Knife Fight City

Richard Street

2010 - Ongoing

California, United States

Knife Fight City explores a variety of American apartheid in Huron, poorest town in California, where an unacknowledged American peasantry slaves for industrialized agriculture.

I began photographing Huron in 1986, while tracing the origins of an ecological catastrophe 70 miles north of town at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, where selenium-tainted irrigation runoff was causing migratory waterfowl to hatch with missing legs, deformed beaks, and brains where eyes should have been. Curious about the farming area that caused the ecological catastrophe, I drove south wondering if the ecological catastrophe had a social component.

Arriving in Huron, I sat on the sidewalk sipping a soda when a large police cruiser pulled up, the back door opened, and a voice from inside said “Get in.”

I remembered the three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964. Is this how it began? And thought: “This is either going to be the adventure of a life time or they are going to find my body three months from now when it snags on one of the strainers in the nearby California Aqueduct.”

Since then I have returned to Huron on hundreds of occasions.

Reporters never venture here. Politics are bloody – a mayor had his automobile shot up by an AK-47. A councilwoman’s home was bombed. Another mayor went to prison for drug sales and other crimes.

Every spring and fall when Huron produces 90 percent of the lettuce in the United States, the population expands from 6,000 to nearly 14,000. Most are single, transient undocumented workers who follow the lettuce circuit. They live in bushes, boxcars, and camps camouflaged by huge piles of tumbleweed.

Surrounding town is a multi-billion dollar, corporate farming empire controlled by Westlands Water District (WWD), which receives water under a federal water project (the Reclamation Act of 1902) originally designed to advance family farming by restricting land holdings to 160 acres. Huron is the antithesis of the settled, family-oriented landscape that the Reclamation Act was originally designed to create.

Huron doesn’t have a newspaper, Burger King, Little League, or Chamber of Commerce. Huron does have six labor camps, 14 bars, and three gangs, the Norteños and Bulldogs, who control the northeast and southwest corners of town and shoot one another on sight .

In Huron, I discovered a giant farm labor exploitation camp where poverty, fear, seasonal employment, waves of new immigrants, lack of stable institutions, oligarchy, and multiple layers of exploitation are compressed into an extreme example of what 350,000 farmworkers face in California every day – and 1.5 million farmworkers endure on farms from Washington to Florida.

The PMH award will allow me to conclude a 30 year-long, self-financed project by spending an entire year in Huron. During this time I will not only photograph but also complete oral interviews and historical research.

By unveiling the horrors of Huron, I hope to impress upon the public a picture of the West Coast equivalent of Appalachian poverty, only with grapes and roses.

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  • Jose Martinez, 38, a farmworker in Huron, California, saves money by living in a hole beneath the concrete loading docks in the railroad yard. Between harvest jobs, Martinez survives by using the old baby carriage (left) and picker's sack (right) to collect tin cans and glass bottles for resale at one of the towns' two recycling centers. 4/11/15

  • The Coalinga EMS tries to revive a field hand passed out on black tar heroin on the sidewalk outside the El Rancho bar along Lassen Avenue in Huron on a Satudray night during the lettuce harvest. 10/19/15

  • Dead at midday, Huron comes alive at 5 AM each morning as farmworkers swarm along Lassen Avenue to shape up for work. 8/14/14

  • Puddle of piss and a hat left behind along the wall of the burned out Rio Grande bar at 6 AM where farmworkers wait for their bus rides to the fields. 4/20/14

  • In a scene reminiscent of the way longshoremen were hired on the docks in San Francisco in the 1930s, hundreds of field hands hoping to snag a job swarm toward the labor buses at 5:30 AM shouting, "Hire me, hire me." 3/29/10

  • Boarding their labor buses and transported to the asparagus fields south of Huron, these field hands began harvesting before sunise. By noon the temperature will top 100 degrees. 2/27/10

  • A water break while weeding cotton fields north of Huron as the temperature tops 100 degrees. 05/9/13

  • Two Huron field hnads are hauled from their hiding place in an irrigation resevoir during a Border Patrol raid on a farm near Cantua Creek. 2/7/10

  • Oaxacan field hnads arrested during a Border Patol sweep of farms await "voluntary deporation" while in a Fresno INS holding cell. 2/27/10

  • Residents of the "Tumbleweed Hotel" prepare an evening meal on Sunday afternoon during the melon harvest. 3/26/16

  • Huron once had a movie theater, the Ritz, now long-closed, but in its heyday the scene of many events. To compensate for its loss, the Coalionga-Huron Recreation Department inflates a portable movie screen and shows movies to audiences in Keenan Park on Friday and Saturday evenings during the summer. 7/25/14

  • Although dusty and dangerous, Huron is devoid of trash. With two recycling centers, impoverished field hand earn cash by collecting glass bottles and beer cans and turning them in for cash at one of the town's two recycling centers. 7/25/14

  • Maria Hernandez, 22, a bar girl in El Rancho, greets a field hand on a Friday afternoon. By early evening the bar will be packed. With their earning stuffed in a back pocket, several will be rolled in the back alleyways by resident criminals.10/27/12

  • Saturday evening in Rumuldos bar. Budweiser -- not Modelo or Corona -- is the beer of choice in Huron. According to beer delivery personnel, the town during the harvst seasons boasts the highest per capita consumption of beer of any town in California. 10/20/12

  • Officer Jose Puga arrests a Oaxacan field hand for DUI hen confiscates his automobile after the man could not produce a driver's license, ownership documents, insurance, or registration. Asked where he obtained his automobile, the field hand explained, "From Juan, in Tucson." 10/20/12

  • A Norteno gang member shot in the arm and middle of the back by two Bulldog gang members recieves EMS assistance after being dumped at the El Porvenir apartments on the south end of Huron. 3/19/16

  • Responding to a riot in the Sonora bar, officer david Godoy (left) struggles to subdue one of three gang members who have fled out the back door as officer Jose Arsiga (off camera, right), condents with tow of his buddies. 3/31/13

  • Four months after three Norteno gang members burst into his apartment and shot him, Bulldog gang member Ray Pinon recieves bandaging from his wife as his children look on. All three Nortenos were later arrested, one of them while trying to recross back into the United States at Tijuana. They await trial in Fresno. 4/2/15

  • Father Jose Altimira greets a farmworker outside Saint Francis Cabrini Catlic Church following Easter mass. The chuch is the one stable istitution in Huron. On Good Friday a procession of several hundred devoit church members carries a 4 x 4 inch wooden cross through town, stopping at homes decorated to represent various stations of the crosss. 3/31/13

  • Josefina River, 84, the oldest resident in Huron, stands in the abandoned cemetery on the southwest corner of town recalling how the town got its reputation for iolence back in 1949, during its ctton camp days, when a mexican coton Picker, Jose Guttierez, kidnapped a seventeen-month old girl, and raped and murdered her in the muddy field to the right. Gutierrez, 27, was exectued six months later in San Quentin prison. 8/13/12