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Fieldworkers: A Look at Hard Labor Under a Hot Sun

Updated on July 8, 2017

Fresno County is located in California's Central Valley

What Do You Know About Fresno?

The city of Fresno is California's fifth largest city and it is the seat of the county with the same name. It covers an area of over 6,000 square miles and, according to the 2013 US Census, has population of 955,272. The number of people living within the county's largest city is, according to the same source, 509,214 which means that almost half the people living in this area, reside in either the many small towns that surround the city of Fresno, or in the outlying, mostly rural communities.

Many, with names like Firebaugh, Kerman, and Mendota are culturally-rich, community-oriented, and socially-conscious areas, even though the population base is less than 10% of the larger urban area that helped put this part of the Central Valley on the map. In some of these towns, the streets are dusty and the architecture looks like it stepped out of a postcard from 1930. Signs with slots for electric bulbs that were once vibrant and animated, are now quiet and unlit; some are even painted over with the name of a new business or whitewashed out completely because the building had been abandoned for more than a decade.

A Storefront in Downtown Mendota, CA

In small town's like Firebaugh, name brand grocery stores do not exist. There is no Walmart or Safeway. Mom and Pop shops, hardware places, and general stores—that sell everything from school supplies to clothing are the only conveniences the residents have for miles. Sometimes the nearest place to shop otherwise is forty-five minutes to an hour away, making any commute to purchase necessities a luxury and an excursion to be enjoyed on weekends. There are streets named Main and sometimes intersections have stop signs instead of signals, provided there is signage or even the crossing of streets to begin with. Stores specializing in mechanical parts for large tractors, irrigation systems—some carrying sprinklers as large as airplanes— and feed stores, abound. The county's small towns are places that are far removed from anything urban and cater to the farming communities.

A Sprinkler Designed for a Large Field

Farmers in the Central Valley depend upon water to irrigate their crops
Farmers in the Central Valley depend upon water to irrigate their crops

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Fresno: Big Sky, Great Plains

Fresno's large agricultural industry depends upon water brought in through a large canal system and much of the water being brought to the area comes from Millerton Lake and the San Joaquin River. The area is also dependent upon rainwater and runoff from snow. Recent mild winters and harsh summers have contributed to the drought conditions which have affected local farmers.

Much of the nation's produce: almonds, cantaloupes, grapes, raisins, figs, oranges, pomegranates, and a plethora of other fruits, nuts, and vegetables are cultivated in Fresno County. Without the rich and fertile farmland, the water and the workers, the San Joaquin Valley would probably be a desert. The foods that most of the nation and much of the world so readily enjoy would not be bountiful. A short drive along highway 180 West from the city or even south on 41 would give any driver a pleasant view that is quite magnificent. The flat valley planes stretch out for many miles and the canopy of blue sky, sometimes occupied by clouds is a spectacular sight that makes one think of Montana and Big Sky Country. The pristine view that greets you as you drive by geometrically perfect rows of trees and grape vines is something that takes you back to a time when the Frontier was still a reality and Turner—who came up with the idea that the frontier became nonexistent when more than one person occupied a square mile—was an infant, eating hay with the horses and cows.

There is a rich beauty that is unequaled in this sacred land which experiences intense weather in the form of torrential rains, immense fogs, and temperatures cold enough to frost over an entire season's worth of plants. Somehow people came to this valley and survived. Most of California remained a part of New Spain—or Mexico—until the United States decided that the riches and resources California had to offer were too great and wanted to make it part of the United States.


New Crops Will Provide Great Food

These People, This Little Land, This Fresno

One of the most noticeable aspects of this place are the workers who tend the fields. Gallant, brown-skinned, and moving with a strange synchronicity that seems almost as if they are in a quiet and proud parade, they wear heavy clothing to keep off the heat and hats that make them look like elegant mushrooms. These are the folks whose labor gives us the food we put on the table and who do work that most American's—who literally enjoy the fruits of their labor—would never pursue as a career path.

You can drive out on the back roads, through the farmlands and see groups of these men and women standing by the tall crops. If you honk your horn while driving through the dusty plains of rural Fresno County, they will pause and smile. They will remove their hands from the crops they are sorting in the dirt or move the lettuce from their right hand to the left and wave. They are friendly and welcoming and happy to be in the fields working under a heavy and all too present sun. These proud folks have no sense of arrogance and work gallantly and tirelessly, happy to be working, without thanks or gratitude.

The average American will not make the commitment to labor the way some of these fine folks do. They will not spend days walking under a hot sun, kicking up dust, treading on thistles through grasses that kiss your feet like tiny razor blades. Always cautious of insects, snakes, spiders, and other vermin who call the open and formerly uninhabited land home, they move with a quiet and natural confidence.

These are not things most Americans look forward to when they step out of bed, walk out of the shower, and prepare for their morning commute. This is not what your average workplace looks like to most of us, who walk through a set of doors and into a temperature-controlled, well-lit environment. In the fields, you have plastic bottles these days, or what were once gallon milk jugs filled with tepid water to serve as your afternoon refreshment. Your restroom is a portable toilet, often left sitting on top of the trailer which it rode in on. This is not the office space you see on evening sitcoms. This is not the average office environment.

This Is True Labor

Ironically, when one goes into the office buildings and other businesses, some of which are right next to these fields, a different type of encounter occurs. You are often not greeted by smiling faces or with waves. Instead you see people behind stark office furniture, sitting in chairs, standing around. Most of them are talking to each other about other people or complaining about some politician or issue that has no real relevance to them at all. Most of these people are comfortably dressed, drive nice vehicles and have easy access to a watercooler that provides a cool and filtered liquid. There are toilets which guarantee privacy, sinks to wash up in with soap and towels which you can toss into a refuse container. The people who empty the garbage, mop the floors, scrub the toilets, and brighten the mirrors in many areas of the country, have skin tones similar to those who work in the fields. Many are Latino or of another minority. There are also many poor and working class whites.

This racial and economic disparity is one that affects the county's ability to move upward socially. Fresno is one of the poorest counties in the entire Nation with an average poverty rate of roughly 25% according to the U. S. Census and according to an article published by the Fresno Bee (September 23, 2014), it is one of the areas with the highest rates of limited English speakers. These figures are too difficult to ignore and it must be emphasized that there is a definite connection between English language fluency and income. The barriers to education and mainstream acceptance are often connected to race and ethnicity. As large as the Hispanic population is in Fresno County, there is an unfortunate connection to poverty and low income levels: One of the poorest zip codes in the county is 93706 with an average income of $25,685 which is well below the state average of $58,600. One of the more affluent areas in Fresno, 93711 has an income average of $40,406 (according to city-data.com).

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Fresno: the Best Little City in the West

One of the southern City Gates
One of the southern City Gates

Fresno is a magnificent city and the county has some of the richest agricultural lands which help feed the nation. Most of the working poor in Fresno are the immigrants who come to this country in hopes of earning a respectable living from a wage that is often not much more than what one would expect to obtain in a third world territory. Working conditions are usually harsh and the Fresno summers are unrelenting. Yet there are friendly people who seem content in their efforts to survive in Fresno. These are some of the friendliest people you will meet. They are warm, gentle, peaceful, and generous.

Yet these workers remain almost invisible to most residents of the city; they're treated as an underclass that is better kept in the dark and the dust. Lands which were once walked by their ancestors are now occupied by urban dwellers and land barons who enjoy their labors, but would never engage in the same efforts these men and women of the field practice in order to survive. Their language is unwanted and undermined and their children are kept down by an impoverished and failing education system. This is a prime example of institutionalized disenfranchisement. The average API scores for Fresno Schools are around 5 or 6. For surrounding areas such as Clovis, the scores are near a perfect 10. If you were to examine the demographic makeup of these two communities, you will notice disparities. I won't elaborate here, but if you are a resident of Fresno County, you will understand.

I certainly do not believe that race or ethnicity are the only contributing factors to the difference in strata throughout the county either. There is a correlation based on economics and education level that is apparent in every zip code in the county. Poor and working class whites are also a struggling group that deserve the attentions of those who are in power and who have the ability to influence positive change. The fact that Fresno is agriculturally rich and centrally located from many of California's landmarks and national parks should be an inspiration to those who live in the community as well as those who are appreciative of their fellow Californians and Americans.

The name Fresno means "Ash Tree" and honestly, I am not sure what one is or if there are any in as much abundance as the Almond, Fig, and Orange orchards that permeate this region. Fresno is often the target of numerous jokes. For example, a prime time series in the early 1980s poked fun at the community and local leaders became outraged when a car commercial that aired in New York suggested that Fresno was one of the most undesirable places to go. There is a lot to offer here. If you do visit and you find yourself along some of the back county roads and happen upon a group of people with brown skin working in the fields or along one of the canals, do not be alarmed: this is not a chain gang. Honk your horn gently and when one of the proud persons stands up and waves to you, smile back, perhaps lift your palm off the steering wheel. If he lifts his hat and moves it through the air, think about the food you will eat that night and be grateful.

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