops most people staying here are working on, before the older volunteer, describing a particularly brutal type of stoop labor for some deep-rooted vegetable (rutabaga?) says something about how “no White man’s back can bend like that,” quickly following up the pause with “and Brown man’s neither,” and I stand there calmly in the imaginary bridge of our silence, watching the younger woman flinch but otherwise stay out of it. The older volunteer continues, details the Mexican members now in her family by marriage, the subsequent children and how she loves everyone dearly, something I don’t doubt given the kindness I received today from her and the younger version of herself. The color of the backs, the distinction between colors, like many aspects of folklore and history, is an acquired knowledge learned from somewhere and someone, and if the Where is Here, along these roads, then maybe the instructive Who is not too far away either.

Yet the question looms: Why identify any back as White in a valley of now overwhelmingly Brown workers, generations deep? Considering the persistent knowledge of who occupies the bottom percentiles across so many economic verticals here in the Central Valley, I should have replied with the question, When is the last time a White back bent the same as a Brown back around Weedpatch Camp?

Driving the rental out of the parking lot, I head north up the main strip, Weedpatch Highway 184, through the nearby town of Lamont. The strip of stores is a familiar retail succession advertising liquor, immigration services, ceviche and wedding licenses. The short drive to downtown Bakersfield reunites me with Highway 58 and its westbound jaunt to 99. Upon arrival, I check into the renovated historic building turned into a bougie, yuppie tourist trap where I’ll lay my head for the night, where the bartender will ask me, “Oakland, and you’re here?” while carding me and my gray chin beard, where I’ll down the local pilsner quickly before a walk to the nearby historic Fox Theater for the screening of the latest Almodóvar film, Julieta.

Finding a seat in the front of the balcony, I stare at the rows of seats and imagine full houses for Fox-produced classics, new at the time, seats filled by bigwigs—like Mel Brooks, who’d later buy the Crest Theatre in Fresno—who came to town to see screener crowd reactions or find new money. Or maybe they were filled by those who went from camps to houses and to places such as these as a luxury, Brown, stooped backs often permitted to sit only in the balcony (if at all); such was the theater in Oklahoma where Abuelo would sit in the balcony with his wife and the other workers, a collection of mirrors looking down on the backs of White patrons’ heads and their big screen, watched by all but for few, below.

• • •

I continue to trace Abuelo’s steps after the spring thaws out the Salinas Valley, searching for something we can share here in Gonzales: the line of sight from the water tower; the view of the railroad from the fields; the signs marking the historic El Camino Real. This is where Abuelo executed graveyard irrigation shifts circa 1946, before he was deported. I’m driving in the early-morning sun, down the stretch of 101 from Salinas to King City—California’s Salad Bowl—wondering if Abuelo ever had the mobility I do today: now unemployed, in a Prius, taking a weekday trip to trace the steps he wanted nobody else to find. Here, the 101 requires east-west traffic to play chicken with the highway: no traffic lights, just stop signs and an inclined cross street slowing cars as they attempt to cross. White-collar contractors with Oakleys atop shaved heads haul branded five-liter Hemis over the incline and across the highway. The railroad curves from Salinas along its namesake river, a small, dried-up stream parallel to the highway with lanterns marking where El Camino Real originally dotted the landscape all the way up the Peninsula to San Francisco, an illuminated history of buggies, stagecoaches, 49ers turned farmers, livestock and railroad barons and speculators all the same, all heading to where someone with some power decided to make a town, carved and divided from Spanish and then Mexican hands; this land is your land if you can afford the chance.

Despite the agricultural industry of Monterey County generating over $4 billion in revenue in 2018, a 2016 report noted that the Salinas Valley is the fifth-least-affordable place to live in the country, with farmworkers the most affected. Rents are escalating toward Bay Area prices, with only a shred of the amenities and securities. By 2019, there were over 91,000 agricultural workers in the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys, with a fraction of that number H-2A visa recipients. Many live in the squalor characterized in, and seemingly evolving from, Steinbeck’s Depression-era text, yet even signs over park benches along the walls of the Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas read: no overnight camping. Today in East Salinas, three farmworker families split a downtrodden one-bedroom, the tourist-industry dollars of Monterey seeming an entire country away. The California Institute for Rural Studies’ 2018 action plan discovered that in the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys, an “additional 45,560 units of farmworker housing are needed to alleviate critical overcrowding.” And not just for single men. The study found that over 5,000 affordable—and permanent—farmworker housing units were necessary to meet the “overwhelming need for affordable, permanent year-round family housing.”

I drive past the two bars in Gonzales where I know Abuelo somehow had a beer, according to my mother, who drove through town with him a few years before he died. I drive toward the high school, which bears an eye-catching futuristic mural with some vague reference to indigenous Mexican culture, the Gonzales water tower looming over a road that divides the edge of the small town from the massive fields to whom we are all apparent guests, bearing witness. I find a brand-new city park across the street from a large field with laborers actively and steadily picking up and down the rows. The seat-belt-equipped white school buses and rows of clean portable bathrooms sit in the narrow, dirt access roads behind them, testaments to those small, safeguarded amenities the UFW and many more unions fought for on the workers’ behalf, against the growers and their allies in local government. I park next to the hoops and risk the public restrooms before realizing they’re the cleanest I’ve ever seen. Outside again, I breathe in the cool air and stare into the agricultural-meets-suburban Americana scene before me: kids being kids on the basketball court while their parents, potentially, perform the labor their generation won’t, many leaving the valley and either never coming back or returning with new innovations. Gonzales is seen as a small, local model of economic innovation, leasing new wind turbines to Taylor Farms for revenue generation, these few but massive sentinels that can’t help but loom over every part of town. The town has sold land to weed farms and tech firms alike, cutting through red tape like an excited stockbroker. Who in the scene before me will become CEOs of those new enterprises?

I head toward the turbines and the bigger fields west of 101 along River Road, a few miles from the almost original factory-built town of this valley, Spreckels. The elevated view from the road allows me to see the breadth of the Salinas Salad Bowl. I pull over at a turnout and take it in, this part of California that has helped feed the nation for generations, where Abuelo once worked all night. My mind wanders, envisioning him in the middle of a long shift, moving and reinstalling 20-plus-pound pipes all over the field, ensuring its health and future profit in the dead, cold moonlight. I imagine him smoking a joint, that sweet, racialized devil’s lettuce now legalized and ready for sale, before whispering, A la chingada, and turning the pipes on full blast, flooding the fields to a point of no profitable return, no computer auto-shutting off this perfect sabotage, a cog in the wheels of an abusive industry, feeding America one unpaid worker at a time, with deportation raids conveniently executed at the ends of harvests.

• • •

I drive back toward Chualar to the roadside handmade cross I passed on the way to Gonzales. It’s here, where Alta Street meets Boone, that 32 braceros of the more than 50 on board a bus were killed on September 17, 1963. The driver, his vision already impaired, yet hired and approved to transport human life, failed to see the oncoming Southern Pacific Railroad train, deciding to play Frogger on the wrong part of the road at the end of a long workday. Considered the deadliest automobile crash in US history, it sparked an outcry among activists and farmworkers alike, evidence of the malicious care given to bracero workers.

The bracero program began in 1942 as a wartime measure to meet domestic agricultural demand through a series of agreements with the Mexican government through 1964. Mexican workers, exclusively single men separated from their families, were recruited at bracero centers throughout Mexico, promised adequate living conditions and ensured a safe return to Mexico at the conclusion of their work contracts. The agreements didn’t note that bribery was widely considered the best way to gain the best contracts, those above the 30-cent minimum wage, nor was the celebratory DDT shower upon stateside arrival noted in the contracts; same with missing wages or unreceived paychecks, the braceros’ liberties ending like a contract’s term. The largest foreign worker program in US history, it forever reshaped the migratory patterns of Mexicans and Mexican Americans throughout California and the Southwest; many criticize today’s H-2A visa program as a diet extension of a questionable labor program.

This is a Mexico I don’t and will never know, as someone born here and inheriting their memories.

Irapuato was a Mexican city with a huge bracero recruitment center in the state of Guanajuato. My uncle can still list off the other nearby cities where bracero workers were also courted, and he tells his stories about eventually living in Tecate and going to dive bars in Tijuana, only to find his car on blocks, tireless and stripped, upon exit. This is a Mexico I don’t and will never know, as someone born here and inheriting their memories. The Gomez family lived off the main road of Irapuato, and my mother was raised there until the age of seven. In the early 1950s, men strolled up and down the strip, starving, waiting on a bracero contract or eventually giving up and attempting other means to find work.

Amid the waiting, folks figured out which homes along the main road were generous with food or shelter. My uncle likes to tell the story of a man coming to their door, asking for food. First, he asks for a little bit of steak. If not steak, could they spare bread? If not bread, maybe soup. My grandmother instructed my uncle to reply, “Only rice and beans,” which he repeated multiple times until the waiting bracero thanked him before turning down his offer and leaving. An example of not being truly hungry, according to my grandmother. Still, my grandmother fed many, telling workers and nearby children alike to scrape her pots, like in that scene of Ma Joad at the Weedpatch camp, telling starving Okie kids to grab a stick and eat what they can find.

I take a photo of the cross while laborers work in the field in the background across the street, those same old white school buses and portable bathrooms nearby on the cross street. There’s no date for when this DIY cross was erected and no knowing how long it took for it to fall apart from weather. A plastic green produce tie connects the left side of the cross to the electrical power line pole, supporting the memorial against the wind, its Mexican and American flags heavily tattered and frayed. The top of the cross reads RIP, formatted like a staircase descending left to right until it reaches the word LOS, and the horizontal portion of the cross reads 32 BRACEROS. Small, tacked-on cardboard squares read 17 and 1963, for the day and year of the incident, the number 9, for the month, missing in action, the shadow of the cross falling in the direction of the accident’s point of impact.

• • •

The sounds of truck and train engines haunting the cemetery are clearer than the sight of the mass grave I’m looking for at the edge of Fresno’s Mountain View Cemetery.

The tombstones of the town’s oldest parishioners and priests face the crematorium and its tiled murals and white sculptures of angels connected to the roof at their feet, hanging above the scene. A natural V cuts through the oldest, widest part of the grounds like a pried-open prayer, with smaller plots dappling what space remains on the other side of the crematorium. I can’t find the tombstone, just five years old, bearing the names of 28 previously anonymous ghosts simply known as “Mexican citizens.” What appears to be a metallic electric generator grate is on the side closest to the fence. I walk toward it, finding it to be instead a massive tombstone, the tangible output of a writer and a priest using all possible funeral and Mexican government records to identify and name those formerly anonymous bodies killed after the plane deporting them, taking them to El Centro via Burbank, crashed into the side of the Coalinga mountains west of I-5 on January 28, 1948.

I take a photo from the top of the grave looking east, my back against this fence marking the end of the cemetery grounds and the start of the commercial trucking school on the other side, trying to recreate the angle of the original photo taken for The Fresno Bee in the early summer of 1948, of a priest and a small crowd saying grace over two neatly lined nameless caskets. The small tree to the left of the grave now hangs its shadow over those caskets resting underground, a few feet below the large slab of a new marble tombstone that lists the names of all 28 killed, has biblical scripture in English and Spanish, and even depicts the image of the patron saint of farmworkers, San Isidro. A bilingual note describes how the men were killed “when a chartered immigration plane crashed and burned in Los Gatos Canyon” in what was “the worst airplane disaster in the history of the Central California Valley.” Three American crew members and one immigration officer were also killed, their names also included on the tombstone. The original plaque is included at the base of the mass grave and new memorial slab: 28 MEXICAN CITIZENS WHO DIED IN AN AIRPLANE ACCIDENT NEAR COALINGA, CALIFORNIA ON JAN. 28, 1948. R.I.P.

Signs advertise 100 new grave sites available for purchase, preregistration incentives included. Today, it’s hard to imagine, amid another housing crisis in California, 10 years ago Stockton and San Bernardino went bankrupt partially due to a slew of new homes built on subprime loans. A suburban sprawl in the middle of the valley is the trend facing towns south of Fresno, like Lemoore and Hanford, with developers pitching high-speed rail to the moon in hopes of a new sell. And I imagine living here, maybe somewhere near the Thai Buddhist temple I saw on the way here, visiting Abuelo’s grave—one he didn’t pay for—every weekend. What if my grandfather had been deported by air instead of by train or bus in 1946? Would his fate have been as unnamed and unremarkable as that of those 28 in Coalinga or as politicized as that of the thirty-two in Chualar? Maybe this explains the only wish he expressed to my mom—to die in his own home—knowing full well the dimensions of those graves at the farthest edge of a cemetery’s grounds.

• • •

When Governor Gavin Newsom spoke about changes he was making to the high-speed rail, he noted that the initial segment from Merced to Bakersfield will “revitalize the state’s agricultural interior” and that we shouldn’t see what I saw—a ghost train in progress—but instead “it’s about unlocking the enormous potential of the valley.” I drive south more aware of the sense of borrowed time than ever before, and ask myself, “Who has the power to navigate California?” I immediately answer, “Nobody”—we all pay a cost whenever we decide to move anywhere within this state. It’s why locals here steady their speeding trucks against moments of grotesque acceleration, to save gas. It’s the privilege of my “free,” jobless time to explore the official and lived histories of those before us in this state pillaged, conquered and divided by the Civil War. If I continue to follow the clues of Abuelo’s path to California, going all the way to Oklahoma and Nebraska, to as many fields between here and there that still remain, will I meet others like me, living between our known reality and the gray areas of the displaced narratives preceding us, spread across memory, oral history, burnt photos without smiles? Will we discuss our mothers’ favorite bands and how their mothers, like mine, spent their paychecks on new vinyl and headphones so their parents couldn’t hear the mind-bending sounds of ’68; how bad our Spanish is and how we still talk to our elders in the morning, knowing they’re awake, watching? I repeat Abuelo’s phone number to myself as much as his address, his final destination, or at least where I last saw him breathing, repeating the numbers and letters to myself, a history built on land he acquired.

I drive south more aware of the sense of borrowed time than ever before, and ask myself, “Who has the power to navigate California?”

I was standing in a California state landmark when he died—Mills Hall at Mills College in East Oakland—my father on the phone describing the scene to me of Abuelo, with his in-house hospice, meeting an extremely known fate. I was thankful for the end of his body’s suffering while immediately longing for his voice, the way his jaw trembled when he laughed, the leather of his skin and the kindness of his eyes, wondering when I’d digitize that tape. In the dead of night, I want to place a plaque at his former home noting, HERE STANDS A HOME FORMERLY OWNED BY A MEXICAN NATIONAL, near the bed of roses my abuela maintained by the front window, but instead I repeat his wish—“to die in my home”—to myself, just as I remember the sound of his laugh, his posture, his feeding of the backyard blue jays and his maintenance of his crops, and the way he nicknamed me chaparro for being the tallest in our family. The scenes are a marathon playing in my mind like a personal memorial built of rotten beets, broken septic tanks, a border agent’s slurs and the mire of sleeping in dirt at night, this memorial standing in my mind and illuminated on every drive between the parts of California I call home. A memorial like a handmade cross for 32 bodies flying 100 feet into a pool of blood, as drivers accelerate past its perpendicular stakes, toward their future, one that, for this temporarily stuck Californian, ends in flames.


José Vadi

José Vadi is the author of Inter State: Essays from California (Soft Skull Press); his essay in this issue is an adapted excerpt from the book. Vadi is an award-winning essayist, poet and playwright; his work has appeared in the Paris Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Atlantic.

Matt Black

Matt Black’s photographs have appeared regularly in TIME, The New Yorker, The California Sunday Magazine and other publications. He has been honored three times by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prize, and received the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Award for Humanistic Photography.

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