2009 - 2017
California, United States
American Apartheid: Life in a Giant Farm Labor Exploitation Camp
Twelve undocumented Oaxacan farmworkers packed into a garage on Fourth Street in Huron, California sleep as El Gato slides from his bunk, dresses, and joins a procession of silhouettes emerging from holes in the ground, bushes, and various camps. Carrying backpacks, the farmworkers converge on a clot of buses parked along Lassen Avenue. Stomping their feet, spitting, and coughing, they crowd forward as each bus arrives. Hands upraised, they shout “Yo, aqui, aqui” (Hire me.”
The scene repeats every March and November, when Huron – the poorest town in California -- produces 90 percent of all the lettuce in the United States and the population expands from 7,000 to nearly 14,000, most of them single, transient migrant workers.
Located in the southwestern corner of Fresno County, Huron lacks what most towns take for granted – a newspaper, high school, movie theater, pharmacy, Burger King, Boy Scouts, Little League, Chamber of Commerce . . . Ugly, dusty, dangerous, corrupt, and impoverished, Huron is a giant farm labor exploitation camp.
No one has ever investigated Huron because it is too remote and dangerous. One mayor resigned after his car was shot up by assassins welding AK-47s. A councilwoman had her home bombed. Another mayor was died in prison; his son was assassinated. Since 1988, Huron has had 26 different chiefs of police. For several years it had no police. Shrines to murdered gang members stand outside the bars, in lots, beside fences, and on the edge of Keenan Park.
I stumbled into Huron in 1986 while searching for the source of the selenium-tainted irrigation runoff that had accumulated 70 miles north at Kesterson Reservoir, where a drainage canal dumped polluted water from Huron-area farms into a stopover for birds migrating the Pacific Flyway. The pollution caused a massive ecological disaster resulting in ducks, geese, and other birds born with three eyes, two beaks, and brains outside their heads . . .
Since then I have I have returned to Huron for extended periods in a self-financed, non-deadline effort to connect it with my multi-volume scholarly history of California farmworkers 1769-present.
Together my words and images aim to: 1) shock and inform readers about the full cost of cheap fruit and vegetables; 2) confront the heated debate over rural life, farm size, and the nature of agribusiness; 3) explore the how and why behind the creation of this impoverished farm town; 4) provide an exemplar for scholars seeking to unite disciplines while treading the thin line between first-rate scholarship and page-turning prose without compromising academic standards; 5) expose the social and ecological dimensions of a hidden bastion of industrialized agriculture; 6) nudge forward the movement toward a more humane and just system of food production; 7) put a human face on a situation that all too often is reduced to statistics, bar graphs, and happy jingles; 8) shock, sicken, alarm, awaken, inform, question, and hammer away at complacency; and 9) confront a question now being asked throughout the Great Central Valley: isn’t it time to shift away from agriculture?
With the PMH Grant I will: 1) add video; 2) complete historical research in the Fresno State University archives, which holds the papers of corporate farm pioneers around Huron; 3) attend and photograph the murder trial of Ignacio “Giddy” Sanchez, Huron’s most notorious Bulldog gangster; 4) further submerge in Huron during the spring and fall harvests; 5) conclude interviews with police, long-time residents, and gangsters; 6) explore the surrounding landscape through aerial photography; 7) write extensive, story-length narrative captions for the 80-images that will appear in the University of Oklahoma Press publication of the project; 8) prepare a magazine-length version of the project under contract to In These Times; and 9) prepare an exhibition of twenty 20 x 30-inch prints on aluminum to be hung in Sinoloence Café, the closest thing to an exhibition space in Huron, a town which has never seen a photo exhibition.