by Eladio Bobadilla
I arrived in the San Joaquin Valley about a week ago. Almost immediately upon arriving in the valley, one begins to realize this is a unique place, one full of contradictions—a giant paradox contained in a vast valley.
It is uncomfortably hot—nearing 110 degrees this past week—and undeniably disorienting. The landscape seems foreign, even to those who, like me, lived here for most of their lives. Traveling from the south, you pass tall mountains, the kind that rough up your car’s engine, then descend into another world: hot, dry, gray, and uncomfortable.
It is uncomfortable in a physical sense, of course, The heat is inescapable and brutal. And the air quality is some of the worst in the country. A former smoker might suddenly feel as though he’s suddenly off the wagon breathing this air. But it’s uncomfortable in another, more meaningful—and more tragic—way. It is uncomfortable because here, you cannot avoid seeing the pain and the suffering of so many people, migrant workers working in slavery conditions to turn crops into commodities and soil into food. Alongside a vast stretch of California highway 99, you can see laborers picking grapes (and other produce) in sweltering heat. You can see their agony and their pain—all enveloped in what to them is simply their work.
While Americans debate (or fail to debate) immigration policy in irresponsibly abstract terms, immigrants here have more tangible matters to attend to. They grow fruits and vegetables with all the skill of a master craftsman, pick them with grace and dignity, and ship them with delicacy and care to our markets and homes. They ask for little more than respect and decent wages, and often get neither.
Many of these immigrants are undocumented. How many precisely is hard to say. Estimating their numbers has always been an impossible task, one which can at best produce vague estimates. Many more were undocumented at some point and are now permanent residents or U.S. citizens. But to most Americans, they have historically been invisible at best, scapegoats at worst.
As I’ve interviewed immigrants, most of them now permanent residents but once undocumented, they have revealed just how little Americans actually understand the workers and their changing roles and identities in American history. Most of the workers I’ve talked to see themselves as Americans (though not often exclusively), and many of them are in fact legally Americans. They are in some ways vastly different from the immigrants of old. But in other ways, they are strikingly similar: they came to look for a better future, they are assimilating into America on their own terms, and at the same time, changing the very meaning of “American.”
Political debates about immigration often reduce these people to numbers and impersonal abstractions, as if they had no humanity, let alone agency. What I have found out speaking with them, however, is a tremendously resilient spirit. These people labor under some of the worst conditions imaginable in the States, and they seldom complain. Indeed, they merely express a desire to be treated humanely at work, so that they may do this much-needed labor without fear of harassment or discrimination.
They also have expressed gratitude and joy at my project, since their history is not one that has been explored at any reasonable length. These women and men revel in the knowledge that their past is being told and that their lives are being explored and written about. The greatest fear of marginalized people is often that their suffering will be for naught, that their struggles will be forgotten in time. For a historian in training like me, such a realization is powerfully sobering and deeply humbling.
Thinking about it earlier today made me dizzy—or perhaps it was just the 108-degree heat. I know I can never do justice to the lived experiences of these people, but being able to bring their voices into the light is a tremendous honor as well as a tremendous responsibility.