Tag Archives: #farmwork

A Tale of Two Valleys

Whew.

For the next year, my ability to Google will be ensured by the fact that roughly 200,000 people across 50 countries are working from home.

And, I can like your Facebook posts for, well, forever, because Mark Zuckerberg “guesses as much as 50 percent of the company’s 45,000-person workforce could be working entirely remotely in the next five to 10 years.”

These may be private sector decisions. But they impact the public’s understanding of immigrants and immigration. And that leads policymakers to value the Googler much more than the farmworker.

Look, as COVID-19 cases keep growing across California, the state’s tech industry and its nearly 1.8 million workers in 2018 — with over 805,000 of those jobs in San Francisco and San Jose — is doing fine. Their companies are growing, their bottom lines look great.

And, with the exception of those on the sector’s retail or gig front line, most are working from home.

The breathless media coverage leads us to think that this is the new reality for most workers. It is not.

Among U.S. workers, 11 percent are employed in the agricultural and food sectors — almost twice as many as those who work in tech. Of the approximately 22 million full- and part-time jobs in the ag and food sector, about 2.6 million are direct on-farm jobs, and nearly 13 million are jobs in food service, eating and drinking places.

These workers are not earning six-figure salaries. And they definitely are not working from home. (If they are working at all.)

In fact, go about two hours east of the work-from-home Silicon Valley and you find yourself in the hot fields of the Central Valley where more than 250 different crops, with an estimated value of $17 billion per year, are grown. In total, the Valley supplies 8% of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of our fruits, nuts, and other table foods.

Over 675,000 people work in the agricultural industry up and down the Central Valley.

In California, like across the country, these are the jobs that require workers to go to the “office.” But, for these workers, the office is a field, a farm, or a ranch where something needs to be planted or picked, cared for, or caught.

Everything surrounding these jobs puts people at risk. Sharing a ride to work, close quarters at the workplace, homes that do not afford any modicum of social distancing. As a result, the rate of positive coronavirus tests in the Central Valley could be as high as 17.7% — more than double the 7.8% statewide average over the last seven days.

While California works to get financial and medical resources directly to these agricultural communities, the federal government turns a blind eye. Under the CARES Act, both parents must have Social Security numbers for the family to receive relief. This makes entire families, including U.S. citizen children and spouses, ineligible for much-needed COVID-19 economic assistance.

This is a dynamic playing out in communities across the country. Immigrant families, even those with U.S. citizens among them, are going without any sort of relief.

These are trying times that require all of us to sacrifice. For some, the sacrifice is social distancing and working from home, while raising a family. For others, it is losing your job altogether.

And, for others, it is doing a job that is essential to the health of the country — but detrimental to your own health.

As we approach six months of this national crisis, it is easy to lose perspective and think that our own reality is the reality of others, to believe that our protection from COVID-19 is the same protection others have.

We begin to think COVID-19 is a disease “they” get. “They” did something to put themselves at risk. “They” were not healthy enough to fight off the disease. “They” live somewhere else, do something else.

Well, more than we probably realize, “they” are putting food on our table. And, “they” are most likely to be people of color and/or immigrants.

This lack of perspective leads the nation down a slippery path where economic and social divisions widen, where moral leadership is replaced by transactional leadership, where the bottom line is more important than people.

It’s a dangerous path that leaves the least among us without support — left to fend for themselves without health care or financial relief.

There is still time for the country to get off this path, and for Congress to ensure that all of us can access the relief and support we need.

The fact is that the skilled farmworker, documented or not, putting food on our table is just as, if not more, important to our lives and livelihood as the skilled engineer putting Google on our screens.


Ali Noorani is President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, host of Only in America. And, terrible golfer.

Featured Image by Coolcaesar and licence here.

Original article can be found here.

A Union of Sikh, Japanese, and Mexican Americans

Mainstream South Asian American diasporic fiction focuses mostly on the post-1965 generation of immigrants, beneficiaries of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished national origins quota and facilitated the arrival of highly skilled workers from India and other Asian countries to help the U.S.

Yet the history of immigration from India, China, and Japan to the U.S goes back much further to the early years of the twentieth century, at least, when many Indians, particularly Sikhs from the state of Punjab arrived in California to work in the logging and farming industries. Although historians like Karen Leonard and Ronald Takaki among others have documented this early history of Asian immigration, very few fiction writers have tapped into this rich history for their fictional explorations. Rishi Reddi breaks new ground by undertaking this ambitious project in Passage West.

The novel follows a group of Sikh men, particularly two friends Ram and Karak from 1914 to 1974. The novel begins with the death of Karak and Ram’s preparation of a eulogy which provides a narrative flashback into the life of his friend. The early part of the novel sets up the geographical landscape of Imperial Valley, California, where the two friends find themselves after stints in the British army, time in Hong Kong, and a brief experience in the logging industry in Oregon, for Ram.

Readers are gradually introduced to tumultuous events sweeping through the world, the growing farming community in the Imperial Valley consisting of Sikh and Japanese farmers, the restrictions to land ownership and citizenship rights, the inability for Sikh farmworkers to bring their families with them leading to the growth of bachelor communities, the growing racial hostility, and violence against Asians in the U.S, expressing itself in infamous incidents like Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that carried passengers who were British subjects from India and who were denied landing rights in Vancouver, Canada, which was also a British colony and were forced to return to India.

Sikhs on board the “Komogata Maru” in English Bay, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 1914

We also notice the growth of revolutionary politics with the rising influence of the Ghadhar Party, which consisted of expatriate Indians who raised funds to support armed anti-colonial resistance against the British, going so far as to support Germany during World War 1. 

The emotional core of the novel resides in the compelling description of two forbidden love stories. Both Karak and Ram develop relationships with Mexican women who they meet in the farming community. In spite of the anti-miscegenation laws, religious and linguistic differences, Karak marries Rosa and starts a new family and life with her. Ram, on the other hand, is attracted to Rosa’s cousin Adela but feels torn by his loyalty to his wife, Padma, and the son born out of their brief union. Ram and Padma at the beginning of the novel are deeply in love with each other, but as vagaries of their lives and the cruel immigration laws unfold, their ties gradually attenuate.

The racist immigration system is rendered most visible in their harrowing separation. At a more public level, we see the passage of Alien Land laws that restrict land ownership by non-white races, forcing many farmers to become internal refugees looking for land in other states or underpaid employees of farming corporations.  Even more poignant is the depiction of Sikh and Japanese soldiers joining the U.S. Army in the First World War, being lured to this task by the promise of citizenship. Yet, in spite of their service, they are denied recognition and dignity for their brave service.  Reddi provides us glimpses of the losses faced in the trench warfare as well as the deadly attack of the Spanish influenza of 1918 which claims the life of Amarjeet’s best friend, the Japanese American Harry Moriyama.

The most brutal rendition of racism is offered in Reddi’s depiction of the sustained attempts by agricultural corporations to exploit the Sikh farmers, not having the right of land ownership, by cheating them of their harvests. This results in the climactic episode in the novel which leads to a murder, the near lynching of a Sikh man, and the long-term effects of this traumatic event in Ram’s ability to return to India.

Reddi’s novel is the product of sustained archival research. She has conducted interviews with descendants of Sikh Mexican families, as well as historical research on the harassment, racism, and violence that these early immigrants were subjected to. She seamlessly weaves historical characters and events in the rich tapestry of her novel. This novel dispels the monolithic model minority myth of South Asian Americans. It celebrates the working-class roots of early immigrants from India, the multiplicity of religions and faith traditions that these immigrants came from and united to fight against common injustices.

In addition, the novel highlights solidarities between various minority groups, not only the marriages between Mexicans and Sikhs, which is very different from the mostly endogamous marriage traditions of South Asian marriages but also the solidarities between Japanese Americans and Indian Americans. This is a novel that deserves serious scholarly attention and should be embraced by more courses in South Asian American literature and history. However, even though this novel is the product of intense scholarship, the research does not burden the writing. The novel flows effortlessly. It is deceptive in its elegance and simplicity and powerful in its empathetic portrayal of early South Asian Americans.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.