CURTIS LYONS: Welcome, everyone. Good afternoon. I'm Curtis Lyons, the Harriet Morel Oxman director of Catherwood library, and I am honored to welcome you to today's Catherwood library chat in the stacks by ILR labor historian Veronica Martinez-Matsuda. As you can see, I am in my lovely backlit office. And do not adjust your set. It really is short-sleeve weather in Ithaca today.
Before I introduce our distinguished speaker, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that today is the 75th anniversary of the first day of classes for Cornell's ILR school. On November 5, 1945, over 100 undergraduates mostly, World War II veterans, and 11 graduate students began taking ILR courses in Cornell's Warren Hall, the university's start that year having been delayed to accommodate the many veterans returning from the war.
After this talk, I recommend that ILRees and those interested in Cornell's rich history click on the link that will be in the chat to peruse ILR's celebration of this wonderful anniversary. As with most everything else today, Cornell University library's Chats in the Stacks series has moved to a virtual environment. While we certainly miss hosting you in person, I'm very pleased that this format allows us to reach so many of our students, faculty, alumni, and guests who are far from the shores of Cayuga's waters. Let me encourage those of you with questions during our author's talk to type them into the chat, and we will get to as many of them as we can in the final part of our hour.
Professor Veronica Martinez-Matsuda is an associate professor at Cornell University's ILR school, where she teaches courses on immigration, Latinx studies, and American labor and working class history. Her research is primarily focused on migrant farmworkers in the US 20th century, and she most recently received the 2020 Organization of American Historians Binkley-Stephenson Award, given annually for the best article from the preceding year's Journal of American History. Her research has received funding from the Ford Foundation, the Smithsonian, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship foundation, among other institutions.
Veronica will be talking about the research that led to her groundbreaking book, Migrant Citizenship-- Race Rights and Reform in the US Farm Labor Camp Program. It is probably redundant to call this topic timely. Attitudes and policies on migrant citizenship are a topic relevant to the entirety of US history. Opinions on migrant rights and citizenship are often deeply ingrained from the individual to the national level. They are part of a mindset. Veronica's book illustrates efforts at different levels successful and at others not by some of the lowest paid, usually invisible migrant farmworkers in the 1930s and 1940s to shift the mindset, a word which conveys its defiance to change.
Let me urge all of you to take advantage of the special discount code you see on the screen right now to pick up your own copy of this important and engaging book. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Martinez-Matsuda as I switch over to her slides in the share.
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: Thank you so much, Curtis, for your kind introduction and for agreeing to moderate our conversation this evening. Thank you also to Jenny, Jessica, Shawn, all of the team for Cornell's Chats in the Stacks, working to make our wonderful gathering happen. And I'd also like to take this opportunity, since I consider this my first book talk on Cornell's campus, to thank all of my colleagues at the ILR school, and in the history department, and in Latino studies for all of their encouragement in finalizing this book. I really appreciate that. And like Curtis, I'm joining you from my office at Cornell's beautiful campus, which, of course, is located on the traditional homelands of the Cayuga nation.
So you may have heard the song opening today's gathering, and it's a song composed by Wayne Dinwiddie who resided at the federal camp in Visalia, California, in 1940 when two ethnographers, Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin from the City College of New York stopped in to conduct field research on migrants' lives inside California's Farm Security Administration camps or what I'll be referring to as "FSA camps." The Library of Congress, which holds the Todd and Sonkin collection, which is titled "Voices from the Dust Bowl," has numerous recordings like this one, demonstrating migrants' faith in the idea that the program would help them improve their material condition and social standing as citizens.
I think there's something really beautiful about this song in particular, and I must admit it's a little embarrassing, but it's stuck in my head so often when I was writing this book that I often used it as a lullaby to put my children to sleep, which they probably think is kind of odd now, understanding the words. But building off Mr Dinwiddie's song, I'd like to begin my talk today with the anecdote that opens my book, both as a way to explain essential intervention but also as a means of telling you something about what drives my research more generally. Next slide.
In July of 1941, 157 farmworkers presiding at the Weslaco, Texas, FSA camp, which is near the US-Mexico border, signed a petition addressed to President Franklin Roosevelt demanding that the US government take responsibility for their well-being by defending their right to decent housing, better wages, and a self-maintenance. The petitioners were contesting the FSA's recent notice of eviction for families who had exceeded the one-year occupancy rule aimed at discouraging permanent residency in the federal migrant camps.
The individuals who signed the petition were mainly Mexican-American farmworkers from South Texas and white Dust Bowl refugees from the US South and Great Plains. So you can see they signed the petition as families, which is clearly indicated by the Mr. and Mrs. prefix and the grouping of similar surnames on the list.
And their appeal declared, "We, as United States citizens of this free America and a bunch of farmers, dirt farmers not pencil pushers, are now talking and are shooting straight from the shoulder cold, undeniable facts. First, we are a bunch of destitutes with nowhere to go, nothing to go on."
"Second, we are not pleading the cases of the factory industry, the large farming industry, nor the irrigation industry inc, but we judge from the wages they offer us for our labor that they must be somewhat destitute, too. We are yet in battle and now asking for a chance, too, as dirt farmers, qualified citizens, and eager to work earn our living. We are offering our labor. We're not a bunch of deadheads, hobos, or non-working people or trash of the Earth, as probably some might make-believe us to be. Is the administration listening? We're waiting."
The petitioners' claims dramatically affirmed their status as hardworking, contributing residents and farm laborers entitled to the protections afforded by the camp program and the privileges of American citizenship. Despite their diverse status as qualified citizens, they came together, as they explained, in a democratic way to contest the injustices they faced as marginalized, impoverished people. They demanded federal intervention, not in the form of charity but as laborers eager to work and to earn their living. Their claims, I suggest, shrewdly demonstrate the interrelated nature of migrant farmworkers' struggles for expanded civil rights during the 1930s and 1940s and domestic labor in Democratic terms.
Not unlike many historians, my research has always been driven in part by my own family history. I'm the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants, who arrived to Los Angeles undocumented in the early to mid 1970s. And coming of age, I learned to appreciate the critical negotiations that immigrants engage in, especially in their role as low-wage workers to establish their own claims to American citizenship.
There was always something that intrigued me, in other words, about the way that people like my parents operated to create community and to cement belonging for their families despite the challenges they faced. So when I entered into graduate school, I chose to focus on farm labor history because I believe it provides an exceptional lens through which to evaluate the intersections of race, class, and civil rights.
Historically, Congress' deliberate exclusion of farmworkers from key national labor protections, social welfare benefits, and distinct forms of civic participation in the United States ensured that farmworkers remained alien Americans. Who do I mean by this term? Next slide. Next slide. Thank you.
In a 1941 essay titled "Americans Without A Country," Carey McWilliams, who was then head of the California Division of Immigration and Housing argued that alien Americans were residents of the United States but without any legal settlement in any one state. In using this term today, I want to be really specific in stressing the contradiction embedded within it, not simply with regard to foreignness but more specifically in terms of displacement, or dislocation, and even statelessness. It's in this way that I see my book contributing to an important discussion among immigration, citizenship, and labor scholars by evaluating how migrant farmworkers have historically mediated their condition of alien American citizenship, either in juridical or social terms, to assert and validate their own identities and political claims.
However, rather than simply emphasizing their battles against the state, which understandably concerns much of the scholarship on national belonging, my book shows how farmworkers succeeded in securing government support for their rights claims despite their larger political exclusion and despite considerable opposition stemming from corporate agriculture at the height of its expansion.
So in my talk today, I'd like to offer a new perspective on how federal, state, and local governments wrestled over the boundaries of migrant citizenship, to define who was entitled to public support and labor and civil rights. FSA officials who managed the labor camp program argued that the so-called migrant problem evident during the Great Depression went far beyond the material consequences of tenant farmers' and sharecroppers' rapid displacement, which, as most of us know, was initiated by a crash in farm prices, increased mechanization, and an environmental crises. A more fundamental problem, they claimed, involved the way that this dislocation signaled a narrowing of opportunity and inequality in US society.
According to Will Alexander, who was the FSA's chief administrator in 1940, "The restlessness and instability produced by migrants' desperate but vain search for better conditions made a mockery of democracy." As he explained, "Under such conditions, participation in the affairs of the community and even the enjoyment of ordinary rights of citizens are virtually impossible. How many of these people attend church, send their children to school regularly, or even vote?"
Carey McWilliams further clarified the problem in his aforementioned essay. "Migrant agricultural workers," he claimed, "are outlaws and aliens so far as our welfare programs are concerned. They are alien Americans and part of the federal homeless because stringent state and local residency laws combined with deep-seated racial and class prejudice made migrant workers American citizens without a place to enact their rights. Certainly the Great Depression worsened this problem, but it had always existed."
So to best demonstrate this argument, I'd like to highlight one site in which the battle over migrant citizenship played out, and that is in the labor camp space itself and concerning the question of migrants' community formation. But before I do that, I think it would be helpful to back up a bit and tell you briefly about how the camp program emerged and describe some of the amenities and social projects it maintained. This will also give you a good sense of how the book is organized, which is mainly thematically, although it certainly follows a chronological structure within the chapters. Next slide, please.
So the migratory labor camp program was first established in 1935 under the resettlement administration. In 1937, the RA becomes the FSA, or Farm Security Administration, and that agency is placed within the Department of Agriculture, where it existed until 1946 when it was finally terminated. And I say "finally" because the FSA was under congressional attack throughout most, if not all, of its existence. So when the camp program began, federal officials described it as an emergency relief measure aimed at providing shelter and aid to the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Dust Bowl refugees arriving in California during the 1930s.
And while California, the Great Depression, and a mostly white Dust Bowl migration frames the backdrop from which this program emerged, by the end of the Second World War, the program had expanded dramatically, serving a number of agricultural regions across the country and a much more diverse migrant population. For instance, by 1942, there were over 110 camps in operation or under construction serving approximately 20,000 families or close to 90,000 individuals across 16 states. And this included remaining Dust Bowl families, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and foreign-born workers primarily from Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. Next slide.
At this time, the FSA also had plans to construct 90 additional camps, most of them mobile but fully equipped, serving up to potentially 140 new locations nationwide. And this fact underscores how wartime mobilization actually provided the FSA a much-needed reason to expand the camp program rather than to curtail it, as was the case for most New Deal social projects.
The FSA succeeded in maintaining much of its organizational structure and political power through the Second World War because it strategically positioned itself as the agency most suited to recruit and mobilize the farm labor force necessary to meet escalating agricultural demands. It's activities in this regard have led labor scholars to emphasize the FSA's influence, mainly as a labor supplier. A key concern in labor studies consequently involves the agency's actions in advancing, not contesting, capitalist agriculture's labor exploitation.
And to be sure, the FSA did ultimately fail to maintain the labor camp program as the site of farmworkers' democratic inclusion. The primary reason for this failure stems from the FSA's role in managing the emergency farm labor supply program under which it negotiated various bi-national agreements to recruit, contract, transport, and oftentimes house in these very camps the foreign guest workers that they were recruiting.
However, in addition to expanding an analysis of the camp program in race relational and regionally comparative terms, migrant citizenship also argues that we need to shift our focus temporally and pay closer attention to the FSA's political struggle to survive in the early 1940s. It's in this context, I argue, that we can better appreciate the material and ideological contradictions the FSA's fight produced within the New Deal and the consequences that it had on all farmworkers' labor and civil rights.
Because previous studies have to readily assume that the FSA discarded its social democratic experiment at the onset of the war, they've overlooked how camp officials actually capitalized on growers' labor demands and on the nation's image of itself as the great arsenal of democracy to defend the camp's original progressive and reformist intentions. At the same time that Congress pressured the FSA to focus on agribusiness' interests, the camps became important symbols of America's commitment to social justice and wartime democracy.
So what did this ironic development mean for migrant families? Well, most importantly, as I've suggested, it meant that the camp program was able to expand nationally. And in doing so, the FSA granted thousands of migrant families, particularly non-white families who had long followed the crops, access to the government services amenities and protections they so desperately needed. Next slide. Next slide, thanks.
Each of the camps had their own system of self-government in the form of a camp council, which elected migrant representatives-- or with the elected migrant representatives, and a camp constitution in court. This was intended to train migrants in the virtues and responsibilities of democratic citizenship, with the assumption, of course, that they didn't already possess this knowledge.
Most camps also had an impressive library and a nursery school in grade school in the community center building. And as you can see from the image of the elementary school, in places like Texas, where informal segregation-- informal laws around educational segregation, I should say, did not prevent the social practice of segregation, the FSA was really exceptional in building schools that were integrated. Next slide.
The community center that houses schools was also the site for regular meetings, educational workshops-- the image down on the bottom left is a first aid workshop for example-- and recreational activities, such as the weekend dances, which were very, very popular. Additionally, each camp had its own cooperative garden and community store that migrants maintained. And beyond their immediate role in supporting migrants' self maintenance, as the petitioners described it, these economic enterprises often help migrants long term. For example, in 1941, the camp council in the Okeechobee camp for Black migrants sent a young man and woman to Florida A&M College with the money for their tuition coming out of the collective camp fund. Next slide.
Finally, and quite significantly, especially for our current time. All of the labor camps also had their own medical clinic staffed by a doctor and dentist that visited twice a week and a nurse who actually lived inside the camp year round. Services at the clinic were covered through the offices national health insurance plan for agricultural workers. Next slide.
And these health associations were managed by state boards but federally sponsored. Conservative figures suggest that they covered anywhere between 75,000 to 200,000 migrants at any one time. So as you can imagine, the camps were dynamic environments. Indeed, it's for this reason that FSA officials frequently refer to the program as, quote, "an experiment in democracy." Nevertheless, this democratic project was not without its problems, which I believe can teach us a lot about the contradictions and challenges to building a more expansive participatory democracy as the FSA officials envision. And to demonstrate this point, let me now turn to the camp's built environment. Next slide.
In first constructing the camps, the FSA regularly portrayed migrants as farmworkers in a strange land, adrift on the land, homeless and aimless wanderers unfamiliar with the labor and social environment forced upon them by the Great Depression. This allowed the agency to claim that the camps provided necessary stabilizing environments that would rehabilitate destitute migrants and foster mutual understanding and cooperation among them. And indeed, they built the camps to serve this goal. Next slide.
For example, in chapter 2, I discuss the material and ideological influences that literally shaped how the FSA planners, architects, and social engineers constructed these camps. Notwithstanding their community building intent, most of the farm-worker families who occupied the camps by the early 1940s, when the program expanded, had worked as migratory farmworkers for a number of years. Consequently, they were part of a larger network of family migrations or regular work crews and maintained regional communities connected to their place of origin and formed along their migratory belt.
This is especially true for the Mexican-American farm labor stream traveling out of South Texas. But it bears mentioning that important regional community patterns existed among other migrants as well. For example, by the late 1930s, federal labor officials were writing about the origin islands of African-American farmworkers traveling together from Georgia, to Florida, and up the Atlantic coast. And even among the Dust Bowl refugees, who scholars have previously described as rugged individualists, Linda Gordon's biography on Dorothea Lange provides good evidence that many actually traveled West in migrant caravans. Next slide.
Yet, South Texas is especially important in highlighting my point about migrants' well-established communities because it served as both the starting and end point of the largest interstate migration at the time, which meant that the majority of the Mexican-American families who resided in the region's camps had roots nearby. In fact, federal inquiries into migratory labor conditions in 1940 suggest that approximately 65% of all migratory workers in Texas, 85% of which were Mexican, claimed South Texas as their home.
And remarkably, a number of them could claim ancestral ties to the land surrounding the camps. When I interviewed Evaristo and Israel Gonzalez, who are cousins, they explained to me that their paternal great grandmother, Maria Balli Gonzalez, was a descendant of Padre Jose Nicolas Balli Hinojosa, who was one of the first Europeans to settle Padre Island along the Gulf of Mexico, which is, in fact, now named after him.
Now admittedly, that's an extraordinary example, but many others describe family connections going back to at least the early 1900s. So while it's necessary to acknowledge how the camp's bureaucratic and physical structure aimed to give migrant families a place in residence from which to claim their basic rights, we must also recognize how migrants ascribe meaning to the camps' built environment in their own terms, which both supported and challenged the FSA's democratizing project aimed at expanding their sense of belonging. Next slide, please.
The most telling representation of this appears in the mental maps migrants drew in order to explain camp relations. Geographers define mental maps as "a model of the environment which is built up over time in an individual's brain. Mental maps are images that speak to the points of contact between people and their environment."
In conducting oral histories in South Texas, I was struck by how many of the individuals I spoke to prepared some sort of visual map to illuminate the physical and social space that existed within and beyond the labor camps. In 2015, for instance, Israel provided a closer understanding of the familial relations that existed in the Harlingen, Texas camp. His parents, Guadeloupe and Rosa Gonzalez had moved there with nine of their children in 1941 from a nearby ranch called Los Indios. Next slide.
As he explained, "My father was the first one to discover the camp. He brought all of his people there because it was really beautiful compared to the ranches where they were living. My mother's people moved there, too. Other people my father worked with followed him as well. We were all big families. They knew they would be more comfortable there than where they lived. The ranches where they lived didn't have indoor toilets, electricity, running water, and people had to go to the canals to get water to drink, and to cook, and do laundry by hand."
Evaristo also emphasized that those who moved to the Harlingen camp were, as he stated, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], that is, old acquaintances and cousins that were coming from the same ranch, not a number of different places. Between 1941 and 1946, four generations of the Gonzalez family lived in the Harlingen camp. The exact number of individuals, including aunts, uncles, their spouses, and children is difficult for Israel and Evaristo to recall. Next slide.
Yet, based on Israel's family chart, which he created to accompany his mental map, in fact, if you sort of look in the middle of his mental map, you might see some numbers. He numbered to each of the buildings that he could to identify their purpose or who resided in those shelters. And according to this list that he drew, it's possible that as many as 130 of his relatives lived in the Harlingen camp at some point. And in fact, many now live just across the main road, which is how I was able to find them.
Former migrants who resided at the McAllen, Texas, camp also told me about the close bonds that they developed, which strengthened the communal environment in the camp. They too, however, stressed how their understanding of home was simultaneously shaped by the connection many sustained with their place of origin outside the camp.
For instance, Herón Ramírez described how, come Saturday morning, everyone packed up for the weekend and piled into a couple of trucks headed for ranches and homes in Stark County. For Ofilia Ramirez, Herón's aunt, the weekend trip was especially meaningful because her mother, Beatriz Cantu lived in their ranch in Fronton, then known as La Hacha, with her younger siblings. Like her nephew, Ophelia recalled that there were a number of families in the McKellen camp who live their lives divided by their home, which they kept in the camp and elsewhere.
Recognizing the relationship migrants maintained with people in places both inside and outside the camps is critical for understanding how they imagined their community or place of belonging relative to federal officials' claims. In other words, it wasn't just discriminatory local communities that portrayed Mexican-American farmworkers as nomadic and outside of American civilization, to quote Carey MacWilliams.
Federal officials reinforced this view as well. If the FSA was truly committed to enhancing Mexican farmworkers' Democratic rights, therefore, it needed to acknowledge migrants' long-standing community and civic claims in their own terms, particularly migrants' deep connection to their transregional and transnational communities. By assuming that migrants sense of belonging or feeling of rootedness was linked to a specific territorial identity, FSA officials ignored the social labor involved in farmworkers' established strategies to maintain communal relations and to form kin networks across space and in light of the constant economic pressure to keep moving. So how did this all come to an end? Well, next slide, please.
Ultimately, it was the Mexican and Caribbean guest worker programs that most notably undermined the gains domestic farmworkers made with the FSA's help to claim full citizenship and contest their status as alien Americans. In April 1943, the farm bloc in Congress succeeded in wrestling control of the farm labor program from the FSA. President Roosevelt transferred all farm-labor duties to the newly established Office of Labor and the War Food Administration, which was essentially grower led.
And as the War Food Administration became primarily concerned with housing foreign labor, it adopted the labor camps by doing away with housing for families and facilities for medical care, instruction, and recreation. By the end of 1943, most FSA officials who supported the agency's social reform mandate and who firmly believed in the camp's democratizing potential had left or were fired from the agency. What remained was an industrial farm labor system that favored flexible, exploitable, and disposable workers, a system centered on extracting labor productivity without any of the costs of reproduction.
To enable this, all farmworkers were again marked "non-citizen," which allowed for their political condition as undeserving of democratic inclusion. So to conclude, I hope my book helps advance the fight for farm-worker justice by illuminating one extraordinary moment when migrant laborers defied their appellation as cheap, tractable, and citizen workers and joined with progressive state officials to demand from the federal government the basic, civil, and human rights that should be available to any person in a so-called democratic society.
With a agricultural labor system that continues to profit from migrants' disenfranchisement and exploitation in what seems everyday, like more extreme forms given the impact of the pandemic and climate change on our food system, I believe we must defend all farmworkers' access to equal protection under the law regardless of their formal status as citizens. As one of the federal officials involved in the camp program contended on retiring from the agency, if we have no intention of attacking poverty at its source, the administration ought not to have credit for helping really forgotten families, only for doing what democracies have usually done. That is, help those who needed help less because those who need it more do not count politically. Next slide.
With that, I'd like to thank you for this opportunity to share my work with you, and I'll briefly identify that our closing song also comes from the Todd and Sonkin collection. It's a sweet song written and performed by the sisters, Mary and Betty Campbell, who resided at the Shafter camp. And I call your attention, in particular, to how they to map their community. Thank you.
MARY CAMPBELL: This is Mary Campbell and Margaret Treat. We're from the Shafter government camp. We're going to sing a song composed by Mary Campbell, Betty Campbell, and Margaret Treat. We call it "The Government Camp Song."
GROUP (SINGING): Over here in the government, that's where we get our government stamps, over in that little raghouse home. Over in the isolation, that's where we get our vaccinations over in that little raghouse home. Over in Unit 1 that's where the people have their fun over in that little raghouse home. Over in Unit 2, that's where the people go without their shoes over in my little raghouse home. Over in Unit 3, that's where the people live in jamborees over in that little raghouse home.
Over in Unit 4, people don't live there anymore over in that little raghouse home. Over in Unit 5, people don't act like they're alive over in that little raghouse home. Over in Unit 6, that's where the people learn them tricks over in that little raghouse home. Over in the garden homes, that's where the people like to roam over in that little garden home.
Over at the recreation, that's where the people did a new creation over by that little raghouse home. Over at the library, that's where the people like to tarry over by that little raghouse home. Over at the sewing room, it needs a needle and a broom over by the little raghouse home. Over at the welfare, it sure gets in the people's hair over by that little raghouse home. Over at the reservoir, it needs to be cleaned by a man and boy over at the little raghouse home.
Over at the center building, that's where they have a nurse for the little children over at that little raghouse home. Over at the boxing ring, that's where the people like to shout and sing over by that little raghouse home. Over where we cook and can, we hope someday we'll get a man over in that little raghouse home. We are proud of the government camp, that's where we get our government stamps over by that little raghouse home.
This is Mary Campbell and Margaret Treat.
CURTIS LYONS: All right, thank you very much for the music in addition to that wonderful presentation, Veronica. That was fabulous. I have a couple of questions here from the chat, and let me encourage all the-- everyone who's listening with us, we have a wonderful large audience here. We really appreciate that to chime-- to put any questions you have in the chat here.
So let me start with question, "Should we replicate the FSA program today? What would you keep about the program, and which part should be changed?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: That's a great question. And I think, in many ways, I've had to think about what this history means in policy terms moving forward. And here in New York state, we've recently passed a new Fair Labor Standards Act, which might suggest, for most of us, that there will be improvements in terms of farmworkers' collective bargaining rights, access to overtime pay, even it has new stipulations around housing regulations. And that's an incredible win. I don't want to take away from all of the efforts to get that in 2019 after the first policies, as I suggest, were passed under the New Deal, the exclusion of farmworkers and the NLRA. So it's an incredible gain.
However, to be effective, there needs to be enforcement behind that. So in the meantime, in terms of what we could do, I would like to see elements of the program recovered in ways that could actually improve conditions for many workers, not just immigrant workers. So the medical program, there's a lot of correlation behind-- in fact, the medical officials who launched this program were often accused of trying to advance socialized medicine.
They were accused of this being a rehearsal for national health care. They certainly denied that all along to protect themselves until the very end. It's interesting, Frederick Mott, who was the chief medical officer for the FSA, it's almost as if he testified with nothing more to lose by 1946 when he knows the agency is going to be terminated.
And he admits, yeah, you know what? We didn't start that way, but by the end, we realized that it was perhaps the most exciting thing we had done. It was cost effective. We certainly benefited more than we contribute to it. So in the discussion that we continue to have about universal health care, there's something to go back in terms of this history and to see what we can recover from these intentions.
And also in terms of education, we-- many people don't realize this, but migrant children continue to be defined under labor laws as quite differently than other child workers. And as a result, they often continue to experience educational discrimination. And so some of what this agency did to make sure that public education was accessible to agricultural children, I think, can also be rescued.
CURTIS LYONS: OK, excellent. Thank you. Another question, I don't understand what you mean by saying, farmworkers after 1943 were quote "branded as non-citizens." Those born in the US were still citizens and the migrants were not?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: Yeah, absolutely. This is an important point to clarify. It's, I think, one of the most shocking and perhaps tragic outcomes of what happens by the end of this program. And that is that it's almost true. I mean, it seems so if you look at the documents that there was more in place to protect foreign-guest workers as they entered through, again, the Mexican Bracero Program or Caribbean program one year later, '42, '43. There are more stipulations regulating their labor conditions than there are stipulations regulating domestic US farmworkers, including those that are American born.
So that was part of the contention, that, how can we have these protections based on foreign governments that are the ones really demanding this that are better, that secure more accurately prevailing wages for these workers and not our own? So it is true that American farmworkers have the rights of citizenship, but they don't have labor protections under the labor law at the time.
So they can't file grievances based on any sort of unfair practice in terms of guest workers earning more than they are. And they had very little allies, really, to demand that they be given any sort of preferential treatment despite what these guest-worker agreements said about regulating against adverse conditions. The US government agreed that it was going to protect American farmworkers as they do today.
But in truth, they did not prioritize that. And in my book, the final chapter talks about the demise of the camp program, and they show, for example, how in the guest worker agreements and then what sort of the congressional discussion on the US side, if you look at the list of priorities of who should live in these camps and who should be "taken care of" by the federal government, domestic workers, US-born workers, are last on that list. And it's a long list. [LAUGHS]
CURTIS LYONS: Yeah. OK, good. Lots of questions coming in now. This is great. Can you please talk about the legacy of the FSA for residents post-1946, their labor experiences, communities, et cetera?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: For residents-- for a second, I was thinking for the officials because that's an interesting history, too, what they go on to do. But for residents, I think part of that history involves the struggle that they are experiencing, think 1950s, early 1960s. There's a gap in farm-worker literature there, really, because we kind of pick up on the farmworker movement in the 1960s and '70s. Most people are probably familiar with the United Farm Worker movement as one example. But there's a gap there, and that gap unfortunately, as I was suggesting, is not one that looks very good. The '50s were particularly hard for, again, domestic farmworkers.
So one of the things I also end with in this book is a description to turn back to the geography of these camps of how bad these sites have deteriorated. And I use it to really speak to the deterioration, ideologically, of what this promise was. Because you see embodied, literally in the camp structures, this decay, this lack of investment and interest in what good housing could mean for farmworkers, or recreational programs, and things like that.
So I tried to capture-- there's a couple of journalists that are documenting this by the 1950s, including, I use a memoir written by an old-- shouldn't say old, but a former FSA official who is-- yeah, he's looking back and saying, wow. I can't believe what I'm seeing. Look at what's resulted.
So I pick up a little bit on the '60s and '70s farm-worker movement and show how it does occur in these very same spaces, but it's a struggle. It's certainly a struggle. And often I like to say, it's OK, because farmworkers had more experience struggling without the government's support than they did with it. So you know, they kept on going, as you will.
CURTIS LYONS: Yeah. All right, thank you. Let's see, next question. Terrific presentation. Do you have a sense what percent of farmworkers got into the camps, and what were the factors that decided who ended up staying in grower-run camps?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: I saw different figures, never anything really conclusive, but most figures suggest that it was really-- it was not-- it was not as extensive as might appear by my description of over 100 camps and so many families. That, really, in truth, may be about a quarter. That's the best estimation I saw, a quarter of US, at least resident, farmworkers entered these camps.
And there were not many restrictions, I thought this question might come up, in terms of actual formal citizenship. The FSA, in fact, at one point, is very intentional in producing a document that says, we do not check anyone's citizenship status. Anyone is welcome to live in the camp. However, they did present pretty strict measures. They had a camp constitution that was supposedly drafted by the inhabitants, but it had a heavy arm of the state, which was an agreement that everyone who resided there had to sign, that mostly had to do with behavioral issues-- so regulating drinking, and cursing, and music, and things like that.
And so I write in the book about how it really was a choice, whether you chose to live under the government's watch as idyllic as many of the people I interviewed described living there. And they really did describe it as idyllic, which kind of surprised me. There was still the regulatory side in that you had to abide by the rules, you had to participate in the events, and there was this sort of regulated morality and behavior that went with that. So I think many people opted not to live in the camps despite the services.
And one thing I'll say about that, too, since I had brought up the medical program, you didn't have to live in these camps to access this health insurance plan. So the FSA found ways to reach people that did not necessarily want to reside in these communities nonetheless, as part of that commitment to really expanding services and rights to farmworkers more generally.
CURTIS LYONS: OK, thank you. Another question. Thanks for a great talk. Regarding the interactions between residents of the FSA camps and government officials, to what degree were residents pressuring officials? What sources of leverage were residents drawing on to try to advance their demands, given their general marginalization?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: Absolutely, that's a really important question. It was an important question for me from the outset. I will talk about this in terms of the archive and doing research. It was a challenge. Despite how much migrants produced as part of this program-- like they had their own newspapers, and I talked about their councils and the minutes behind all of that-- I still had to do the work of trying to understand their sort of-- as best I could their more authentic voice, the one that's not going to be censored by what the federal government's going to record in their own documents.
And I found both through the oral histories but even in some of these documents this way that if you kind of read there, we often talk about it as reading against the grain, you hear them. You hear the migrants pushing back or testing these officials. Like, you say you stand for this. Well, let's see.
So two specific examples come to mind. One is of a group of migrants in one of the Texas camps. They're Mexican, the group that came together. And they're petitioning the federal government around the idea of having their own-- they want to establish a farm in the camp, so more than just a cooperative garden like with livestock. And they petitioned based on their knowledge of the Mexican [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] system. If anybody knows Mexican agriculture, you know this was a cooperative agricultural system. This is what these officials said they wanted to cultivate among rural landless farmers.
And so they said, hey, we know how to do that based on the Mexican tradition, and we think it will sustain our families year round so that we don't have to migrate. The FSA officials pushed back. And to just sort of generalize their response, it was, eh, that's a lot of work, and it takes real education in farming. And here were these people saying, right-- and so I use this as an example of their claiming authority over these practices but also of really testing the FSA's boundary and, ultimately, of acting like political agents. Like, we will tell you. We're not empty of our own ideas and ways in which we could advance this together. We have plans, too.
And then very quickly, the other example that came to mind is in the late '40s, after '43 when I talk about this transition in administrations, I guess it sort of begins early. As the FSA's officials are responding to the pressure from Congress to stop these social practices, focus on the war, they are criticized for allowing unions to meet and to form in these camps. That's always been the case, but they're getting more pressure by '40, '41, '42.
And so they put a little bit of that pressure on the farmworkers, and they get upset. The farmworkers start organizing, and they publish all of these really great pieces, again, calling the agency out and saying, you? Now? Now the federal government's going to union bust? FDR's government's going to carry out these union-busting practices? Like, you said that this was all about empowering us politically. Here we are. You can't follow in line with these growers, with the associated farmers or the American Farm Bureau, and carry out the same actions. And it's a wonderful exchange as you might imagine.
CURTIS LYONS: Yeah, I'm sure. As the archivist, whenever I hear that it was published, it always piques my interest. It's like, where do I get those?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: [LAUGHS] Absolutely.
CURTIS LYONS: All right, more questions. Thank you for the great talk. You mentioned that the writing of this book was closely related to your upbringing. Was there anything that you learned that directly related to your upbringing that you took home or such?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: Yeah, so, I guess not as directly. I had this conversation with a good friend who's also a labor historian who writes about farmworkers. She writes about the Bracero Program. And we're both city girls, so we're saying, what did we do? End up writing about farmworkers? How did we get there.
And I get the question, truthfully, a lot, whether my own family participated in farm labor. And the funny truth is that my father, when they came, was adamant that he did not want to do farm work because he felt that it would really trap him and that if he could just start anywhere in city work, he might end up at a good factory job and that was unionized. He understood that already. And that was, to him, more promising. And I think that's really interesting that there would be a recognition among migrants, right, my parents in the '70s, of what agricultural work did, how hard it was and what it did to really limit opportunities for advancement.
So I grew up in LA. I tell people I'm a proud baby. I was born in Watts, Martin Luther King Hospital, which came out of the Watts Riots [INAUDIBLE]. So I do not know, and I think that's important to state. I do not know intimately what it is to migrate for agricultural work other than it's become my passion. And through, actually, Cornell's farmworkers program, I've certainly become more involved here in our region in addressing some of the issues that we have in nearby.
CURTIS LYONS: That's wonderful. Let's see. Was it possible for non-citizen camp residents to become citizens? How many people ended up living permanently in the US? And what happened to the camps, to the people who still lived there?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: Yeah, so that's a really great question, too, because I mentioned that there was no restriction against non-citizens, formal non-citizens, from residing in the camps, and I actually did find evidence-- so one of the ways that the FSA was criticized, certainly from the farm block, was what they were doing to politicize these migrants more generally-- but very specifically around citizenship rights and voting even, like electoral power.
So this was true for all of FSA's clients, not just migrant workers but tenant clans and sharecroppers. It's true, as they were often criticized, that the agency would often pay people's poll taxes as part of the benefits that they received and they counted that as part of the household needs. And the administrators were very direct, which is, I think, why they were criticized in saying, well, we consider this part of a person residing-- part of their needs. They need to be able to have access to vote. And if the poll tax is what's keeping them from it, then we will provide them with those subsidies.
So I found levels of that in the context of non-citizen workers in that they sponsored, they invited people into the camps to give "citizenship classes" and workshops, so to train sort of adult education to offer English language instruction but also to train specifically individuals in terms of how to access their citizenship, how to apply, how to-- I don't know what the equivalent was of the tests and standards at the time, but they were providing that for people, and I think that's also quite extraordinary. [LAUGHS]
CURTIS LYONS: Yes, all right. I have one final question. But before I get to that, let me share-- let's see. That's not the one I wanted, is it? Is it? Yes, OK. Our splash screen here for the other Chats in the Stacks book talk. Veronica has very generously agreed to do an additional-- to stay with us for a while in a different setting. So it will be what most of you probably experienced generally with Zoom, where you'll have a chance to interact directly with Veronica.
This is something we usually have at our talks, but virtually, it's a little more challenging. So you'll see the link appearing in the chat. When it appears, don't click on it yet. That would close this and put a new one in, but when Veronica finishes her answering the last question, and if you wish to move over there, then we will all join you there soon. And a recording will be available, I should say, of this part of it. So look for that hitting-- look for a link to that hitting your email shortly.
OK, so the last question here for this portion of it is, great presentation. That's not a question. That's an objective fact there. Do you think the Bracero Program led to the current farm worker inequality issues today?
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: Yes, I do because I think it was the-- and I should emphasize, because this is often not clear for someone who doesn't study farmworkers, that we had a Bracero Program before the World War II period program. So before the program in '42, we had a similar guest-worker program with Mexico in the context of World War I in our labor needs then, which included workers for-- guest workers for railroad work, mining work, et cetera.
So we had already established the sort of dependency in moments of economic crisis to call for foreign workers. That's pretty well known for most labor historians-- not just Mexicans, obviously, Asian workers and et cetera. So what is different, however, in the context of '42 and the reason that the Bracero Program is in place through '64 is that growers were well organized at this moment.
So what I've been referring to as "the farm bloc," the American Farm Bureau mainly coming out of the South but certainly expanding across the Midwest and the associated farmers coming out of California, they've become political actors as sort of like in a lobbying kind of way, as an entity if you will, most predominantly by this time by the late '30s and early '40s.
And I think that that makes all the difference in sustaining these programs for as long as they exist, And the way that they increasingly are operating with less regulations, certainly in our bilateral agreements from foreign governments, foreign governments have very little say in what these conditions look like, but even within the context of the United States so that the regulations that exist are so vulnerable, really, to being limited.
And I think, for those who may be following this, for example, the most recent news around the H-2A programs and what President Trump has done to-- just this week to freeze wages, to cut wages during a pandemic for agricultural workers, for migrant agricultural workers to help farmers through the pandemic, to also legislation that is much more flexible, if you will. I'm thinking of health and safety regulations, say, in meatpacking or agricultural processing, pulling back on those during the pandemic when we should actually be enforcing those more than ever. And I think that all of that has existed because of the rise of the power of corporate agriculture and the fact that it's not been regulated.
CURTIS LYONS: Mm-hm. OK, thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you to everyone who has joined us today. If you wish now to continue this with Dr. Martinez-Matsuda, please go ahead and click on the Zoom link that Jenny has put in the chat, and that'll take you straight over there, and we can continue this discussion and a more discussion format. So thank you again, Veronica, thank you all for attending. And we hope to see many of you over on the other side.
VERONICA MARTINEZ-MATSUDA: Thank you, everyone, appreciate it. Thanks, Curtis.
CURTIS LYONS: Thank you.
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What could and should fair labor standards and social programs for “noncitizen” migrant farmworkers in the United States look like? Verónica Martínez-Matsuda, associate professor at the ILR School, addresses this question in her new book, Migrant Citizenship: Race, Rights, and Reform in the U.S. Farm Labor Camp Program (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020) by showing how between 1935 and 1946 the Farm Security Administration (FSA) worked with migrant families to provide sanitary housing, on-site medical care, nursery and primary schools, healthy food, recreational programming, and democratic self-governing councils.
In a live, virtual Chats in the Stacks talk, Martínez-Matsuda discusses how these Farm Labor Camps became visionary experiments in democracy, and provide insights into how the public policy, federal interventions, and cross-racial movements for social justice of this era can offer a precedent for improving farm labor conditions today.