I Near the end of Joe Talbot and Rob Richert’s wondrous The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the protagonist Jimmy Fails confronts a young female Silicone Rush immigrant in a Muni bus complaining to her mother about how much she hates living there. Fails: “You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” This scene provides an appropriate context for appreciating Mark Arax’s engagement with the history of California as interpreted through the story of its water. The Dreamt Land is a transcending work of love for the land, its environment, and its people. It is, however, not without its well-founded anger.
Arax’s work of love blurs every line between the subjective and the objective, blending the oral history genius of a Studs Terkel with the muckraking drive of an Ida Tarbell and the storytelling majesty of a William Saroyan. It refuses to examine the issue of water apart from the broader cultural landscape that weighs the human impact on the ecology of the region. In other words, loving California is not only in relation to its people; it requires viewing its people in the larger framework of the land.
Some of the key elements of The Dreamt Land can be seen in Marina Zenovich’s Water and Power: A California Heist, in which Arax plays a prominent role. The essential point to understand from both is that as the demands for water have grown, water has become a commodity under the control of market forces that play little regard for the needs of Californians in general and the state’s most vulnerable populations in particular. Rather, institutional investors and corporate agriculture has wrested control of water with little concern for the state and federal taxpayers who funded the massive engineering feats that have allowed for the growth of an agriculture that has enriched few and promoted sprawling urban settlements in desert climates that have generated profits for realtors.
The story of the movement of water in California is also the story of its demographic expansion. California’s population has grown more than ten-fold over the last century, from 3.4 million in 1920 to nearly 40 million today. Thirty million of those Californians have been added since the end of World War II. In other words, a baby boomer born in California has witnessed a 400% increase in the population of the state in the course of a lifetime. Arax combs through all of this history in explaining how water was consistently moved to the perceived needs of a growing population rather than having people adapt to existing resources. The southward movement of water in California represents an environmental transformation that has occurred as rapidly as California’s population growth. The story of the permanent disappearance of the 800 square mile Tulare Lake and the ecosystem that it sustained assumes a metaphoric power in Arax’s tale as well as a concrete example of environmental and human destruction.
The brilliance of Arax’s study is the persistence of the interface he maintains between the natural landscape in broad terms and the cultural landscape that has emerged. In other words, water is examined in relation to the great array of soil types, climates, mineral resources, and terrain features that has drawn ten percent of the US population to California. The human impact on the natural landscape over the last century has occurred with remarkably little regard for the question of sustainability. One senses that Californians live from year to year with an almost fatalistic mindset in relation to the increasing severity of drought, wildfires, and other consequences of climate change. We get nervous when rains have not arrived by Spring. We live under the illusion that El Niño patterns will eventually rescue us from any prolonged period of limited rainfall. El Niño is a trope for our wistful mindset.
Much of Arax’s writing is thus reminiscent of the more broadly based historical and geographical observations of Jared Diamond. As Jared Diamond has shown in his devastating Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, history is full of the graveyards of civilizations that thought their deities would rescue them from impending environmental disaster. In general, there are two conclusions one might draw from Diamond’s study. First, humans are very poor at anticipating the environmental consequences of their behaviors. Second, they are even worse at rationally responding to the disasters once they arrive. Both books are jeremiads falling on the deaf ears of a culture steeped in market fetishism, religious fantasy, and Norman Vincent Pealism.
The role of agriculture in California is deeply rooted in the history of the state and continues its significance to the present. Fully one-quarter of US agricultural production measured in dollar terms derives from the state of California. The value comes largely from the unique crops associated with the Mediterranean climate such as almonds, pistachios, olives, pomegranates, and walnuts as well as wine, table, and raisin grapes. Many of these crops have emerged more recently as defining features of California agriculture, which historically had been centered on more staple crops such as wheat, tubers, milk, eggs, and meat.
The shift from staples to Mediterranean agriculture, however, also represents a shift from annual crops adjustable to variable rainfall totals in any given year to permanent crops that often demand large quantities of water every year. In short, a commitment to crops like almonds or pistachios is a long term commitment. Every almond orchard is a major investment demanding a large capital outlay as well as a guaranteed supply of water in a climate that makes such a guarantee difficult.
The centerpiece of the California water story is the State Water Project (SWP), a project begun in 1960 that has altered the demographic distribution of the state and generated agricultural empires in regions of the state that were not well-suited for growing crops. As one of the great engineering marvels of the world, the SWP provides drinking water to more than half of the state’s population and both generates and consumes a great portion of the state’s hydroelectric power. This SWP is the main source of water transfer from the northern part of the state, where two-thirds of the rain falls, to the southern part of the state, where two-thirds of the population lives. The vast bulk of this water, however, goes first through the hands of agricultural interests, which ultimately pay a lot less for this water than urban consumers.
The Kern Water Bank
Agribusiness control of this water has various environmental and economic consequences that inform The Dreamt Land. In the half century since the creation of the SWP, permanent crops have grown from 19% of agricultural production in the state to 60%. Correlatively, there has been a three-fold increase in the area of permanent cropland to 150,000 acres.
Arax’s central storyline examines how water became increasingly under the control of private interests who operate largely outside the scrutiny of the public. The most recent generation of California water politics emerges in 1994 with the specific maneuverings of the Kern Water Bank in procuring the Monterey Agreements in that year. These agreements amended the SWP in a way that placed the control of water into the hands of agribusiness. The Kern Water Bank is an assemblage of local water districts and private interests that often hide their identities behind shell corporations created to obscure the real sources of power. The core result of these agreements diverted control of water decisions away from the state and in favor of these local private interests represented by the Kern Water Bank.
Kern County has been the biggest beneficiary of the taxpayer subsidized theft of water from the San Joaquin River. Kern County is one of the last bastions of political conservatism in California. The leader of Republicans in the US House of Representatives is Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy. Not far to the north of McCarthy is Tulare County’s Devin Nunes. Both of their political careers rely upon the largesse of agribusiness interests whose wealth depends upon their continued proprietary claims to water provided to them by massive state and federal government projects funded by the public. It is difficult to think of a more apt metaphor for the inherent hypocrisy of modern conservatism. But one needs to be careful not to paint the politics of agriculture with too broad a brush. California’s Democrats also have drawn from the money wells of agribusiness.
Stewart and Lynda Resnick represent agricultural investment that distributes its campaign contributions more variously. While they operate the largest agribusiness enterprise in the state and have been the single biggest beneficiaries of the 1994 Monterey Agreement, they largely run their operations from their mansion in West Hollywood, where they host various galas and fundraisers that support broadly liberal causes and the arts. In a previous phase of her life, Lynda courageously assisted Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of the Pentagon Papers.
The first major source of the Resnick’s wealth came from brilliant marketing of Franklin Mint products in the Reagan years. At about that time, Stewart saw the potential for agricultural investment in the growing markets around almonds, pistachios, mandarins, and pomegranates. The name brands associated with the Resnicks and Paramount Farms include Cutie brand mandarins, pistachio and pomegranate products under the Wonderful label, FIJI Water, Teleflora, and Justin wines. While the marketing of these products has generated vast sources of wealth for the Resnicks, it is the correlative claim to the water on their latifundia that is the foundational source of their wealth.
The Monterey agreements thus set the legal foundation for the privatization of California’s water in favor of corporate agribusiness in general and Paramount Farms in particular. Through various agencies operating under other names, Paramount has effectively gained control of nearly 60% of water from the Kern Water Bank. While the legal maneuvers to obtain these rights are complicated, the economic consequences are not. By the terms of the euphemistically entitled Environmental Water Account, Paramount purchased water from the SWP for anywhere between $28 and $86 per acre foot, which it then sold back to the state for $200 per acre foot.
The privatization of water relates to the artificial separation of water into three distinct sources: the mountain sources heavily dependent on the annual runoff from the snow pack; the rivers, lakes, streams, and canals that carry water from those mountainous sources to agricultural destinations; and the aquifers or waterbeds that sit under the land and thus become the basis for proprietary claims by landholders. It is the depletion of these subterranean aquifers that provide the most disturbing theme in Arax’s analysis. As farmland on previously unfarmable acreage has increased dramatically since the building of the San Joaquin Delta project, large corporate farms dig ever deeper wells to suck the water from disappearing aquifers.
As lucrative as California agriculture is, it holds a relatively modest place in the state’s overall economy. Agriculture represents only 2% of the economy of California while consuming 80% of its water resources. Two facts belie the fiction that California’s limited water resources are necessary to promote agriculture in the state. The first fact is that little of the agriculture practiced in California is done by individual farmers growing staple crops for a hungry world. Rather, the crops that are being grown are water guzzling cash crops such as almonds, pistachios, wine and table grapes, destined for wealthy global consumers and benefitting corporate investors. A pound of pistachios requires about 1,400 gallons of water. Growing one pound of almonds requires 1,900 gallons of water. A person who drinks almond milk because it is more environmentally sustainable than cow’s milk is operating with evidence that is not fully convincing.
The second fact is that corporate agriculture has been the biggest beneficiary of the massive taxpayer-funded water projects that have drained water from the Sierras to the San Joaquin Valley (SJV), and funneled water from the San Joaquin Delta to southern California via Kern County. The extent to which corporate agriculture controls the flow of water and even manages to claim ownership of this vital resource is one of Arax’s most complex and disturbing reports. Private interest benefits are not only a matter of diversion primarily to agricultural use; corporate interests also extract a large slice of the pie that diverts water from northern California to Southern California. The average Californian pays far more for water than does agribusiness. Moreover, during the last drought (2011-2019) agricultural production and profitability continued to expand while local communities suffered severe restrictions and even water deprivation in those communities whose agribusiness overlords profited most from the water flows.
While the massive movement toward permanent crops in general and almonds in particular has revealed the crisis of sustainability in relation to water, it is also connected to the broader crisis of climate change. With the onset of “agricultural” spring occurring ever earlier, more and more bees are imported to pollinate ever earlier blossoms on the trees. Sixty billion bees are brought from all across the country every year to pollinate almonds. Almost half of these bees die before they are able to complete the task they have performed as a species for about 80 million years. This attrition rate is likely related to use of the pesticide Lorsban, the increased use of which has derived from the fact that winters are shorter and milder in the SJV. The reduction in freezing temperatures has removed one of nature’s pesticides. In brief, bees are living shorter, less productive lives. The trees are living chemically dependent lives that undermine the structures of agriculture that date back to the origins of civilization. Lorsban, moreover, appears to be one of the factors that has contributed to exceptionally high rates of Parkinson’s disease in the SJV.
In many ways, then, the water issue is coupled with increased levels of atmospheric carbon that are wreaking havoc on a global scale. Water and carbon are inextricably linked to the questions of fire, smoke, smog, toxic drainage, and groundwater carcinogens. It unavoidably raises the question of what happens to the water when it is moved from ecosystems that nature has cultivated over millions of years to cities and farms that have exploded in size over the last half century. And, as with the fossil fuel industry, there is a greater need for the public to consider water usage if California is to avert a crisis.
Like the fossil fuel industry, the control of water has largely fallen into the hands of private agricultural interests with billions of dollars of lobbying money that influence decisions at the federal, state, and local levels. It is the proprietary claims of these agricultural interests over rights to water that remains the biggest challenge in facing the impending water crisis. Agricultural interests benefit from their control of water in relation both to the priority given to agricultural production as well as their ability to sell water to urban consumers. 150,000 agricultural residents in the desert environs around the Colorado River control 70% of its diverted water while only 30% goes to the 20 million urban residents of Southern California. In cities like Blythe and Brawley, the most powerful government agency is the water district. Much of the agricultural water in the desert goes toward growing massive quantities of alfalfa that feeds the highly subsidized overproduction of milk in the SJV.
The utter refusal of local, state, and federal authorities to monitor the extraction and depletion of aquifers may well provide the major source of bewilderment for future generations studying the environmental collapse of California. Much in the same way that Mayans failed to address the soil depletion that fell so suddenly upon it as population strain spawned unsustainable modes of agriculture production, California continues to move water to places and types of production that are not viable over the long term.
The amount of acreage currently under tillage in California is unsustainable. Anyone who has driven along the Interstate 5 or 99 freeways has noticed the numerous billboards claiming that Democratic politicians have surrendered economic sense to environmental wackos. For these billboard sponsors, the delta smelt as a species is not as valuable as the continued expansion of farm acreage in need of new sources of water. For them, environmentalists have valued the smelt over the hardworking farmer who struggles to survive because of the disrespect those environmentalists display toward the blood, sweat, and tears of these poor farm families. The mantra of Fox News pundits and their ilk frames this as fish versus people, and anyone who would choose the former is utterly insensitive to the bibbed overall farmer and his small coterie of Pepinos helping him bring his crop to local markets every season. (Pepino was a stereotypical character on the old TV series, The Real McCoys.) They would also have you believe that more dams will allow for a greater regulation of water flow which will rescue these smallholders from their plight.
The ownership of water only occurs in relation to the aquifers that underlie the properties of whoever owns the land. The aquifers pay little heed to property lines, however, rendering control of this resource to those who can buy the longest straws to extract it. Those who live on the lands where these pumps are extracting water are both figuratively and literally sinking. Some of the most disturbing images in The Dreamt Land relate to the phenomenon of subsidence. The unregulated extraction of water from ever deeper wells has caused the land surface to sink. Arax estimates that the floor of the SJV is dropping about one foot every year as a result of this subsidence.
The story of Annie and Lawyer Cooper in the small rural town of Fairmead in Madera County illustrates powerfully the oral history majesty of Arax. Fairmead began as a colony that attracted various immigrants to the SJV at the turn of the 20th century. Among those who came were African American families like the Coopers, who left the post-Reconstruction South with its sharecropping and lynchings in order to practice agriculture in a less threatening and incapacitating place. For generations the Cooper family made a living from the land until they had to compete for water with giant almond operations that could afford wells that were able to extract water from a half mile under the surface of the land. Water was also diverted by developers to fund expansive suburban development in what might be seen as a rural version of gentrification.
There was a time when the Farm Bureau might have defended the interests of farmers like the Coopers, but no more. Instead, the Farm Bureau has become one of the pawns of corporate agriculture that benefits from its defunct legacy as a sort of trade union organization for smallholders who actually know how to drive a tractor. The Farm Bureau now represents the corporate agriculture embodied in investment banking, commodities speculation, and such individuals as the Resnicks and J.G. Boswell, the subject of a previous study by Arax, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (2005).
The History of California’s Water
Within a decade of the beginning of the Gold Rush, the 49ers gave way to industrial mining focused on massive water projects, low wage labor, and a set of riparian laws that effectively rendered ownership of water to landowners. As the land on which the native populations had lived for generations came to be valued by the newcomers both for its mineral wealth and its water, Europeans completed the final phase of the genocide of the native population. Summarizing the work of UCLA’s Benjamin Madley, Arax notes the decline in the native population in California from around 300,000 when Junipero Serra arrived around 1780, to 150,000 some 60 years later, with only 16,277 remaining by the 1880 census. With the native population both decimated and expropriated, the scene was set for the water conflict between industrial mining interests and agriculturalists.
In 1884, years of drought and flood cycles created pressure in the state government to favor the interests and needs of agriculturalists over the money power of the industrial mining companies. By that time, Leland Stanford and the other three Big Four operators of the Central Pacific Railroad in California had become paramount. Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker received around ten square miles of land for each mile of railway built, making them huge landholders heavily invested in attracting large scale migration westward that would increase demand on the federal lands they now owned. Their interests were best served by a policy that encouraged migration streams of propertied Americans not interested in having to compete against a labor force of Chinese immigrants and emancipated slaves. Leland Stanford’s 1862 gubernatorial campaign thus focused an appalling and hypocritical xenophobia specifically targeting the Chinese despite the fact that the Chinese portion of his railway workforce would continue to increase until the completion of the railroad in 1867.
The railway completion eventually contributed to the large-scale migration to California of various European immigrant groups from other states. Many of them were Irish, who themselves had only a generation earlier been the focus of nativist vilification. The major role that Irish immigrants played in the Sinophobia of the California Workingman’s Party provides a disturbing study in how quickly a group can go from being a victim to becoming a victimizer. The political force of these groups shifted power away from mining interests to those invested in real estate and agriculture.
The victory of agricultural interests over industrial gold mining in the late 19th century generated a new form of industrial production of wheat. This staple crop production benefitted most those who were capable of engaging an economy of scale that resulted in an agricultural oligarchy defined by alien landlords and tenant farms. In what might be considered a new form of feudalism, these absentee landlords had the means to circumvent federal efforts to ensure a distribution of water resources that would have favored the family farmer. The biggest beneficiaries of both water and land distribution were the Big Four railroad barons. Wheat, though, was vulnerable to the various threats of drought, soil exhaustion, and market volatility. The visionary who foresaw the agricultural transition in California to Mediterranean crops that would benefit smaller scale operations was the USDA’s Elwood Mead, a product of the midwestern land grant academy, Indiana University.
The movement away from a wheat economy to a more varied and smaller scale agriculture shifted the water issue into a new legal realm. California ultimately merged the “riparian” and “appropriative” legal framework under a vague formulation of “beneficial and reasonable” usage. Riparians contended that those who owned land along the river owned the rights to the water in that river. Those who advocated “appropriative” rights argued that the river was a resource best considered in relation to the broader interests of the state as a whole. For appropriative rights advocates, rivers could be diverted in the same way as civilizations had done since Mesopotamia, and ownership of those river waters transcended the property claims of those who owned the river lands. For the most part, California’s politicians refused to resolve these competing claims, upholding on the one hand the notion that property is inviolate and on the other hand that water is a resource, like air, that belongs to everyone. This dilemma resulted in concomitant claims to water rights that were tied up in legal battles whose resolution generally went to those who could place more money on the scales of justice. Ultimately, the financial interests of real estate pushed law in the direction of the appropriative claims.
James Ben Ali Higgins and the 1877 Desert Land Act provides an early example of the interface between San Francisco financial interests and SJV agriculture. Presented as a means of attracting small farmers to previously uncultivated lands by funding a vast system of canals, the legislation contained a large loophole that Higgins exploited. The 1877 law allowed for small farmers to sell the newly acquired lands they purchased to whoever they wished. The purchaser of the land would then receive the water rights to that land. The hoax in the law was soon revealed, however, when Higgins’ agents paid hundreds of San Francisco residents to purchase land on its legal provisions and then sell it to Higgins. More than 100,000 acres of land accrued to Higgins at a price of twenty-five cents per acre. By many measures, this was a better land deal than both the Louisiana Purchase and Seward’s Folly. The geographic expansion of this relationship between the FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) and agriculture is the defining theme of Arax’s book. A simple illustration of this point is that by the end of the 19th century, James Ben Ali Higgins was the third wealthiest man in America, behind John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Elwood Mead’s vision of Mediterranean agriculture merged with the interests of real estate developers to encourage the development of the SJV. Founded in 1872 as a stop on the Central Pacific Railway, the city of Fresno became a hub for the new agriculture of row crops and fruits that emerged. The real estate brokers of San Francisco began to recruit vast numbers of immigrants to the area in the decades that followed. By 1900, approximately 120,000 farmers were operating in California, representing a little less than ten percent of the entire population of the state. Fully one-third of these farmers were non-native immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Portuguese, Serbs, and Croats joined Scandinavians, Germans, and Irish to grow a great variety of crops, many brought from their native lands. The canal system diverting water from the San Joaquin River fostered a varied agriculture that ranged from dairy and sheepherding, wheat and alfalfa, cotton and onions, to figs, walnuts, peaches, oranges, wine, table grapes and, most definitively for Fresno, raisins.
This influx of small landholders fit precisely that yeoman ideal of American legend. The general transition from more extensive crops like wheat and cotton to more intensive crops like dairy and pit fruits also correlated to a decrease in the size of the average farm from 400 to 246 acres in the first half of the twentieth century. This type of agriculture defined the SJV for most of the twentieth century and marked the early lives of Arax’s generation in the Valley. Conflicts over water, however, have largely brought that type of smallholder agriculture to an end. It is the death of a culture that parallels in many ways what the proliferation of big box stores and the fast food industry have done to undermining local identity in the process of what geographers refer to as placelessness.
The City of Thirsty Angels
The explosive growth of Los Angeles in the second decade of the twentieth century would place strains on the water system that gradually undermined the agriculture patterns of the SJV. In other words, the interface between the real estate industry in Southern California and the increased control of water by agribusiness has established water as the defining economic issue in the state. In the period from 1900 to 1920, metropolitan Los Angeles grew from approximately 170,000 to nearly one million; increasing its percentage of the state’s population from around eleven percent to over twenty-seven percent. This explosive growth, which would continue through the remainder of the twentieth century with the obvious exception of the Great Depression, resulted in large part from the expansion of railway links that fed continental commerce beginning in the last decades of the 19th century. The completion of the Panama Canal further enhanced the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as entrepots for the expansion of trade with Asia along the Pacific Rim. As a metropolitan region that receives only slightly higher rainfall than a desert, water has always and will always be the principal challenge in sustaining Los Angeles.
The growth of Los Angeles over the last century is rooted in the swindle brought about by Los Angeles Times owner Otis Chandler. The swindle had two major elements. First was the dishonesty involved in arranging the diversion of water from Owens Lake in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. The second was the furtive collusion with real estate speculators that kept the diversion of Owens water to San Fernando hidden from the public so that the purchase price of the properties benefitting from this water diversion would remain low. In other words, the LA Times deliberately kept the most important local news item of the day off of its pages until its owner and his accomplices could maximally benefit from his San Fernando properties. Owens Lake, however, was only the first major diversion of water to the City of thirsty Angels.
The Central Valley Project
The Kern, the San Joaquin, and the Sacramento would all undergo damming and redirection southwards in a perpetual quest to rush water to facilitate the real estate development. The Central Valley Project (CVP) was conceived in 1904 and passed in 1933 as one of FDR’s New Deal responses to the Great Depression. Like the Tennessee Valley Authority project, it included a series of dams that would benefit agriculture and generate electricity. In addition to creating jobs in the massive construction projects of dams and canals during the Great Depression, the provisions of the CVP also included priorities for those farmers whose lands did not exceed 160 acres.
The CVP, like the TVA, is in many ways a magnificent testament to the power of the state to organize projects that benefit society. Both generated short-term jobs and long-term wealth that transformed the social character of an otherwise impoverished region. After the war, in conjunction with the GI Bill, the CVP raised a generation of engineers from the Dust Bowl immigrants. The project mitigated the effects of droughts and floods that had plagued California agriculture since the Civil War. As a result of the CVP, acreage brought under cultivation doubled in the counties of Kern, Tulare and Madera by 1949.
Efforts to sustain priority access of small farms to public waters as part of the CVP directive, however, failed. Once again, the ability of money to tilt the scales of justice undermined the best intentions of some federal lawmakers to ensure that the project benefit primarily the small grower. The small grower preference of the original federal legislation fell victim to conceptual unclarities in the relationship between surface water distributed by the project’s canals and the aquifers fed by that same surface water and susceptible to the power of agricultural giants who could attach the longest straw to their turbine pumps. The federal regulation also specified that diverted water could only supply acreage already in production. These regulations intended to avoid the types of agricultural overproduction that were at the root of the Great Depression, limit the role of real estate speculation in the distribution of water, and preserve some of the environmental integrity of the project’s ecology.
The post-war economic expansion soon brought the memories of the Great Depression to an end and with it the spirit of the legislation designed to assist the small farm. As markets recovered after World War II, those farm families who had been lifted from poverty by the largesse of the American taxpayer soon came to believe that it was their individual hard work and not the collective effort of the nation that had rescued them. Hundreds of thousands of additional acres came into production at a time when agriculture was still labor intensive in the Mediterranean crops that had come to define California agriculture. While the war and subsequent GI Bill provided the opportunity for the Dust Bowl immigrants to California to leave the fields, demand for fieldworkers intensified. Initially, the 1942 Bracero program was instituted to meet the temporary demand for field workers for the duration of the war. By the time of the Bracero program’s termination in 1964, it had set the foundation for large settlements of Mexican immigrants in the Central Valley. Today, these immigrant communities represent around 60% of the populations of Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Kern counties.
For all the benefits brought by the CVP to California agriculture, it came with irremediable cost to the environment. Dams inevitably damage and, in some cases, destroy the ecosystems that have evolved over millennia of millennia. While humans unavoidably impact the environments in which they live, it seems deeply irreverent to pay no heed to the broad network of the Creator’s handiwork. It is a matter of profound sorrow that salmon will never again make their summer runs up the San Joaquin River to their high Sierra spawning beds.
While the 1933 CVP regulated the water flows from the Sierra snow runoffs and directed water from the northern part of the SJV toward the south, large areas of land in the west side of the valley remained outside its provisions. Moreover, in the course of the two decades after World War II, Los Angeles resumed its position as the most dynamically growing city in the nation. It would demand and receive new sources of water.
The State Water Project
Working furtively behind a compliant media and politicians from both parties, the interests of big agriculture and southern California real estate rammed through the state water project in November 1960. Sold to the public as a further way to help California avert the cycles of drought and flood that allegedly plagued the state, this new project would create an aqueduct that diverted water directly from the San Joaquin Delta to Los Angeles via Kern County. It would avail the heavily alkaline soils of the westside of the SJV to waters that would make this seeming wasteland bloom. The campaign involved the best efforts of Democratic Governor Edmund G. Brown working in collusion with agribusiness and real estate interests. Despite these efforts, the state ballot initiative barely passed. Of six million votes cast by California residents, it won by only 173,944. A good portion of the public had seen through the economic ruse and understood the environmental destruction this project would cause.
The public also understood that this massive project funded by the California taxpayer would be a boon to corporate agribusiness and real estate. The ballot initiative had placed no acreage limits on the water provisions. The California Aqueduct generated the dynamic growth of the Inland Empire (IE) of Metropolitan Los Angeles and furthered the agricultural empires of the westside of the SJV. It is thus emblematic of the most recent and troubling phase of the water story in California.
Oceans of Milk, Mountains of Manure
While Arax’s principle focus is on the role of corporate agriculture as it relates to the Mediterranean crops that define much of California agriculture, similar tales could be told in relation to the dairy industry. Arax briefly treats dairy in relation to the particular role that Portuguese immigrants have played in insuring that milk overproduction continues to be subsidized by American taxpayers. The story of California milk correlates to the story of the California water. It is the one part of the story that this reader wishes Arax had turned his skilled analysis toward in more detail.
Over the course of the last forty years, a large number of dairymen have moved from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area to the SJV, where some have built vast dairies that milk 10,000 or more cows twice a day. Each cow produces about eight gallons a day, and each gallon of milk requires a little less than 800 gallons of water to produce. Many of these dairies came to the SJV after the diversion of California Aqueduct water that contributed to the eastward sprawl of Metropolitan Los Angeles into the IE, where many of their dairies had resided for decades.
Dairy is the top commodity of California agriculture, generating $6.37 billion of product value alone in 2018. Grapes (including wine), for comparison, were the second most valuable crop, at $6.25 billion; while almonds were third, at $5.47 billion. California now produces almost 20% of the milk produced in the entire country, whereas the Dairy State of Wisconsin produces around 14%. More than one quarter of California’s milk is produced in Tulare County. The combination of Tulare, Kern, Fresno, and Kings produces well over half of all the milk in the state. While Merced and Stanislaus counties produce more milk than all but Tulare, they are not included because they have not benefitted to the same extent as the other counties from the water infrastructure built over the last century. The growth of dairy in California thus has many parallels to the stories of nuts and fruits that Arax so skillfully documents.
Dairy, too, is an industry in California that has generated a large amount of wealth for a relatively small number of producers that derive great benefit from taxpayer subsidized water and transportation infrastructure, depend upon a large pool of undocumented workers, generate environmental problems that largely affect poor immigrant communities and whose fiscal and environmental costs get pushed onto the public at large as well as future generations. As with agriculture in general, industrial-scale milk producers have driven the small producer out of the marketplace. They continue to overproduce milk thanks to the generous price supports that the American taxpayer provides. While support for this welfare for the rich has always represented the worst of bipartisanship in the SJV, the faces for these subsidies have more recently become two of the most powerful House Republicans, Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy. The story of how California became such a large dairy producer, however, needs some explanation. Mediterranean agriculture makes a lot of sense in California. Massive dairy production, not so much.
The development of modern refrigeration, transportation, and packaging in the course of the last century has changed the character and location of the dairy industry. Prior to modern refrigeration and transportation, dairies had to be located near urban markets. The German geographer Johann Heinrich von Thünen explained this spatial distribution of dairies nearly two hundred years ago. As refrigeration and transportation improved, dairies could be moved further and further from those markets. As the distance of dairies from markets increased, so did the size of the average herd. There were limits, though, to the distance fresh dairy production could be moved from the markets. The von Thünen spatial model for agricultural land use still applies, but in a modified manner due to the advances in refrigeration and transportation.
The fundamental question is why California, which represents twelve percent of the U.S. population, produces twenty percent of the milk in the nation. The simple and anodyne answer is that California can produce milk with an economy of scale not accorded to those states that need to have barns large enough to house their herds in winter. The more problematic answer relates to Arax’s core themes: the agricultural economy of California has a difficult time anticipating the long-term costs of water depletion and contamination while being incentivized by a system that encourages massive scales of operation overproduction, and immediate returns on investment. The general attitude focuses on profits today and defers worrying about environmental costs tomorrow. California emerged as the largest dairy state only in 1993. It is worth taking a look at how it came to dethrone Wisconsin as the dairy state.
On August 12, 1986, Ronald Reagan famously said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” On December 23rd of the previous year, he had signed into law the Food Security Act of 1985 that revealed how little he understood his own words. For decades, the dairy industry had benefitted from various government programs designed to address the chronic overproduction of milk. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal introduced agricultural assistance programs that implemented price supports and production controls that helped farmers mitigate the crisis of high production and low demand that defined the Great Depression. These programs helped farmers ameliorate the vagaries of agriculture that include changes in weather, input cost variations, and product market fluctuations. No one other than the most absolute market fetishist would question the advisability of public assistance to these hardworking farmers.
As the farm lobby of the 1930s transformed into the agribusiness lobby over the course of the next decades, taxpayer subsidies of overproduction intensified for wheat, corn, soybeans, and dairy. The dairy buyout provisions of the 1985 Food Security Act offer a case study in the absurd. The problem was that generous federal subsidies encouraged dairies to produce far more milk than the market could bear. Market economics would suggest that the way to address this problem would be a gradual reduction in the taxpayer subsidy, which had grown from $247 million in 1979 to $2.7 billion by 1983. The problem with this solution, though, is that it would have placed the small, local dairy farm at an economic disadvantage in relation to the larger dairies, which benefitted from an economy of scale. Instead, the 1985 legislation offered to purchase the entire herds of dairies with the intention of reducing milk production by nearly 10%, which is roughly the portion of milk production that the American taxpayer purchases annually from the dairy industry.
While the buyout helped a number of small dairies struggling to survive, the program ultimately consolidated the power of megadairies in general and California megadairies in particular. Dairies submitted secret bids to the government that indicated the amount of money they perceived necessary in order sell their herds, mostly for slaughter. In other words, the dairies were able to dictate the terms on which they would get out of the business. Why the government on behalf of the taxpayer did not determine the terms on which it would assist these dairies indicates everything one needs to know about how the agribusiness lobby operates in Washington. In 1986, US taxpayers purchased 14,000 dairies for a cost of $1.8 billion. Taxpayers received the very short-term benefit of extremely cheap hamburger. The program had little effect, however, in the long-term addiction of the dairy industry to public support.
The largest payouts went disproportionately to California’s megadairies. More than half of the payments that exceeded $1 million went to California’s dairies. Of the six payouts that exceeded $5 million, five went to California dairies. $9.8 million was given to the De Graaf Family Dairy near Riverside; $8 million to Joe Gonsalves of Kings County; $6.5 million to John J. Casey of Stanislaus; $5.9 million to Wright’s Nassau County Dairy; and $5.1 million to Drifty Farms in San Bernardino. In total, seventy-four dairies in California received more than $1 million. By contrast, not a single dairy in the state of Minnesota, which had the largest number of buyouts at 1,091, exceeded one million dollars. Did Washington even consider a cap on the amount of money that an individual dairy might receive? No, because lobbyists for the rich are somehow much more persuasive than the lobbyists for single moms who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The trend line for California’s dairies over the last half century reinforce some of the points Arax makes more broadly. In 1960, California had 8,000 dairies widely distributed throughout the state milking around 800,000 cows, rendering the size of the average dairy to around 100 cows. At the time of the whole herd buyout in the mid-1980s, the number of dairies had diminished to 3,000. These were more heavily clustered outside the urbanized areas around major metropolitan centers. These 3,000 dairies milked approximately one million cows, rendering the average herd size at the time of the taxpayer-funded buyout around 330 head. Today, there are about 1,500 dairies milking 1.8 million cows in the state, making the size of the average herd 1,200. So, in sixty years, the average size of a dairy increased twelve-fold. These dairies are densely concentrated now in the SJV.
As with almond processing, the largest of these dairies provide another paradox in the marvel of some of the efficiencies and the perversions of their enormity. The biggest dairies in the SJV range from 10,000 to 15,000 Holsteins, all fed on the same large lot and milked in barns whose vastness are reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral. The innovations required to milk over 10,000 cows twice a day, every day of the year, are remarkable. There are large carousels that can milk over 100 cows at a time on a cycle that lasts around seven minutes per cow. A small crew of four or so mostly immigrant workers can milk around 900 cows each hour with this technology.
These dairies are surrounded by massive fields of alfalfa and feed corn that comprise the biggest bulk of the diet of these cows. This diet is supplemented by rather nontraditional sources of nutrition that cows are miraculously able to turn into milk. These non-traditional foods include crushed almond shells and stems; pulp, seeds, and skins from grapes and other fruits squeezed for juices. Loads of dehydrated corn are brought in from Iowa on trucks that have retractable roofs for easy loading and a moving floor that can unload itself in a few minutes with the push of a button. These trucks are preferable to dump trucks in that they do not require as much height clearance and they can carry more grain.
In addition to producing enormous quantities of milk on these megadairies, literal mountains of manure are generated every day that also produce problems with a solution that is not as compelling. The manure is gathered and placed on equipment that partially dehydrates it. The extracted water is funneled into massive brown lagoons that are lined with filters designed to limit the amount of fecal bacteria and nitrates that drain into the aquifers. It is not surprising that Tulare County, as by far the largest dairy producing county in the nation, is also among the counties with the worst water quality in the nation. What is done with the remaining mountains of dehydrated manure is not clear. Some of it goes into clever side businesses such as fertilizing acres of sod used for golf courses and lawns. Here’s the problem, the state that produces one-fifth of the nation’s milk also produces one-fifth of the nation’s cow manure. The environmental costs as well as the healthcare costs of this production is generally diverted to the taxpayers, their children, and grandchildren.
The eastern branch of the California Aqueduct that diverted water to Riverside and San Bernardino counties created additional financial incentives for the large-scale migration of large dairies from the IE to the SJV. The water flows from the San Joaquin Delta to southern California intensified the eastward sprawl of Metropolitan Los Angeles and thereby raised the demand for real estate in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where dairies supplying urban markets in Southern California had operated. When the taxpayers bailed out these dairies in 1985 for a price dictated by the dairies, the terms of the bail out prohibited them from producing milk for a period of five years. During those five years, many of these IE dairies supported the rezoning of their lands from agricultural to residential and commercial so as to benefit from the increased value of their real estate. Many of those dairy operators then took the large sums of money they gained from the buyout and enhanced real estate values and purchased even larger dairies in the SJV.
Today, milk continues to be overproduced at approximately the same rates it was at the time of the Reagan bailout, and California megadairies continue to receive taxpayer subsidies disproportionate to smaller, more local dairies in the rest of the country. Reagan built his political career vilifying welfare queens, with no small amount of racial overtones in the assertion. He also claimed that the Democrats had declared war on poverty and that poverty had won. The fact that no cap was placed on the amount of money a dairy might receive for the taxpayer funded bailout illustrates well how welfare works for the rich and the white.
The Kesterson Catastrophe
This diversion into the story of the dairy buyout illustrates the general theme of Arax’s book that examines an agricultural production in California that increasingly resembles the monopolies of the Gilded Era. Investment banks and hedge funds view California’s water as a source for immediate profits, not long-term investment. Like the derivatives market that led to the collapse of the housing industry in 2008, commodity futures speculation in California agriculture is set on a comparably weak financial foundation and is entirely unconcerned with sustainability. The looming water crisis bears most heavily in Kern County, where over the course of the last century cropland has grown from 140,000 to nearly one million acres. The portion of permanent crops in that expansion has risen from ten percent to sixty percent. Eventually, the Kern water district will have to take as much as one-half of current acreage out of production due to aquifer depletion and other problems related to the environmental challenges of growing crops on alkaline soil.
The building of the California Aqueduct further consolidated the power of water districts in controlling the flows of water through fields and to the urban areas of Southern California. While the Kern District has played a particularly pernicious role in appropriating water for the benefit of a few, the largest and most powerful of the water districts has become Westlands. The Westlands water district is the largest in the nation, covering about 940 square miles stretching from Firebaugh in the north to Kettleman City in the south. The greatest asset of the Westlands Water District is the San Luis Project, which is a part of the California Aqueduct specifically designed to provide irrigation water to the SJV. A political campaign by large-scale cotton growers in the Westlands district resulted in the creation of the San Luis project.
Westlands created a tenfold expansion in farm income from fruits and vegetables on the West Side that reached a crisis in the 1980s when selenium buildups in the drainage ponds created an environmental catastrophe. This disaster could be seen as the Three Mile Island of California because its effects will persist for generations to come. The clean up has been partial and provisional.
The catastrophe resulted from failure to fulfill drainage compensation for the massive inflow of irrigation wastewater into the Kesterson wildlife refuge. The proposed concrete canal that would have carried the bulk of that toxic water back to the San Joaquin Delta and then to the Pacific Ocean was never completed. Instead, the water at Kesterson attained high concentrations of selenium from the agricultural wastewater due to evapotranspiration, which removed the some of the water but left high concentrations of minerals and chemical waste from the irrigation water. Congress cut off funding that would have completed the drain into the Delta in 1975. At about this time, environmental scientists began to detect high concentrations of selenium in the fish and the migratory birds of the refuge. Soon thereafter, horrific pictures of floating dead fish and birds filling the shores of the wildlife refuge began to appear in the local newspapers..
Not only did Congress fail to build the drainage canal for agricultural wastewater, government authorities did not regulate the amount of land brought into agricultural production despite such limits in the legislation authorizing the San Luis Project. State and federal taxpayers bore the costs of cleaning up the mess created by Congress and its agribusiness underwriters. As testament to the power of the ag lobby, those most responsible for creating the problem received compensation for their losses once the problem arose. Moreover, some of the moneys intended to complete the drainage canals instead went into increased water deliveries. Kesterson, in other words, is not merely an environmental catastrophe. The ecological challenges have for now been put on hold.
Farmers for Trump
The greatest contribution of The Dreamt Land is its many travels into places in the SJV that most have never heard of and its many visits with people who are vital to California’s agriculture but are otherwise unknown. Their undocumented status targets them for easy exploitation and vilification by demagogues at the national, state, and even local scale.
In many ways, what has emerged in these small rural towns is something akin to the worst abuses of serfdom in the Middle Ages. Absentee landowners abound, as they establish fictional local residencies in order to sustain water rights while in reality living great distances from their stated domiciles. These agricultural plutocrats put properties in the names of relatives near and far so as to circumvent acreage limits on the amount of land they might possess and, even more importantly, the water they might receive. The Westlands District turns a blind eye as these landlords illicitly extract public water then claim recycling credits for returning it to the aqueduct. In many ways, though, this is even worse than medieval feudalism. At least under feudalism, a peasant or serf might have claim to the commons, the water and natural resources needed to maintain their households.
If all of this seems unimaginably corrupt and impossibly exaggerated, there are three names to keep in mind: Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy, and Donald Trump. No one embodies more the real power of agribusiness than these two Republican members of the House that represent the Westlands and Kern Water Districts. It is worth quoting Arax extensively on this precise issue because it reveals the utter disregard the Republican Party has for any issues relative to science and the environment. The nonsense that the Koch-funded echo chamber and its clownish political puppets have spouted on COVID-19 parallel directly the broader denials of climate science and the scholars who are warning of catastrophe if we do not stop putting so much carbon in the air and so much poison in our soils. In the context of summarizing the conclusion of one of these scientist’s compelling argument that the Westlands should not be irrigated, Arax writes the following:
I am tempted to leave it there and head to Mt. Shasta, but drought’s fifth year blows in the storm of a new candidate for president. He grasps, if nothing else, the banners hitched to the old cotton trailers. At a rally in downtown Fresno, he tells the delirious crowd holding “FARMERS FOR TRUMP” signs that the drought is a lie. It isn’t the sky that has turned against them. It’s the politicians, federal bureaucrats and judges. “There is no drought,” he intones. Like “fake news” and “Mexican rapists” and “build the wall,” it comes out of his mouth in a spittle that a parched people take to be rain. Mexicans who came here two and three generations ago stand up and cheer at the prospect that future Mexicans will be kept from joining them. Farmers whose livelihoods rely on the border crossings stand up and cheer, too. It makes no sense. It makes all the sense in the world.
Big growers from the west side, the east side, and in between meet with the candidate at a private luncheon in a secret location in Tulare county set up by Congressman Devin Nunes. It costs $2,700 to get in the door and $25,000 to share a thought with the candidate. He isn’t listening, however. He’s too busy telling his own story of how he came to Fresno a decade earlier to take over a troubled golf course development called Running Horse but had to back out of the deal. He couldn’t get any water because it was all going out to the ocean on account of a two-inch baitfish. The big growers, at that moment, smell a rat because Running Horse wasn’t tied to the Central Valley Project or constricted in any way by the Endangered Species Act. The development, which is now an almond orchard, has all the water it needs from the Kings River. Before he leaves, he tells the growers that the pumps will be turned to full blast once again, and they’ll be able to plant their crops like never before. No little fish will stand in his way. The growers write their checks big and small and drive home with their red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” caps.
No irrigation district in the nation plays politics with the same limbic instincts as Westlands. It boasts a half dozen lobbying firms under contract in Washington and Sacramento, a staff plucked from Congress and the Interior Department, and enough inside and outside lawyers to handle fourteen lawsuits at a time. Most of these energies are directed toward one aim: Keep the water flowing by eroding the Endangered Species Act and freeing the delta pumps from their federal shackles. The deputy general manager, Johnny Amaral, was the top aide to Congressman Nunes before he joined Westlands at a salary of $250,000 a year. His predecessor, Jason Peltier, was a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Interior Department whose perks at Westlands included a $1.4 million loan at an interest rate close to zero. He bought a riverfront estate on Millionaire’s’ Row in Walnut Grove, which sits 150 miles north of Westlands’ headquarters in Fresno. Peltier now owes the district $1.6 million for the loan even as he’s bought himself a second house – in Pebble Beach. The Westlands board had been keeping the debt a secret. It came out in the newspapers at the same time that the Securities and Exchange Commission fined the district for lying about its financial well-being. Thomas Birmingham, Westlands’ $400,000-a-year general manager, had signed off on what he called a “little Enron” accounting trick to hide revenue losses due to cuts in the water supply. His fine was $50,000.
It is difficult to imagine a more concise synopsis of the political culture that has emerged in the context of the Koch brothers’ ultimate plague on the U.S., the Citizens’ United decision of 2010. In the analysis that follows this extended quote, Arax goes into further detail of how this money is used. Included in this discussion is how numerous Democrats try to balance upholding environmental principles and the need to fund their campaigns. Again, money tends to tip the scales for these Democrats. The fiction perpetrated by Murdoch and the other propaganda agencies of plutocracy is that liberal elites have established an environmentalist infrastructure whose sole purpose is to sustain their bureaucratic institutions by generating fear based on what they allege is the pseudo-science of climate change and a phony water crisis generated by the “Democrat” Party.
The only great thing about COVID-19 is that it has revealed the utter bankruptcy of what these marketing firms of the wealthy claim is news. One would hope that it is a wake-up call for a political system that has deluded itself for far too long that it is the “leader of the free world.” If COVID-19 teaches us nothing else, it is that we are all dependent on one another to engage the natural world with reverence, respect, and humility.
In the same way that corporate lawyers perverted the good intentions of the 14th Amendment in order to buffer their clients from efforts of states to limit the power of money, agribusiness has warped the agricultural programs of the New Deal. California water is generating enormous fortunes and attracting institutional investment from such diverse entities as Harvard University, Nestlé, the Japanese pharmaceutical giant Otsuka, Mormon affiliates, various hedge funds, and a great array of other corporations. While these prestigious institutions might not want to affiliate with such political vermin as Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy, they are too financially complicit and morally compromised to effectively stand against them. All of the agribusiness entities have become adept at the three main methods of obtaining federal subsidies for their wealth: cheap water; set aside payments for not growing crops; and guaranteed incomes.
The Bill and Melinda of Pistachios
Also emblematic in this story are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, arguably the biggest beneficiaries of the combined federal and state water programs. On the 281 square miles of land they cultivate, which represent an area more than one quarter the entire state of Rhode Island, Resnick’s 15 million trees consume 400,000 acre feet of water. By contrast, the 4 million residents of the city of Los Angeles consume 587 acre feet. (One acre foot of water represents 325,851 gallons.) The workers in the Resnick’s operations are also among California’s most vulnerable. Arax estimates that about 80% of the workers on Wonderful corporate properties are undocumented, a number consistent with the general agricultural workforce in California.
The massive scale of the Wonderful corporate agricultural enterprise provides a case study on the paradox of efficiency entailed in this type of industrial agriculture. The economy of scale has allowed for investment in equipment, transportation, and warehousing that smaller operators could not match. Most of the benefits of this investment, however, have served to lower labor costs. This method of agriculture is not efficient when measured by production per tree or in relation to the amount of water per unit of pistachio or almond or whatever. Here is the bottom line in relation to, for example, pistachios: thirty-six men operating six machines over the course of six days can harvest over one billion dollars’ worth of nuts.
It is in the context of this politics of water that the role of the Resnicks is especially pernicious. They stand as a bridge between the Hollywood elites so vilified by right-wing media and the agricultural elites aligned with the minions of Trump in the SJV. In some ways, they mirror the hypocrisy of the Koch Brothers, who fund vile political projects while also contributing to PBS and the broader arts. The only strings the Kochs attach to that funding is that they threaten repercussions whenever PBS might expose the Koch empire. Part of the problem for the Resnicks is that they are playing a political game whose rules have been imposed by the monied interests of agribusiness through armies of lawyers and phalanxes of politicians supported by hordes of think tank pseudo-scholars who feed the propaganda stations of their media acolytes.
The Resnicks are in no position to effectively engage the political game from which they have benefitted. It is, for example, highly unlikely that Dianne Feinstein would ever propose or support environmental legislation that has not been substantively shaped by the Resnicks’ legal squad. The Resnick’s wealth and influence are too dependent upon the abuses of water that sustain the last bastion of Republican influence in California among the agricultural elite to effectively engage the real politics of the situation. They provide cover for the worst of California’s politics. As a result, the desperate poverty, the legal vulnerability, and the environmental devastation faced by the immigrant communities that provide the essential workforce in our food production remain unchanged.
It is difficult to see the more than $100 million that the Resnicks have poured into the Valley’s education system as little other than noblesse oblige. The charter schools they have established extract many of the best students away from the public schools that so desperately need those students’ diligence and leadership. The charter schools also draw state money away from the public schools. The institutions that their monies support undermine community institutions that seek to address the broader needs of the immigrant neighborhoods that have been hurt the most by the politics of water. Monies poured into Lost Hills have created something akin to a Potemkin Village for a community whose population is the size of a modest high school. Efforts to raise the nutritional value of the meals prepared by the poor immigrant families seem paternalistic irrelevancies in a food culture that heavily subsidizes overly processed foods with high fat and sugar content. The $20 million donated to the Resnick Institute for Sustainability at Caltech in Pasadena is like setting up an institute to study global poverty in Monaco.
The reason Arax attends to the Resnicks to the extent he does is that few have benefitted more from the abuse of California’s water system and few have worked harder to keep their operations out of the light of public scrutiny. As a couple whose wealth is estimated at $5 billion, they are part of a billionaire class who have benefitted from a system in which the disparities in wealth in the US have come to define it. While the Resnicks may aspire to become the Bill and Melinda Gates of pistachios, they must operate in a system whose current leader embodies fraud and greed. Another problem the Resnicks face is that while other billionaires might operate out of bases that foster elitist attitudes such as Manhattan or Silicon Valley, the Resnick’s wealth is generated in some of the poorest and most legally tenuous communities in the nation. Like so many of the billionaire class vying to obscure the nature of their wealth by contributing to vaguely liberal causes, they fear real engagement with the system from which they have benefitted. Whether they like it or not, all in the billionaire class are swimming in the cesspool of a system in which someone like Donald Trump might be considered as anything other than an absurdity.
Anyone genuinely interested in helping the immigrant communities of the SJV should direct attention to its severe nursing shortage. There is a great need for nurses and a great desire among many to become nurses. Why, then, is there such a shortage? Because those who are trained nurses make much more money than those who would teach the next generation of nurses. In other words, a practicing nurse would have to take a major cut in compensation in order to teach nursing. A 2018 study at UCSF projected that the nursing shortfall in the SJV by 2030 would reach nearly 10,000. One can only assume that the COVID-19 pandemic will make this shortage even worse.
Blaming the Victims
At the other end of the spectrum from the billionaire class are the immigrant and migrant farmworkers who sustain the agriculture of California. It is these communities who provide a persistent frame of reference in Arax’s story. Arax never brings the story of these farmworkers together in a single chapter because it is such a pervasive and complex theme woven throughout the book. The Dreamt Land conveys a variety of organizational strategies that includes thematic, biographical, chronological, and geographical chapters and sections. His treatment appreciates the character of those various farmworking communities.
For example, those farmworkers devoted to harvesting in California lettuce begin their migration from its winter harvest in the desert to its spring harvest in places like Huron, to its summer harvest in Salinas. These California workers harvest nearly 3/4ths of all the head lettuce in the US. The small town of Huron triples its population with these migrant workers during the lettuce harvest, with six or more workers crowded into garages where they pay part of their wages in rent to those Huron residents who lease their garages during the harvest.
These workers have different lives than those who specialize in the picking of melons, tomatoes, strawberries, and tree fruits. Those workers are different than those immigrant workers who tend to the cattle on a dairy farm. Dairy workers are different from those who live more permanently in the grape growing regions of the state, where nine months of hard work in the fields at modest pay and few benefits require some weeks on public assistance to sustain them while they await the next harvest and send their children to schools.
It is thus truly astonishing that the SJV remains one of the last remaining bastions of Republicanism in the state and it is even more astonishing that there is a very small segment of the Mexican-American immigrant population that subscribe to the notion that these immigrants are the principal source of crime, welfare dependency, and economic decline in the state. This is not the place to engage a protracted analysis of the costs and benefits of immigrant and undocumented labor in the SJV. Suffice it to say that if all of the undocumented workers in the SJV were sent back to Mexico and Central America tomorrow, the agricultural economy of the SJV would collapse the next day.
Those contributors paying tens of thousands of dollars to campaigns whose motto is “Build the Wall” know full well that the best way to end undocumented immigration to California is to fully criminalize the hiring of undocumented workers. The day that ICE starts combing through the fields and farms of the SJV and deporting workers by the busloads is the day that the hypocrisy will reach its apocalyptic nadir. More importantly, rather than having Mexico pay for the building of the wall, the agribusinessmen who hire workers from contractors who use undocumented workers should pay massive fines. One could even make the case that those who exploit undocumented labor should have their lands confiscated as part of organized crime activity, because one of Arax’s accounts is how the “coyotes” who smuggle people across the borders also engage in trafficking in drugs. In other words, agribusinesses who hire undocumented workers are engaged in a broad criminal enterprise that in any other circumstance would fall under the jurisdiction of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
But if people think that ICE would ever turn its law enforcement authority against those in California who benefit most from undocumented workers, they are not grasping the full ridiculousness of the situation. Instead, ICE will sustain its practice of working along the border and focusing its attention on refugees whose lives have been defined by police terror in such places as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala; states whose desperate poverty and cruelty are a direct product of generations of US greed, exploitation, and militarism. The large-scale internments, deportations, and family separations carried out by ICE reveal utter contempt for the lives of the poor by a political order that purportedly stands for Christian values.
The good news is that Trump may have thrust the final stake in the heart of the California Republican Party. McCarthy and Nunes are two of only seven remaining Republican members of the fifty-three member California Congressional delegation to the US House of Representatives as of the 2018 midterms. All seven of the Republican Districts contain large groups of white voters susceptible to the racist and religious appeals of the Republican Party. Many of these districts contain large contingents of people whose parents and grandparents migrated from Dust Bowl states and brought with them a powerful work ethic, patriotic zeal, and religious fervor. For decades they were beneficiaries of federally funded programs in the spirit of the New Deal. However, as the store front churches turned to megachurches and the effects of the strategies of Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie in shaping American evangelicalism in the image of Jerry Falwell took force, many evangelical churches became little other than extensions of the Republican Party. As more of these megachurches grew in the suburban expansions of sprawling SJV cities, racial segregation actually increased. Moreover, in the SJV the concentrated wealth that grew in the ever-expanding control of agribusiness meant that small farmers, businesses, skilled, and semi-skilled workers found their financial standing in decline. As more and more immigrants from Mexico and Central America moved into the SJV, an increasing portion worked not in the fields but in construction, meat processing, and other economic activities that had previously provided well-paying jobs for these skilled and semi-skilled workers.
Understanding the social consequences of the economic transformation of the SJV is a complex matter that is difficult to convey in terms that are understandable to people who see their status in decline. It is much easier to compile all of the detriments of immigration without examining any of its benefits. This propensity toward intentional ignorance and racism is deeply rooted in the origins of California as reflected in the strength of the Know Nothing Party and its presidential candidate Millard Fillmore as well as the role that California played in the Asian exclusion laws that began in the 1870s.
The good news, though, is that this politics no longer works in California outside of the seven districts that retain Republican representation in Congress. But it was not Donald Trump who destroyed the Republican Party in California in 2018, it was Pete Wilson in 1994 with his sponsorship of the anti-immigrant ballot initiative Proposition 187, also known as the Save Our State (SOS) initiative. This initiative mobilized Latinx voters in the state on behalf of the Democratic Party in a way that makes it difficult to imagine how the Republican Party will ever recover here. Trump may be destroying the Republican Party at the national scale in the same way that Wilson did in the state of California.
It is also very possible that Christians of all stripes in the Central Valley will extract themselves from the apostates that have thrown their lot entirely with Trump. While 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election, that number will likely decline as the fraudulence of his administration erodes the standing of the Falwells, the Grahams, and the other Trump supporters who claim to represent the message of Jesus to the public. Eventually, many evangelicals will extract themselves from the self-serving blather of the Moral Majorities, the eschatological nonsense of Hal Lindsay, and the obsession with abortion as the sole focus of the moral universe. They will instead read a Bible whose definitive moment occurs when the birth of a Messiah will disgrace the proud, elevate the humble, feed the poor, and send the wealthy away empty (Luke 1:46-55). They will read a Bible with much to say about how a follower of the Lord should treat refugees, outsiders, and the desperate needy. We live in revelatory times and Arax’s book reveals much about where we are headed in California.
What Every Gringo Needs to Know About Mexican and Central American Immigration
While the theme of immigrant labor is woven throughout the book, it may be helpful to place immigration from Mexico and Central America in broader historical perspective. It is important to understand the continuities and variations in these large migration streams over time so as to better appreciate both the complexities of the issue as well as the uniqueness of this most recent phase of anti-immigrant politics. Clearly, these politics no longer work very effectively in California and one question is whether California previews the fate of such politics on a national scale. The most important question, however, is to understand what is driving such large numbers of migrants from their homes in Mexico and Central America to an difficult and uncertain life in the US. The US can build ever higher, longer, and thicker walls at the borders, but as long as the devastating circumstances that are driving so many from their homes persist, the flows will not diminish.
Before engaging this history, a quick word on sources. In addition to some standard histories of Mexico and Latin America, the works of Roderic Ai Camp have been of special value. His work has made Claremont McKenna college an important center for studies of Mexican politics that has generated a variety of sources used in what follows.
Gringo Lesson 1: The Theft of Guadalupe Hidalgo
A brief history of California must begin with the fact that before it belonged to the US, it was part of Mexico. And before it was part of Mexico, it had been inhabited for tens of thousands of years by Native Americans. Arax engages in considerable detail the genocide of these Native communities by Europeans, both Spanish and Anglo-Saxon. California became part of the United States after it was stolen in what the United States refers to as the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and what Mexicans know as the United States Intervention in Mexico (Intervención Estadounidense en México).
The Mexican American war was fought on behalf of two elites: the crumbling elite of an troubled nation (Mexico) and the powerful elite of a young nation on the rise. The war began as a clear act of aggression on the part of the United States, was dubiously justified with the assertion of a Mexican attack against U.S. troops on American soil, and was promoted with the familiar combination of racism, paternalism, religious bigotry, and Puritan certainty that we refer to as Manifest Destiny. It was, in fact, one of the greatest land grabs in history and came at the most opportune moment of American strength and Mexican weakness. The war culminated with a devastated Mexico half its previous size, and a United States spread from “sea to shining sea.” It has also created a border that has at different times been a barrier and a bridge, but whose most persistent character is that of a festering wound. In the words of Carlos Fuentes, “The border is an exciting opportunity to create a culture of understanding between two nations. It is the meeting ground, not just between the United States and Mexico, but between the United States and all of Latin America. We have a great opportunity to either foster understanding, interchange and culture –or to condemn each other to suspicion, violence, even murder, xenophobia and genocide.”
Whatever ideals Manifest Destiny may have entailed were largely undermined by the greed and violence that accompanied the Gold Rush of 1849. For those Mexicans in California whose lands now fell under the jurisdiction of the United States, property protection guarantees in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo held about as much de facto force as the treaties that Native Americans had signed with the US. The community of Mexican Californians became outsiders in their homeland. Their newborn children would only become citizens twenty years later, after the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868. In the meantime, during the flood of immigration spawned by the Gold Rush, they faced all of the disadvantage of being foreigners in their own homeland. Many of their lands were taken through legal machinations or outright violence. Several had to pay special taxes uniquely instigated on the community of Altos Californios. As many as 500,000 of the current population of 12 million Mexican Americans in California trace their origins to the period preceding the Gold Rush.
They are foundational in understanding the long arc of “immigration” history in California. It would take nearly a century for the matter of Mexican immigration to become a major issue in American politics. It is worthwhile, however, to place the story of relations between Mexico and the US in broader historical framework before turning to the specifics of how Mexican immigrants became such a vital part of California’s economy. California has always been and will always be a child of Mexico. Consequently, it is important to frame this history of California in relation to events in Mexico. In other words, the real question is not why Mexicans have not achieved the same degree of integration into the opportunities the state has to offer, which is a common assertion of the privileged, but why more has not been done to appreciate the communities that have contributed so much to our well-being for so little.
The vast bulk of Mexican and Central American immigration is very recent. It involves movement from diffuse sources in those lands to diffuse destinations here. In most of the places where these immigrants reside, they have transplanted their culture full scale. That culture defines the schools they attend, the holidays they celebrate, and the patterns of values they embrace. Travelling to small towns in the agricultural corridors of the SJV valley is, in effect, a journey into rural Mexico. If Republicans were truly serious about the immigration “problem,” they would send armies of ICE agents into these towns. This could never happen in a systematic way because it would destroy the very foundation of the agricultural economy and undermine the wealth of agribusiness.
Mexico’s devastating defeat in its 1848 war with the United States had the beneficial effect of causing Mexican elites to realize the inherent weaknesses in the political order they had established and recognize the dangers to their own interests if those weaknesses were not addressed immediately and effectively. The longer-term consequences of the war served to erode the remnants of Spanish colonial rule in relation to the position of the Church, the military, and the creole (white, non-mestizo) elites who had dominated Mexican politics after the establishment of independence in 1821.
At the center of the reforms that emerged soon after the humiliating Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was the figure of Benito Juarez, who presided over Mexico from 1858 to 1872. Juarez worked in conjunction with the new Mexican constitution that had been written in 1857. Juarez used the new constitution to diminish the civil authority and economic power of the Roman Catholic Church by confiscating its non-religious lands, abolishing the exemptions of Church courts (fueros) from civil jurisdiction, and establishing birth and death records as matters of civil, not religious, authority. It should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church had claimed around thirty percent of all the land in Mexico at the time of Juarez’s reforms. Because of its access to vast urban and rural real estate, the Church has also served as the nation’s leading landlord and banker. As an enormously wealthy institution in a desperately poor country, it is not surprising that the Church became a focus of disdain in major periods of reform that occurred in the decades that followed. Juarez’ reforms thus sought to establish clearer and more consistent lines between state and religious authority.
Juarez also endeavored to establish Mexican autonomy in relation to the United States and European powers that had put Mexico in a neo-colonial relationship of dependency. Juarez’ declaration of a two-year moratorium on payments of foreign debt clearly raised the ire of the largely British and French investors whose stock portfolios were filled with securities linked to the mining, transportation, and communication projects that emerged in Mexico in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution. It is concern with the influence of these British and French investors in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America that later motivated Theodore Roosevelt to add his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Juarez had hoped to use this two-year hiatus to build a more autonomous economic base and develop a system of national education that would lessen Mexico’s dependence on the industrialized world.
The French in particular operated in a way that hampered the implementation of reforms while also providing the incident that established one of the definitive moments of Mexican national pride, Cinco de Mayo. The French had been involved in an effort to recolonize Mexico in conjunction with its puppet Austrian Habsburg ruler, Maximillian. The French efforts to reestablish Mexico as a colonial territory on the border of the United States would clearly have violated the declared principles of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. When fighting broke out between Mexico and French forces in 1862, the US was unable to provide much assistance to Mexico due to the Civil War that was reaching its peak at that same time. An early victory of Mexican forces near the city of Puebla on May 5, 1862 provided the source of the holiday so widely celebrated today. French forces, however, dominated subsequent battles. Relief came to Mexico only when the Prussians began to assert pressure in Europe on the French and their Habsburg allies. The Prussian challenge to the two major Catholic powers in Europe (France and Austria) rendered the venture in Mexico a sideshow that the French fool, Napoleon III, could no longer afford to engage.
The war with France had served to further weaken the economic foundation of the emerging Mexican state and drive a deeper wedge between traditional conservative forces still operant in Mexico that supported church and monarchy and those looking to implement modern forms of market economics and a constitutional republic. After a series of disputed elections involving an increasingly personal conflict between Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, Diaz prevailed somewhat by default when Juarez died suddenly of a heart attack in 1872. The Diaz dictatorship would begin in 1876 and last until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution of 1911. His rule would provide the general context for that revolution.
Gringo Lesson 2: The Mexican Revolution
As the first revolution to have occurred since the French revolution of the late 18th century, the Mexican revolution has an inherent interest for world history of the 20th century. Yet the Mexican revolution stands in the shadow of the other great revolutionary movements of this century. Unlike the Russian and Chinese revolutions, which transformed those societies in specific ways, it is difficult to define the results of 10 years of fighting and 2 million deaths in Mexico. It is proper to ask whether the Mexican revolution was at all revolutionary. It had neither a clear ideology of social change nor a finality in which one of the competing groups emerged as predominant. This lack of an ideological program and finality has led some historians to refer to the events in Mexico as a “great rebellion” rather than a revolution. Those preferring the term rebellion emphasize the continuity in the social and political character of Mexico before and after the revolution. Those who advocate that revolution is a better description of what occurred argue that the civil war laid the foundation for altering the structure of class, race, and economic relations in Mexico.
The significance of the Mexican Revolution lay in its circumstances as a newly independent nation in the global periphery seeking to establish its identity in the emerging order of the world that resulted from World War I. This identity consists of elements from its indigenous as well as its colonial past. Like most of the nations that emerged in the general context of the Versailles Treaty, Mexico faced the challenge of neo-colonialism and the economic strength of the great powers, especially the one on its northern border. This quest for identity paralleled that faced by many newly independent nations in the twentieth century, especially those in Latin America living under the growing strength of the United States after the suicidal war of European states. In geostrategic terms, World War I had established the US as the dominant global economic force.
The Mexican revolution began with the overthrow of the US supported dictator, Porfirio Diaz, in 1910. Porfirio Diaz was a model Latin American dictator. His powers were theoretically prescribed by the Mexican constitution of 1857, but laws guaranteeing free speech and limiting the role of the executive and the church were discarded when inconvenient. Nevertheless, having ruled for over four decades, he was able to accomplish many things, often with the help of US investors. Over this time, he also said many clever things. Among them is his one sentence summary of Mexican history: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Diaz’ support for the Church was an effort to bring his compatriots closer to God; but his active quest for foreign capital did little to distance his country from the US.
In marked contrast to the program of Benito Juarez, Diaz appealed to the Roman Catholic Church for support by ending the expropriations while easing the political and cultural constraints that had been directed against it in the previous decades. This appeal to ecclesiastical authority established the social conservatism of the Diaz regime but also aligned the Church with his dictatorship. Diaz used the Church to assist in upholding social order in the context of reforms that benefitted the elite, thereby establishing the Church as a general enemy of the many displaced peasants and impoverished industrial workers that emerged in relation to the economic policies pursued by him.
The increased centralization of authority that emerged under Diaz did so in conjunction with both traditional elites such as military officers and clerics, as well as a highly educated urban element that drove the institutional structures of modernization. Diaz referred to these highly educated elites as cientificos. They were going to be the lawyers, engineers, technicians, and architects of the new Mexico he was building. Even though many of them would come from the landed elite (hacienderos), they would operate as a group whose privilege and wealth would be based on merit rather than birth. Within this tenuous coalition of traditional elites and modernizers, tensions arose. Conflicts developed especially between the church and the urban elites over differences in the role and nature of education in society. Tensions also resulted from nationalist sentiment against the role of foreign capital, much of which originated in the United States.
Diaz’ vision for development typified many such programs in Latin America that embraced the export and import model of development. This development program coordinated foreign direct investment with Mexican elites in agriculture, mining, and industry. Historians commonly refer to the name for this program in Mexico as the Porfiriato. Mexico’s mineral wealth in silver, gold, copper and zinc easily attracted foreign capital. At the outbreak of World War I, Mexico’s wealth of crude oil also had become a major magnet for foreign investment. In addition to the development of mining, the Porfiriato contributed to a massive expansion in the transportation and communication infrastructure of Mexico. Foreign capital was largely responsible for the forty-fold increase in railway mileage and the doubling of national income during the Diaz regime.
But this wealth concentrated in relation to a small segment of society. Foreign investors, especially those in the United States, played a conspicuous role in the Mexican economy. At the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, US citizens owned 22% of the land in Mexico and had twice as much capital invested as Mexicans. US interests claimed 3/4 of the mines and 3/5 of the oil wells. The role of US investment in industry paralleled the role of Hacienda owners in agriculture. Mexico was a peasant society. While three out of every four Mexicans worked on the land, only 2% of the population actually owned land. Most Mexican peasants, especially those in the more tropical southern half of the country, practiced subsistence agriculture on communal lands known as ejidos. In Diaz’ view, however, these ejidos represented “unproductive” uses of the land because they did not generate surpluses that could contribute to advancing local markets and foreign trade. Diaz thus confiscated many of these lands and sold them to other large hacienda owners or foreign investors so as to enhance export revenues in relation to such cash crops as tropical fruits, coffee, and beef.
The legacy of the Diaz dictatorship in relation to Mexican peasants was thus one of landlessness, debt, and the concentration of land in the hands of ever fewer. Some of the estates benefitting from the land confiscations came to assume gargantuan proportions. For example, the Terraza-Creel clan of Chihuahua claimed title to over 50 estates which totaled over 7 million acres, a land area considerably larger than the state of New Jersey. The Mexican peasant suffered from poverty and injustice. Approximately three out of every four Mexicans was illiterate at the turn of the Twentieth Century, and there was little evidence that literacy rates were increasing. Around one out of every three newborns died at birth or within the first year of life. Thus at a time when the populations of the less developed Europe were booming, the populations of Mexico and Central America remained stagnant due to poverty, exploitation, and poor governance.
The Mexican state employed a variety of means to control the masses. The most notorious were the rurales, the federal force of the Mexican interior ministry. The rurales were used to put down perceived threats to the government. Local strongmen, referred to as caciques, used methods of terror and intimidation to keep peasants from pursuing grievances against unjust landlords. Workers in mines and factories were kept under control in much the same fashion. The Mexican government allowed US based companies to keep standing militias and to use them to put down strikes and crush walkouts.
The Mexican Revolution began as a conflict between liberal elites and the conservative elites of the Diaz government. The power vacuum created by this elite conflict then provided the masses with an opportunity to participate and shape the outcome of the decade of civil war. The principal concerns of liberal elites were political rights that had little to do with the needs of peasants, miners, and factory workers. The political liberals aspired to reform, not transform, the system.
The purpose of engaging this detailed background to the Mexican Revolution is to appreciate how deeply rooted are some of the factors that have led so many to find their way across the border into California. It is also to show how the US has persistently contributed to the poverty and exploitation of this vulnerable workforce for well over a century. Despite these hardships, there was no major Mexican migration to the US during the privations of the Diaz regime. The sad fact is that high rates of infant, child, and maternal mortality ensured that the population of Mexico remained extremely low. The ten years of the Mexican Revolution only compounded the destitution imposed by the economic exploitation of the Diaz regime.
The result is that Mexico’s population began the Twentieth Century at around 13 million and did not reach 20 million until 1940. By contrast, the populations of Southern and Eastern Europe were booming and providing an almost endless source of labor for the factories, farms, and mines of the Gilded Age economic boom. It is worth noting that the only significant bump in Mexican migration to the US prior to World War II occurred when Congress passed the xenophobic Immigration Act of 1924 that targeted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, President Taft sought to direct it in a way that continued to benefit American investments in Mexico. The best way to do this was to continue support for the candidacy of Porfirio Diaz in the election of 1910. However, Mexico had suffered especially hard in the global economic crisis that preceded World War I and the political position of Diaz had become untenable. Despite his “victory” in the corrupt election of 1910, liberal and radical forces emerged that overwhelmed the regime. It did not help that the cost of his state-sponsored 80th birthday party exceeded the payments to the entire annual national education budget in that year.
When Civil War broke out in Mexico, it fell on the US president to do what American presidents – especially Republicans – commonly do: support US investors at the expense of democratic movements abroad. The Mexican federal troops that were sent to put down the revolt met with general success most everywhere except in the North, where they suffered defeat at the hands of an army led by Pascual Orozco (1882-1915), a young middle class supporter of the liberal leader Francisco Madero. Orozco had become wealthy through investments in the mining industry. Fighting under Orozco’s command was the legendary, Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878-1923). For a while, Madero emerged as the victor in the early phase of the Mexican Revolution.
In a deadly example of the “Dollar Diplomacy” that characterized the foreign policy of Republican Presidents in the United States at the turn of the Twentieth Century, President Taft’s ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, conspired to assassinate Madero with one of Diaz’s generals, Victoriano Huerta (1845-1916). The US embassy thus played an active role in organizing Madero’s assassination, which occurred in Mexico City on February 22, 1913. Rather than securing US investment in Mexico, however, the assassination only served to prolong and intensify the Civil War.
The US role in the Mexican Revolution changed course When Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912. He was only the second Democrat to sit in the Oval Office since the Civil War and he was much less aligned with the Wall Street elites who benefitted from foreign investment in Mexico. In a preview of the Fourteen Points that would provide the foundational ideals of US foreign policy for the remainder of the Twentieth Century, Wilson shifted support away from Huerta and toward the more moderate Venustiano Carranza (1859-1920).
After dismissing Ambassador Wilson, a bizarre event in the Gulf of Mexico would give Wilson the occasion to intervene directly in the Mexican Civil War. In April of 1914, a US naval vessel stationed off the coast of Mexico near Vera Cruz had nearly run out of gas. A small detail of sailors was sent ashore to find fuel and wandered into a restricted area. Huerta’s federal forces, which had recently been fighting in this area, detained them as a security precaution. The Mexican Army promptly released the sailors and issued an official apology. But this apology was not sufficient for the vessel’s captain, the pious Wilson, and the pacifist US Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. They demanded that the Mexicans hoist the US flag and offer it a 21-gun salute. The Huerta government agreed on the condition that the US vessel offer the Mexican flag the same respects. Wilson, however, rejected this offer on the notion that it is proper to take a salute from a government you deem illegitimate, but it is not OK to give one. Huerta refused the humiliating offer and within days the Marines landed.
President Wilson, the great advocate of national self-determination and peaceful arbitration of disputes, proceeded to kill Mexican soldiers and civilians by the hundreds. The invasion forced Huerta to move troops away from their engagements with Villa, Orozco, Carranza and General Álvaro Obregón, who at the time were all united against him. Having lost control of his major port, Veracruz, which was now under US occupation, and his northern territories, Huerta was compelled to resign in early July 1914. Huerta’s removal created a power vacuum that resulted in the division of the revolution into factions. President Wilson aligned US interests with one group in this civil war, the one led by Carranza and his principle general, Obregón.
Carranza understood well the dangers in Mexico of being perceived as too closely aligned with Uncle Sam. Mexicans not only understood the theft that had occurred in the Intervención Estadiunidoense en México in the 1840s, many had also suffered at the hands of American based mining companies, factories, and plantations with their private armies that ensured a compliant and impoverished workforce. Mexicans, like African Americans, always understood the gap between the stated ideals of the US and its practiced reality rooted in greed, corruption, and violence. Carranza nevertheless benefitted from the support of the US Marines, even as he tried to distance himself from them. A decisive battle occurred in April 1915, in which Villa’s forces suffered a defeat at the hands of Obregon, who had set up a barbed wire trap against Villa’s cavalry. Villa’s forces were severely weakened. Villa, now a desperate man who felt dishonored by the US, began making raids on Americans.
Carranza in this moment controlled the military situation but by no means the political situation. In order to garner sufficient support to assume legitimate control of the government, he gave his consent to a potentially radical constitution in 1917. The provisions of this constitution empowered the state to confiscate lands that were not being cultivated, to restore lands to the Indians and peasants that had been illegally seized, and to purchase lands and distribute them to peasants (Article 27). The constitution also provided a full labor code which included the right to organize and strike (Article 123). It prohibited the sale and distribution of Mexican national resources to foreigners. It also provided for free and obligatory secular education.
Carranza and his successors in the 1920’s did little to transform the spirit of this constitution into political reality. The position of the peasants, labor, and the role of US companies remained little changed until the mid- 1930’s. Still, the revolutionary potential of this constitution should not be overlooked. The legacy of the 1917 constitution can be seen as greater than the policies of individuals sworn to uphold it. It eventually provided for the transition of Mexico from a conservative, personal dictatorship to a one-party state that more fully embraced the political and cultural diversity of Mexican society. It further set the foundation for democratic development. This single party, originally the National Revolutionary Party (NRP), later became the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 1945 (PRI), which maintained its control over Mexican politics to the end of the Twentieth Century.
Nationalization of the railways and oil industry eliminated much of the influence of US capital in Mexico, while at the same time it expanded employment in the state sector. The general expansion of the state sector in the 1920’s and 1930’s provided another element of key support to the new regime. There were a couple of other effects of the revolution that should be mentioned. First, the mass mobilization of society in the period afforded peasants and Indians careers in the military and exposed them to a broader scope of Mexican society than they had known before. In turn, Mexicans became more aware of their diverse heritage and consciously embraced their Native and mestizo heritage in an unprecedented manner. Second, Mexican women actively engaged in the revolutionary effort. They were more than mere companions to the fighting soldiers. They were especially prominent in smuggling arms. After the revolt, with the death of nearly one out of every eight Mexicans, even a macho society had to open its door to women in a new way. Women moved into careers in business, government, and achieved greater political rights. Third, the appointment of Jose Vasconcelos as the Secretary of Public Education set a foundation for the development of rural education that addressed the issue of illiteracy that had plagued rural Mexico since the country’s independence. An advocate of secular, civic, and Pan-American values, Vasconcelos contributed to the construction of some 1,000 rural schools and 2,000 public libraries. Evidence for the success of his program is reflected in the increase in literacy rates from 24% in 1900 to 60% by 1950. While Vasconcelos was not an enthusiast of Native American cultures, he did promote mestizo identity as part of his broader Pan-American vision.
The Mexican Revolution also diminished the role of the Roman Catholic Church in politics and forced it to reframe the way it engaged society. Even though the Roman Catholic Church had been an institution that historically protected elite interests and that had held expansive wealth, it was also an institution that suffused the local culture of poor Mexicans, especially in the central-western states. The Church emerged from the revolution as one that struggled to balance its European and conservative elements with its mestizo base whose demands for justice now had institutional support in the Mexican constitution and some of its political leadership. This tension within the Roman Catholic Church would surface decades later with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Movement (UFW). The diminished role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Mexican state after the revolution also made it much easier for Mexico to resist the appeals of fascism in the years leading to World War II.
A Civil War as long as deadly as the one experienced by Mexico had the paradoxical effect of arousing further hostility and violent revenge while at the same time creating a passionate desire for peace and stability. A foundation for peace had been set, but it was a shaky one. The 1917 constitution, revolutionary in word more so than deed, provided one of the pillars essential for peace. Mexican elites had been sufficiently chastened in the course of the revolution to moderate some of the practices that had spawned the uprising.
It is also important to note that World War I likely contributed to resolving some of the economic stress that had contributed to the outbreak in the first place. Mexico’s neutrality in the Great War ensured that its oil and mineral resources could be offered to both the Allied and Central Powers. The US formally recognized the Carranza government in August 1917 so as to ensure the continued neutrality of Mexico after the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram a few months prior. As a supplier of 75% of the fuel used by British ships during the war, Mexico had immense leverage in relation to all of the Great Powers, especially the United States once it entered the war in 1917. Mexico’s neutrality clearly worked in favor of the Allied Powers during the Great War. It also set one of the foundations for Mexico’s fighting alongside the Allies during World War II.
The economic ties established between the US and Mexico during World War I carried into the 1920s. The two countries wrote amicable agreements for servicing Mexican debts to US banks and made allowances for US investment in Mexico. Despite the provisions in the Mexican Constitution limiting foreign control of Mexico’s mineral resources, US oil companies continued their development of Mexico’s fossil fuel industry. There was even a small increase in Mexican immigration to the US in the Roaring Twenties that largely coincided with the expansion of Mediterranean agriculture in California. The Immigration Act of 1924 exempted Mexico and the other countries of the Western Hemisphere from quota limitations due to the lobbying efforts of growers. These immigrants, combined with the thousands of Mexicans who fled to the US in order to avoid the horrendous violence of the Mexican Revolution, now joined the Californios in the still modest population of Mexicans in the Golden State. They, too, held a tenuous legal status in the US.
Gringo Lesson 3: Lázaro Cárdenas and the Creation of the PRI
The Great Depression dismantled the economic relationships that had emerged between Mexico and the US in the years after the Mexican Revolution. The demand for Mexican oil and minerals by US industry and consumers disintegrated after the Black Friday crash of 1929. The economic crisis that emerged in Mexico threatened to unleash a new Civil War between those inspired by the rising Fascist movements in Italy and Germany and those inclined to embrace the Marxist vision of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. The man largely responsible for averting this conflict between the extremes of Left and Right is Lázaro Cárdenas. His legacy remains as deeply entrenched in Mexico as does that of the man who performed a similar balancing act in the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Cárdenas averted the Left and Right dictatorial alternatives by carefully balancing the needs of each of the main social groups in Mexico. With the collapse of foreign export markets for agricultural goods, Cárdenas fulfilled the promise encoded in Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution allowing for the confiscation of private lands for the sake of the public good. As a result, Mexico doubled the amount of land that had been redistributed in the previous two decades. 800,000 campesinos received land claims involving approximately 44 million acres of land. Moreover, he implemented programs that financed the development of rural schools, hospitals and a program of loans issued to the communal agricultural enterprises (ejidos) that promoted the industrialization of agriculture. Industrial workers were also given rights and their relations with industrialists were mediated by the government in a way that diminished the revolutionary demands for a workers’ state on the communist model. He effectively balanced the needs of the peasants and workers with the bankers, industrialists, and military.
The distance Cárdenas’ government maintained between Mexico and conservative elements in the Roman Catholic Church buffered it against fascist influences that institutional Catholicism persistently supported at this time. While conservative Catholics supported fascism in Italy, Spain, Portugal and undermined French resistance to the looming threat of the Third Reich, Mexico became a refuge for those whose lives were threatened by the extreme right. No country in the western hemisphere understood better the significance of the Spanish Civil War for the future of representative government than Mexico. But Mexico not only appreciated the dangers of the far right. Mexico also became a refuge for those fleeing the horrors of Stalin’s purges, most famously Leon Trotsky. Unlike the United States, Mexico entertained few illusions that the threat of fascism could be contained in Europe. And, unlike the United States, Mexico under Cárdenas actively suppressed those elements in society looking to undermine it.
Gringo Lesson 4: Mexico in World War II
Mexico’s foreign policy in the 1930s is a study in the perspicacity of a nation entertaining few illusions in relation to the willingness and ability of the world’s great democratic and capitalistic powers to fight for principles. As a young Latin American country that had suffered greatly at the hands of the US and European empires, Mexico attempted to adhere to core principles of the League of Nations commitment to neutrality and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Under the Estrada Doctrine implemented in 1930s, Mexico embraced the notion that no nation had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another. Estrada Doctrine principals contributed to Mexico’s increasingly troubled relations with the Axis Powers. Mexico condemned Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. Mexico opposed both Fascist and Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War. During every step on the road to the outbreak of war, Cárdenas perceived the German threat more clearly than any of the western leaders.
It is not surprising, then, that Cárdenas managed to navigate relations with the United States in a way that ensured a full and vital role for Mexico in World War II. This relationship also required great diplomatic acuity from FDR’s administration, especially with regard to the major diplomatic crisis that occurred when Cárdenas expropriated Mexico’s oil fields from foreign companies on March 18, 1938. The specific context in which this occurred involved a labor dispute between Mexican oil workers and the Royal Dutch Shell Company in their El Aguila oil fields in Tampico. The workers used Article 123 of the 1917 Constitution to demand collective bargaining rights. When Shell refused to honor those rights, the workers appealed to the Mexican Supreme Court, where their case was upheld in judgment. When Shell and the other foreign oil interests refused to recognize the authority of the Mexican courts, Cárdenas used their violation of Mexican law as a pretext to employ Article 27, which enabled expropriations. Prior to the confiscation, however, Cárdenas had mandated a study of how the foreign oil companies operated in Mexico.
The results of the study proved that foreign oil companies derived greater profits from their Mexican oil fields than from those in other countries. In other words, Cárdenas provided compelling evidence that Mexico and its workers had been exploited from the inception of the oil industry in the 19th century. Cárdenas used the resentment of many Mexicans against foreign exploitation as an effective tool to consolidate his political base while gaining the support needed to withstand the inevitable backlash against powerful interests in the global oil industry. The nationalized oil industry in Mexico that emerged continues to operate today as PEMEX. As a reflection of the importance of this event, March 18 is a civic holiday in Mexico.
The looming specter of Nazi aggression in 1938 helped Cárdenas resolve the expropriation crisis. As the confiscation of oil fields focused principally against US oil companies, the response of those companies was immediate and severe. The companies appealed for FDR to intervene militarily. They engaged battles in US and international courts, making large claims in perpetuity. They organized a blacklist and boycott of PEMEX oil that lasted until the outbreak of the war. They also worked proactively to avert any temptation on the part of the other major oil producer, Venezuela, to follow Mexico’s lead in nationalizing the oil industry.
Gringo Lesson 5: The Good Neighbor Policy
FDR, however, did not provide significant support to the US oil industry. He rightly perceived that intervention in Mexico against Cárdenas’ program might upset the balance of forces in that country in a way that could only benefit the broader global expansion of fascism. In this sense, Mexico provides an excellent case study in the effectiveness of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy. An aggressive US posture against Mexico might not only have created chaos in Mexico, a more forceful program by FDR would most certainly have contributed to anti-Yankee feelings throughout Latin America. When Mexico declared war on the Axis Powers on March 22, 1942 it did so as a full and effective ally of the United States for the duration of the war. By contrast, Venezuela, the only other major oil producer in Latin America and one that followed the interests of global oil, maintained its neutrality in the war until February 1945.
World War II put Mexico’s relations with the US on a more constructive footing. The diplomacy of the war served to increase trust and the strengthening of economic, political, and military ties between the two countries. By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Mexico had drawn nearer to the Allies and immediately broke diplomatic relations with all of the Axis Powers. This support for the allies represented abandonment of Estrada Doctrine commitments to neutrality and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The Allies in general and the US in particular worked to gain Mexico’s cooperation in their war efforts, even though Mexico was not yet formally at war with the Axis. Mexico would enter World War II on the side of the Allies five months later on May 22, 1942, after German Uboats sank Mexican oil freighters in the Gulf of Mexico. The fact that Pearl Harbor brought the USA and USSR into full alliance in the war effort served to bridge many political divisions in Mexico between those hostile to communism and those hostile to the United States.
As the shadow of war darkened prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, cooperative military operations between Mexico and the US required settlement of the outstanding issues surrounding the nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry in 1937. Lázaro Cárdenas appreciated the political importance of Roosevelt’s tacit acceptance of the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938. In November 1941, prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR negotiated with Cárdenas’ successor, President Avila Camacho (1940-1946), a settlement favorable to Mexico in relation to the outstanding claims of American oil companies. Even though Mexico agreed to pay $40 million to settle those claims, it received in return a $40 million sum to strengthen the Mexican peso. Moreover, the US agreed to purchase Mexican silver above the world market price and provided a credit through the Export-Import Bank devoted to building Mexican infrastructure. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US and Mexico finalized terms under which Mexico would receive lend-lease aid. Mexican Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla considered this oil settlement to be “one of the most eloquent demonstrations of the spirit of the new America.” US Secretary of State Cordell Hull viewed the agreement as essential to effective cooperation with Mexico after Pearl Harbor.
Mexico’s wartime alliance with the Allies transformed its foreign policy and contributed to changes in its domestic economy, social structure, and politics. Foreign Secretary Padilla led the allied diplomatic effort in Latin America from the outset of US entry in the war. At the Rio de Janeiro Conference in January 1942, Padilla advocated the end of economic, financial, and diplomatic relations with the Axis powers. He worked to establish a fund designed to stabilize the currencies of the Allied states in the region so as to ensure the freest possible flow of essential goods between the member states. The Rio Conference also coordinated censorship as well as intelligence operations directed against the work of Axis spies, propaganda, and subversion campaigns. The Conference coordinated military programs by establishing an Inter-American Defense Board. The major accomplishment of the Rio Conference, though, was probably the determination of US support for Latin American economies in exchange for access to naval and air bases as well as a guaranteed source of raw materials necessary for US war production.
By contrast, the states most reluctant to join the fight against fascism were Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Uruguay. These states did not declare war on the Axis until February 1945, when the war was virtually over. It should be noted that after the war these four states were among the most notorious for sneaking Nazi war criminals out of Europe through “ratlines” of fascist sympathizers in the governments, militaries, and clergy of those states. These ratlines are how the major organizer of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, and the sadistic doctor, Joseph Mengele, found their way to Latin America after the war. A major player in sneaking war criminals out of Europe was Franco’s Spain.
World War II transformed Mexico’s armed forces and significant portions of its economy. It received approximately one-fifth of all moneys loaned to Latin America, second only to Brazil in terms of absolute investment. In addition to the $39 million in Lend-Lease aid, Mexico benefitted from a loan by the Export-Import bank, which represented a way for the US to assist Mexico less directly. Officials negotiated that half of the lend-lease moneys would contribute to the development of the Mexican Air Force, which prior to World War II did not exist as a separate branch of the military. From these sources, Mexico procured from the US 305 total aircraft, 52 of which were the standard P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter planes. Other loans went to build state-of-the-art factories, provide mining equipment, modernize agriculture, rehabilitate the railway system, further the highway system, create high-octane gas refineries, and enhance national security. US capital modernized many factories in Mexico that would continue to produce goods after the war. US technicians helped Mexicans advance mining and refining techniques for such key minerals as mercury, zinc, and copper. The opportunities for work in advanced industry also contributed to the expansion of educational opportunities and a better health care system. Access to US markets secured Mexico’s ability to pay off the lend-lease debts. In addition to the metals already mentioned, there was high demand for Mexican oil, textiles, and construction materials throughout the war.
As a result of the expansion and enhanced training of the Mexican military during the war, the Mexican Army relinquished its direct ties to the single-party that dominated Mexican politics for most of the twentieth century, the PRI. In this way, the military assumed a less political, more professional identity. This reflected the modern state’s quest for generals who would be accountable to civilian authority. While it would be improper to claim that Mexico has fully subordinated its military to civilian authority, Mexico has clearly not suffered from the problem of caudillos (military dictators) that had characterized its own past or that have come to plague other states throughout Latin America to the present.
The United States benefitted as well from its wartime investment into Mexico. In addition to the aforementioned diplomatic services rendered by Foreign Secretary Padilla, raw materials, and manufactured goods essential to military operations, the US negotiated basing agreements that secured both Pacific and Caribbean access to the vital operations of the Panama Canal. In the waning months of the war, Mexico provided 300 trained airmen belonging to Squadron 201, which was attached to the 58th fighter group of the US Air Force. These “Aztec Eagles” assisted US and Filipino infantry operations in the Pacific War. Further contributions to the military effort involved 500,000 Mexican citizens enlisting in the US army who, in many cases, were migrant workers who had either been born in Mexico or who had lived in the US for two or three generations. The Mexican veterans in the US army qualified for US citizenship at the end of the war, thereby contributing to a major moment in the transformation of the social and ethnic character of the US. The experience of World War II thus helped to heal many of the wounds that the US had inflicted on relations with Mexico in previous generations.
Still, World War II created social, political, and economic patterns that exacerbated the divisions within Mexico. While the modernization of Mexican industry through collaboration with US investment provided a much-needed diversification to the Mexican economy, it did so in a way that further benefitted urban elites at the expense of rural masses. The wealth and education gaps between the elites and masses grew in a way that undermined the balanced corporatism sought by Cárdenas in the 1930s. An industrial and corporate Mexican elite tied to US and other foreign investment re-emerged, imposing an element of the Porfiriato onto the superstructure of the PRI. The multitude of state workers, who still controlled the mechanisms of authority that determined industrial policy, were paid generally modest salaries in unstable pesos. The rivers of powerful US dollars flowing into Mexican industry made it increasingly difficult for state workers to resist the temptation of bribery. This type of venality operated in relation to the military as well. While World War II theoretically removed the Mexican Army from a direct role in the government, many of its operations and economic activities took place outside of the effective control of civilian authority. World War II thus initiated some of the corruption that would eventually come to characterize Mexico in the years that followed.
Gringo Lesson 6: Braceros
The Bracero Program (1942-1964), which negotiated provisional residency to Mexican workers to fill wartime labor needs in agriculture, transportation, and industry, provided the third and by far the largest wave of Mexican immigration to the US prior to the 1990s. Wartime and post-war opportunities had rescued Dust Bowl immigrants from the hardships of field labor so well-depicted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The war transformed the workforce on the larger farms of the SJV into one that was almost exclusively second-generation Mexican immigrants, Filipino immigrants, and Braceros. Because of the legal limbo of Braceros, growers could easily abuse them. Moreover, the Braceros enormously complicated the ability of farmworkers to effectively organize. When Cesar Chavez created the United Farmworkers, the term “United” represented efforts to consolidate existing organizations of Filipino American and Mexican American fieldworkers. These workers understandably viewed the Braceros as part of an effort to artificially expand the supply and thereby lower the value of farmworkers at a time when most other workers’ wages and benefits had increased due to expanded unionization under the Wagner Act of the New Deal. As a result, one of the biggest challenges of the UFW was how to address the presence of these Braceros in the fields. Any Bracero who joined with other workers to demand better wages and conditions might be denied papers after grower complaints to local law enforcement. There was no easy way for Cesar Chavez to heal these rifts. Over the more than twenty-year course of this program, it became a lifeline for many of the Braceros who were bridging the opportunities offered in the US and the poverty that prevailed in the Mexican countryside.
For a variety of reasons, Mexico did not benefit from the post-war recovery as well as some of the European states that had been devastated in the war. Mexico suffered from internal weaknesses, a global economic system in which less-developed states had to operate in an order defined by the wealthier ones, and the priority that the US gave to European recovery in the post-war economic order. Latin American countries in general and Mexico in particular did not benefit from Marshall Plan assistance.
Mexico aspired to build the industrial capacity and infrastructure necessary to compete in global markets on equal footing with the established industrial powers. In order to do so, state planners believed that the best strategy would be to protect nascent industries from global competition by placing high tariffs on agricultural and industrial imports until the quality of Mexican goods reached global standards. The program to build roads, dams, communication infrastructure, ports, electricity networks, and irrigation systems required not only massive funding, but a multitude of engineers, planners, and accountants to oversee these projects. The imposition of import tariffs in the context of global recovery elicited inflation for workers and those on fixed salaries. The tariffs also served to further advantage those farmers producing for major urban markets while neglecting those in the small peasant communities that were largely oriented to subsistence production. In this way, Mexican development in the 1950s further advantaged the urban financial and educated elites that had flourished during the war. The rift grew ever wider between rich and poor. The PRI increasingly favored those aligned with finance and industry. The Bracero program in the 1950s thus became an outlet for those most neglected in the emerging Mexican order and a vital buffer for Mexico against social unrest. The patterns shaping the crisis, however, were emerging.
Despite improvements in rural education, infectious disease eradication, and nutrition, economic growth could not keep up with the demands of a burgeoning population. In the fifty-year period after World War II, during which the population of the US went from 159 million to 258 million, Mexico’s population grew from 28 million to 100 million. In other words, while the US population did not even double, Mexico’s more than tripled. This shows the success of the health and nutrition programs Mexico implemented in the decades after the revolution. It should be noted that FDR’s then Vice President Henry Wallace coordinated a program that led to ending the severe malnutrition that had resulted in high infant and child mortality rates in Mexico. Norman Borlaug furthered this program by developing a dwarf wheat strain in Mexico that became the basis for the Green Revolution that helped diminish global famine. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for this brilliant work. The burgeoning population in Mexico, however, outstripped the ability of the economy to absorb it. Population growth persisted most intensively in the countryside, where total fertility rates remained high due to the long-held perceptions that children are economically beneficial. It is a well-established fact that fertility rates decline as women achieve the empowerment of economic opportunity and education. This empowerment remains a challenge in many areas of Mexico. Thus even as certain conditions in Mexico improved, the need for Mexican labor in US fields persisted on both sides of the border.
Gringo Lesson 7: The Return to Dollar Diplomacy and Neo-liberalism
While the Truman Administration prioritized Europe at the end of World War II, US disregard for both Mexico and Latin America became especially pronounced during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower abandoned the idea that the US could play a role in helping Latin American governments address the economic problems that contributed to the severe social and political crises many of them faced. His foreign relations with the region reverted to the core features of “Dollar Diplomacy” that had sustained dictatorial regimes in the region for decades prior to the Great Depression. The region would have to prove its worthiness for US investment by upholding an austerity that ensured the mass populations of the regions would remain poor, dependent, and undemocratic.
Most illustrative of this failure of US policy in the region was the overthrow of the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala in 1954. Arbenz’s election represented the desire of the Guatemalan population to reduce the longstanding exploitation of their country by the United Fruit Company (UFC). Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, had both served as legal representatives for the UFC in its various dealings with the “banana republics” of Guatemala and Honduras. The 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala reestablished repressive structures in that state and reinforced the ones already existing in Honduras.
It is important to fully appreciate the utterly destructive role the US has played in Central America in order to understand the dimensions of the current immigration crisis. The desperate flight of refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador defines the current crisis on the US-Mexico border. United Fruit has rebranded itself as Chiquita in order to disassociate itself from this disturbing legacy. The elements of US sponsored repression, however, remain the same.
Gringo Lesson 8: Project Pedro and Operation Wetback
In the 1950s, Mexico was much too big and powerful to be treated in the same crude way as the US treated the banana republics. While Mexico did not openly condemn the covert US operation in Guatemala, it did provide exile to both Arbenz and a then 25-year-old Ernesto Ché Guevara, who had fought in support of the Arbenz government. Since the end of the Revolution, Mexico maintained a distance from the Red Scare obsessions promulgated by its neighbor to the North.
American influence in Mexico operated in a less direct manner. The most representative effort of the Eisenhower administration to influence domestic policy in Mexico was a covert propaganda campaign of the US Information Agency (USIA) known by its quaintly racist title, Project Pedro. Project Pedro was a series of newsreels shown in Mexican cinemas that portrayed the horrors of communism to filmgoers. The Coca-Cola and Corona corporations underwrote some of the production costs of these newsreels. These two corporations in some ways represent the growing rural and urban divide in Mexico. These corporate icons of consumer culture reflected the relatively small but very influential urban elites emerging at the top of Mexico’s economic structure. The single-party state apparatus of the PRI was growing increasingly close to the global investment community and distanced itself from the more balanced political model established by Lázaro Cárdenas. Mexico was on the road to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
While moviegoers in Mexico were being fed propaganda with their popcorn courtesy of the two beverage companies, the Bracero program defined much of US policy toward that vast bulk of Mexican society that still lived in rural communities. The Bracero program had benefitted both the United States and Mexico in many ways. US farms received a compliant and inexpensive labor force that continued to have value even after the war ended. For Mexico, the braceros created a consistent source of remittances in US dollars that would add to the foreign currency reserves needed to purchase capital goods abroad. Most importantly, the remittances supplemented the meagre incomes of families still living a largely subsistence existence in rural Mexico.
For both states, however, the bracero program created a chaotic border environment that was difficult to control. Increasing numbers of registered and undocumented workers found their way across the border, as population growth, mechanization, and the erosion of subsistence agriculture forced many of the poorest Mexicans off of their lands. Many US growers in border states circumvented the application process in the bracero program, resulting in increasing numbers of immigrants with no formal documentation. The bracero program continued to grow exponentially even after the war that warranted it had ended. Documented immigration under the program continued to grow from its war time peak of 62,000 in 1944 to its post-war peak of 445,000 in 1956. It is unclear how much undocumented immigration occurred.
There were thus three groups contending for the services of Mexican rural labor in the 1950s. On the one hand were those who continued to play by the somewhat perverse rules of legal temporary immigration provided by the Bracero program. There were those agricultural interests in the US who circumvented this legal process by recruiting their own workforce in Mexico. Finally, there were agricultural interests in Mexico who were complaining about the shortages of reliable labor created by the movement of migrant workers northward. It was these Mexican interests that largely persuaded the Eisenhower administration to assert the first major post-war crackdown on the border. The 1954 legislation for the program known as “Operation Wetback” had the additional appeal of the racism that is never far below the surface of politics in the USA.
Implementation of “Operation Wetback” anticipated well the cruelty and hypocrisy of the border policy of the current Republican president. One can only imagine the frustration of a Mexican migrant worker who on the one hand has to process documentation with a Mexican government prone to exploiting their vulnerabilities, a US government pressured by ag interests to keep a large flow of cheap labor coming, and US growers circumventing legal regulations on both sides of the border to ensure a fully dependent and vulnerable workforce. Generations of corrido singers have probed the Kafkaesque hypocrisy and inhumanity of the privileged on both sides of the border who simultaneously exploit and condemn the workforce that sustains them.
A somewhat paradoxical situation arose in the 1950s during which the Bracero program of legal immigration continued to grow expansively while the numbers of deportations expanded as well. Operation Wetback thus did little to ease the border confusion, but it did create a militarized Border Patrol that frequently operated outside the parameters of legality itself. Documented workers and even US citizens were deported as a result of racial profiling. Deportees were often sent away without notification of family, the right to gather property, and to arbitrary destinations far from their homes in Mexico. Deportations were often cruel, resulting in starvation as migrant farmworkers were deported to places far from their homes and with no provisions for food or water.
Thanks in large part to the Fourteenth Amendment and the process of naturalization, the Bracero program set the foundation for a persistent growth in the legal Mexican and Mexican-American immigrant community in California. However, the numbers of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, would remain relatively small until the 1980s. It is the massive expansion of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s that explains the current immigration challenges. The political and economic “push” factors driving so many Mexicans and Central Americans from their homes emerged distinctly in the 1980s. These “push” factors need to be understood if there is to be a just resolution to the present challenges.
Higher and thicker walls, the grotesque militarization of the Border Patrol and ICE, child separation policies and other horrific cruelties at the border concentration camps will not stop the flow of people fleeing the despair in their own homelands. It is the refusal of the US to address the despair, especially that which has been caused by US policies, that will ensure that a desperate people will continue to do whatever is necessary to extract themselves from a desperate situation. The story of this despair has much to do with the price of oil, but it also has a lot to do with the emergence of an economic theory known as neoliberalism, or what Mexicans know as Porfirismo.
Gringo Lesson 9: The Road to NAFTA
The crisis that emerged in the 1980s and persists to this day expresses the failure of US policy in Central America to address the longstanding injustices in the social, political, and economic systems that the US has underwritten. In the entirety of post-war US policy in the region, there has only been one effort to address these structural problems, John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress (AFP). The AFP correctly asserted that the maldistribution of wealth in Central America also represented a maldistribution of political power. It further stressed that US policy should be directed toward upholding standards of political behaviors that represent the highest ideals of the founding vision of our country. Kennedy framed the program on the following: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
When Lyndon Johnson immediately abandoned the AFP after the assassination of JFK in November 1963, he established cycles of repression, corruption, poverty, and despair that have defined most of the countries in the region ever since. LBJ placed Thomas Mann in charge of the program and the Mann Doctrine was little other than a return to the “Dollar Diplomacy” that established the definitive role of US investment. Mann embraced the economic theory of neoliberalism as defined by Chicago School economists and Eugene Rostow. The essence of this neoliberalism is that poor countries should work to attract foreign investment by removing regulatory restrictions and stabilizing currencies through strict monetary policies. The strict monetary policies meant that states should promote austerity that limited contributions to programs that would enhance education, health, housing, and sanitation.
Using the language of neoliberalism, low wage labor provided a comparative advantage for these countries that would attract investment if financiers perceived the requisite price and political stability. Political and social reform be damned. Unfettered markets, according to this theory, would establish the foundations of wealth and infrastructure essential to the establishment of liberal democracies. This fetish for markets has yet to produce dividends for the vast majority of Central Americans, who continue to suffer at the hands of militarized regimes whose armies have been sponsored and trained by the US taxpayer.
As a testament to both the strength of the institutions created by the Mexican Revolution and the limits it placed on US and other foreign influence, Mexico has largely avoided the lapse into dictatorship that characterized most of the rest of Central America during the Cold War. The persistent pattern of dictatorship operating throughout Latin America during this period expressed the power of wealthy elites colluding with the military and conservative Catholics. The Mexican Constitution had constrained all three of these pernicious forces. Still, the power of neoliberalism infused the political culture of Mexico, culminating in the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. For the US, NAFTA expressed victory of principals in the Cold War. The road to NAFTA, however, is a complicated one whose course needs to be examined in order to understand the sources of the current immigration crisis more fully.
Gringo Lesson 10: 1968
The year 1968 was a transitional year whose crises operated at various scales and whose features parallel many of those that have emerged in 2020. In the US, the year began with the Tet Offensive at the end of January. This event proved to the public that much of what they had been told about US military success in the war was a lie which would later be documented with the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. (Thank you, again, Lynda Resnick.) In February, the Kerner Commission report detailed the profound racial divide in the country that had resulted in riots and looting in many cities throughout the country. In March, tens of thousands of Latinx students in California walked off of their high school campuses in protest against discrimination in education, particularly in the many school districts that denied even the best Latinx students access to classes and programs that would allow them entry into the state’s universities. On March 31, Lyndon Johnson announced that he was not going to run for re-election as part of his efforts to negotiate withdrawal from the Vietnam War. Four days later, a white supremacist assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., after years of his having been terrorized by a corrupted FBI under the misrule of J. Edgar Hoover. Two months later to the day, Robert F. Kennedy, who had worked closely with the United Farm Workers, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago devolved into a street fight whose resort to violence was ordered by the Democratic Mayor, Richard J. Daley, and carried out by the Illinois National Guard. In November, Richard Nixon won the presidency on a campaign that claimed to represent law and order, the “Silent Majority,” and that had falsely asserted a secret plan that would win the war in Vietnam.
1968 was also a fateful year for Mexico. The expansion of foreign investment in Mexico in the decades since World War II had elevated those elements tied to banking and finance within the governing apparatus of the PRI. The crisis that emerged in Mexico paralleled similar trends throughout Latin America but did not result in the dictatorships that persisted or were emerging in US-backed regimes such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Mexico avoided dictatorship due to the courage of many and the institutional stability created by the Revolution. Among those at the forefront of courageous action were doctors, teachers, railway workers, and university students, especially those students at the National Autonomous University (NAU) of Mexico.
The students organized the National Strike Council (CNH). Despite CNH efforts to maintain peaceful protests against police repression and the imprisonment of political opponents to the PRI, the government brutally suppressed the student-led protests. The students defended themselves against these attacks, spawning a cycle of violence that resulted in an October police crackdown that has come to be known as the Tlateloco massacre.
A quick aside because this is so relevant to current issues. All of this took place in the context of the honor bestowed upon Mexico as host of the 1968 Summer Olympics, whose most memorable event was the raising of the black gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the playing of the US national anthem. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage revoked their medals soon thereafter because he deemed the fist-raising an unacceptable political statement. Thirty-two years earlier, however, he had sanctioned the Nazi salute in the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an acceptable expression of nationalism despite its clear affront to the Olympic ideal.
The Mexican President (Gustavo Díaz Ordaz) and his Interior Secretary and successor (Luis Echeverría) almost certainly provoked violence as a way of promoting the illusion of stability to the foreigners who would flock to the Olympics. They had established a special contingent in the federal police force specifically devoted to securing order in the context of the 1968 Olympics. The Olympia Battalion had infiltrated and provoked violence in a way reminiscent of how the FBI was operating in relation to student protest groups in the US at this same time. In a disgraceful display of Mexican media complicity, the official version of events at the time was accepted without question. It was only in 2001 that investigations revealed the role of the Presidential Guard and the Olympia Battalion, operating under the orders of President Ordaz, in inciting the violence. While final numbers are difficult to obtain, the deaths may number in the hundreds and the arrests in the thousands. Many students were placed in helicopters and thrown into the Gulf of Mexico to their deaths. The evidence revealed in 2001 resulted in the arrest of then Interior Minister Luis Echeverria on genocide charges. The crisis of 1968 thus showed the deeply rooted and systemic corruption that had emerged in Mexico. The components of that crisis remain as factors that continue to operate in Mexico.
In contrast to other Latin American countries, however, this was the closest Mexico would come to a dictatorship. While it would be mistaken to diminish the levels of violence perpetrated by the state in the Tlateloco student massacre, the levels of repression involved did not approach that of the so-called “Dirty Wars” of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. This is at least in part due to the limited role of the military that had been structured into the reforms of Lazaro Cardenas’ reshaping of the Mexican political order. Civilian control of the military and the dispersion of political power through an array of agencies closely tied to the government has prevented the capacity for any segment of the military working in conjunction with any civilian leader to assume control. While the US had collaborated with the Mexican Army during the Cold War, the long-term legacy of “Gringo” intervention in Mexico limited the ability of the US to operate as directly in Mexico as it did elsewhere in Latin America.
The shock of the 1968 massacre mobilized various sectors of Mexican society, thereby creating institutions of civil engagement that contributed to the ultimate emergence of Mexico as a multi-party and more democratic state. The student leftist movement survived the repression and provided a foundation for the emergence of the socialist candidacy of Lazaro Cardenas’ son, Cuauhtémoc. Anger over the failure to address long-standing grievances in the agricultural sector fed the rise of a militant peasant movement in southern Mexico that eventually organized under the banner of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The crisis also initiated new organizations advocating women’s rights and a greater role for women in Mexican political discourse. The crisis within the PRI further opened opportunities for new civic organizations of the business community. These organizations would ultimately provide the foundation upon which the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) would emerge. The role of the church would also increase. Part of the church would align with the emerging conservative forces ultimately affiliated with the PAN. Other elements of the church would identify the church’s mission with the poor, contributing thereby to that movement in the church that came to be known as “Liberation Theology.” Moreover, it should be noted that electoral reforms undertaken in 1966 had contributed to the creation of a Federal Electoral Institute that oversaw a voting process less-aligned with the PRI and that provided public funding for all parties that qualified. It would, however, take decades of economic hardship for these democratic movements to effectively challenge the PRI.
Gringo Lesson 11: Mexico and The Global Debt Crisis
The debt crisis that Mexico and other Latin American countries faced in the last two decades of the Twentieth Century originated with the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. The embargo more than quadrupled the price of gas at the pump over the course of the next year. While the increased price of oil brought devastating inflation to the US and world economy, it also directed massive flows of dollars to the OPEC countries. It was at this key moment when many OPEC states and their wealthy sheikhs placed this newfound wealth into the global banking system. In short, money flowed from the pockets of consumers and businesses into the OPEC states. In turn, the OPEC states returned the money to Wall Street in a defining moment of the globalization of finance.
The American dollar had already been in decline when Nixon shocked the world by unilaterally cancelling its direct convertibility as prescribed at the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944. The 1973 embargo and 1978 Iranian revolution exacerbated the dollar’s decline. The world nevertheless continued to revolve around the US currency as oceans of dollars flowed from the OPEC states into US based banks. The banks, in turn, viewed Latin American countries as relatively attractive investment venues despite the general sluggishness of a global economy suffering under stagflation. As interest rates on loans lagged behind the declining value of the dollar, banks had continued incentives to loan and states had continued incentives to borrow. This vicious cycle came to a sudden end, however, when the weak dollar became strong again.
On October 6, 1979 Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker raised the federal funds rate to its highest point in history, a move which ended the double-digit inflation in the US, massively increased unemployment in a way that likely cost Jimmy Carter a second term as president, and transformed the cheap dollars borrowed by Mexico and other developing countries into expensive dollars that would be extraordinarily difficult to repay. In the course of the 1980s, governments in developing countries undertook programs of severe austerity in order to remain in the good graces of the World Bank and other global financial institutions. At the behest of the IMF, Latin American governments reduced social, educational, health care, and welfare programs. The poorest of the poor in those countries invariably suffered the most.
Predictably, the further impoverishment of Mexico and Central America in the context of the debt crisis intensified migration into the United States. Total Latinx migration into the US increased from around 2.5 million in the 1970s to 5 million in the 1980s and peaked at 10 million in the 1990s. While the bulk of Latinx immigrants coming to the US in these decades came from Mexico, increasing numbers were coming from other countries in Central America. The debt crisis in Central America further divided the wealthy elites from the impoverished multitudes, sparked social and political unrest in the region, and contributed to the rise of various illicit activities tied to the drug cartels, whose magnificent wealth spread corruption on both sides of the US-Mexican border.
The driving forces for emigration bore most heavily on those people who lived in the “banana republics”’ most closely aligned with US investment and Cold War militarization. Countries such as El Salvador and Honduras became venues of nightmarish police repression and exploitation at a time when the US was scolding the Soviet Union for its lack of human rights and democratic norms in the Eastern Bloc. The Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a product of US military training and evangelical friend of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, collaborated with the conservative Catholic William J. Casey’s CIA and the Israeli Army to undertake the annihilation of that country’s Mayan population. Genocide is ecumenical. The impunity of these Central American militaries are the foundation of lawlessness and corruption that has enabled the drug trade, its correlated gangs, and the flow of refugees northward.
The cartels define all illicit activity coming across the border, and the notion that a higher, longer wall will meaningfully diminish that activity is absurd. The further militarization of the border by various US agencies has only enhanced the value of the criminal “services” provided by the cartels to desperate populations fleeing the horrors of their circumstances. The coyotes who smuggle undocumented workers across the border are free to charge ever higher prices to desperate refugees, who might be forced to defray those costs by carrying drugs.
The cartels have corrupted law enforcement on both sides of the US border. In the 1980s, Oliver North directed a CIA operation that used proceeds from cocaine smuggling to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, a story covered in the 2014 film Kill the Messenger based on the book by San Jose Mercury journalist Gary Webb. Moreover, there are other aspects to the drug trade that go beyond their flow into the United States. The cartels rely upon easy access to high powered weapons easily obtained in the US, courtesy of the gun lobby here. The cartels also benefit from lax oversight of banking laws that allows for the easy laundering of their funds into the global finance system. Indeed, one of the venues for such money laundering is the Trump Ocean Club in Panama. (This, however, is only one of many such money laundering schemes that helps explain why Trump has resisted the release of his taxes so fiercely.) The point is that rot, criminality, and corruption have permeated both sides of the border and it spreads from top to bottom. The fact that not every economic and political refugee coming north across the border has the highest regard for the legal and constitutional order the US purportedly represents is not a matter of disrespect, it is an expression of their sober realism in the face of a nightmarish reality.
Corruption of Mexico vacillated to extremes leading up to the 1994 passage of NAFTA. In 1990, a California court convicted former president Luis Echeverria’s brother-in-law, Ruben Zuno Arce, for his role in the 1985 murder of a US federal agent investigating the Guadalajara drug cartel. 1988 witnessed a stolen election in the context of increased political and economic polarization, as wealthy Mexicans moved money into foreign bank accounts whenever the government attempted to loosen austerity measures by increasing the supply of pesos. In 1994, elements of the PRI leadership were certainly involved in the murder of the reformist candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Perhaps most telling was the collaboration between Echeverria and the first non-PRI president, Vicente Fox (2000-2006). The collaboration resulted in the appointment of numerous Echeverria allies to high positions in the Fox government.
The challenges posed by the economic crisis of the last two decades of the Twentieth Century continued to unravel the elements of the PRI coalition state that had operated in Mexico since the Great Depression. The emergence of a more representative, competitive, and fair electoral system derived from a variety of short-term and long-term developments. The negotiations for the NAFTA also required that Mexico implement a more transparent electoral process. The first election in which the PRI actually stood a chance of losing, however, did not occur until the year 2000, when the internal crisis in Mexico had a real potential for reigniting the fires of the Mexican Revolution a century before.
Gringo Lesson 12: NAFTA
In the 1980s lead up to NAFTA, Mexico undertook a rigorous program of currency stabilization by strengthening the peso through increased interest rates for loans and curtailment of government spending. The peso, however, could not be as easily rescued as the US dollar under Paul Volcker. Mexico’s austerity only exacerbated social tensions and economic decline. It resulted in higher unemployment, a more than forty percent drop in real wages, a decline in stock values, massive emigration, and a flight of capital out of Mexico. GDP fell to an abysmal .1% in the six years prior to the election of 1988.
By the Presidential election year of 1988, Mexico was in a deep crisis. The 1980s disaster created an array of forces in Mexico that stood in opposition to the defining role of the World Bank, the IMF, and ultimately the terms of the NAFTA agreement advocated by the regional and global forces promoting it. When the political leadership of the PRI embraced the developmental model of the “Washington Consensus,” it abandoned major segments of Mexican society. The delegitimized political model of the PRI spawned the rise of independent labor organizations, increased operations of non-governmental groups concerned with a host of social and environmental issues, raised an increasingly vocal women’s movement, and spawned a permanent guerrilla movement in southern Mexico that evoked the memory of Emiliano Zapata. While no organized movement effectively unified an opposition to the array of organizations that emerged from this fracturing the PRI, it took a fraudulent election in 1988 to avert a revival of the Cardenas legacy.
The 1988 presidential election simultaneously represented the deep corruption within the Mexican political system while opening the way to the end of the single-party rule of the PRI and an opportunity for greater democratic expression. The crisis within the PRI came to a head when Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, the son of Lazaro, organized the leftist elements within the PRI party. Cardenas’ activity within the PRI directly challenged the party elites, whose preferred candidate was Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994). The struggle between the Cardenas’ leftist faction and the technocratic Salinas faction forced Cardenas’ supporters out of the party, as the combined power of businessmen, bankers, and their bureaucratic acolytes made it impossible for Cardenas to operate within the framework of the party created by his father. Cardenas attempted to organize a presidential campaign outside of the PRI but was unable to form a new party in time for the July elections. He nevertheless ran a campaign which garnered the support of various regional and local organizations.
The legitimacy of the 1988 election that secured the victory of Salinas will always be disputed. The specific reason why the election can be doubted is that the IBM computer system used to count the votes crashed. The “system crash” of the computers played a metaphoric role in the minds of Cardenas’ supporters. There is no doubt that Mexico might have fallen into a renewed period of violence had Cardenas called on his supporters to reject the various aspects of the election that secured Salinas’ victory. Like his father, however, he rejected a revolutionary solution to Mexico’s many problems. Instead he worked to create a political party, the PRD, which represents a left alternative in many regions of Mexico and has aligned its interests with the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. Why the PRD has failed in subsequent elections is a complex question. The PRD’s misfortunes, however, are also the product of victimization, with many of its leaders under active and real threat of injury or death, as reported by Human Rights Commission reports.
The shock to the Mexican political and economic system reached its peak in 1994. The 1994 election occurred soon after NAFTA had been signed on January 1 of that year. On that same day, the Zapatista uprising broke out in Chiapas. The guerrillas undertook their effective campaign in response to the threat they felt NAFTA posed in relation to their communal rights in particular and indigenous rights in general. Two months later, the leading candidate of the PRI party for President, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated in a crime that remains unsolved and raises similarities to the John F. Kennedy assassination. Many in Mexico feel that elements inside the PRI arranged the killing because of the reformist sentiment that Colosio represented. Colosio campaigned against PRI privilege and the corruption that many officials in Mexico practiced in collusion with the drug lords. Colosio’s assassination, rather than expressing the hopelessness of Mexico’s situation, inspired new levels of civic engagement. Voter turnout in the August election was 78%, high by the standards of any democratic state. (The 2016 turnout of US voters, by contrast, was 58%.) Despite the general context of political and economic calamity, the PRI emerged victorious.
The PRI success in this election was due to a variety of factors. A general quest for stability certainly motivated many Mexicans going to the polls in August. Internal strife within the PRD and a general perception that it had drawn too close to militants such as the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas reduced the support for Cuauhtémoc Cardenas from his surprising showing six years earlier. The PAN, by contrast, was likely hurt by its association with NAFTA and the lack of a compelling message that distinguished it much from the PRI. The PRI also benefitted from the candidacy of Ernesto Zedillo, who conveyed a sincere commitment for reform to a public desperate for such. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the PRI continued to benefit from its dominant position in relation to media, campaign financing, and favoritism it held in relation to its control at various levels of government.
Zedillo fulfilled many of his promises on political reform. One of the factors of the democratization process promoted by Zedillo was the furtherance of federalism. Governors were granted greater autonomy in addressing the needs of their constituents. The states thus became partners with the central government. This decentralization of the Mexican political order allowed states to provide a testing-ground for innovations in social and economic policy. Zedillo’s democratic reforms extended as well to the internal procedures of the PRI. He created a presidential primary process similar to that run in the United States in order to limit the power of party officials in determining the party’s presidential candidates. Other realms of reform were even more fundamental, restructuring the operations of all three branches of government. Provisions for the public financing of campaigns reduced the corrupting power of the cartels and the financial elites.
Zedillo led changes in the operations of the judiciary designed to reduce the structural incentives for corruption in that branch. The maximum term for a federal judge was reduced to fifteen years, even less for those who exceeded the age of retirement. All appointees to the Mexican Supreme Court must receive a 2/3rds vote in the Mexican Senate. (It should be noted that in the most recent US Supreme Court appointment, Republicans violated traditional procedures to secure the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh on a 51-49 vote.) The Mexican Supreme Court, in other words, represents a much broader swath of judicial philosophy than the Koch-molded tools smuggled onto the court by the machinations of Mitch McConnell.
Soon after the key election of 1994, US banks compelled a major devaluation of the peso as a precondition for further loans. The resultant inflation tripled the cost-of-living and hit wage workers and those on fixed salaries especially hard. This imposed inflationary currency devaluation contributed as much to the subsequent emigration as much as did the flood of corn coming into Mexico tied to the provisions of NAFTA. The decade of the 1990s subsequently became the defining one for Mexican immigration to the US, with nearly half of the twelve million immigrants that came in the years from 1980 to 2020 crossing the border in those ten years.
Gringo Lesson 13: Assessing NAFTA
In order to garner the internal support necessary to further the implementation of the free trade program, President Zedillo created an informal alliance with the conservative PAN. NAFTA culminated Mexico’s movement toward the neoliberal order that emerged as the dominant global force at the end of the Cold War. NAFTA intended to stimulate growth in key sectors of the regional economy that would employ the principles of comparative advantage. Mexico’s advantage largely resided in its large pools of labor whose lower costs would provide enhanced profits for manufacturers like the US auto industry. The free flow of investment across borders would create industrial jobs in Mexico that would ultimately raise wages, thereby creating a growing body of consumers in Mexico that could purchase the high-tech goods and various services of the more advanced economies of Canada and the United States. The three signatories to NAFTA hoped to create an integrated economic region that could compete with the European Union and similarly emerging Asian regional organizations. For Mexico, signing NAFTA represented something of a return to the market operations that had prevailed a century earlier as well as a decided move away from Latin American economic blocks such as Mercosur.
NAFTA, however, was not intended as an exclusionary organization. Before Mexico undertook this treaty with the US and Canada, it had approached Western European states as a primary source of investment capital. The European Union member states instead dedicated their investment capital toward nations recently opened to investment in Eastern Europe. NAFTA was thus Mexico’s second choice for a prom date. Ultimately, Mexico had hoped that the growth of investment from the US and Canada would further spur capital ventures from Europe and Asia. In other words, there were both competitive and cooperative dimensions to NAFTA as a regional economic bloc.
The method for achieving these goals was to eliminate as soon as possible all restrictions on the flow of capital, goods, and services across the three borders. In order for Mexico to attract investment, it had to eliminate state controls on banking and insurance so as to integrate the financial services sector between the three countries. Similarly, the three countries negotiated the amalgamation of the booming telecommunications industry that was developing in conjunction with rapid technological advances in satellite communications and data processing. Total elimination of trade barriers was to take place within fifteen years. Protectionism remained especially strong, at least initially, in the agricultural realm.
Because the rural population of Mexico remained so large, there was great concern that a sudden influx of US corn would cause severe disruption among the thirty percent of Mexico whose livelihood depended on small farms. As a result, NAFTA exempted only 50% of agricultural goods from tariffs and quotas. In exchange for limits on Mexican imports of corn and beans, the US received protection from competition with Mexican sugar and oranges. The agreement implemented similar temporary protections in the automobile industry so as to avoid a massive movement of parts production south of the US border. The provisions of NAFTA also included opportunities for US oil producers to invest in and coordinate refining operations with PEMEX. While PEMEX retained its position as a national asset of the Mexican people, the degree to which PEMEX has integrated its interests with those of the world’s major oil companies is increasingly evident.
Whether NAFTA has helped or hurt Mexico is a complicated question whose answer fits the general pattern created in most neo-liberal regimes. Mexico rapidly emerged as the second largest trading partner with the US, behind only Canada. As such, it supplanted the role of Japan in US trade and increasingly assumed many of the roles that Japan had played in the US economy, especially in relation to the automobile industry and light electronics. Moreover, trade between the US and Mexico exceeded the combined trade value between the US and China, Korea, and Singapore. Within the first decade of NAFTA, US exports to Mexico increased by nearly $100 billion, and Mexico’s exports to the US increased by nearly $120 billion. Additionally, Mexico’s GDP rose during the first decade of NAFTA (1995-2005) from approximately $7000 to around $14,000. Mexico, moreover, is far more dependent on NAFTA than is the US, even though the benefits have been largely reciprocal. While 80 percent of Mexico’s exports of merchandise go to the US, accounting for 25% of Mexican GDP, those same exports only represent 1% of US GDP. Two-fifths of the components on those exports, though, are made in the US. Mexico, conversely, represents 13% of the market for all US exports, ranking alongside China and Canada as the largest US export markets.
NAFTA has clearly contributed to the modernization of Mexico’s economy in several ways. Most importantly, it has created many jobs in the industrial sector that have reduced Mexico’s reliance on agriculture. Companies have also invested in the construction of factories operating in light industry and computers that have permitted secure employment for women as well as men. The first decade of NAFTA has shifted the balance of economic activities toward industry and the service sector. By 2011, agriculture accounted for 13.2 percent of the Mexican economy. Mining, manufacturing, and extractive industries accounted for 24 percent. Service sector activities such as retail, communications, transportation, and tourism accounted for 62.2 percent.
NAFTA, however, appears to have failed Mexico in its most important measures. Despite the creation of new employment and the expansion of employment sectors outside of agriculture, the jobs do not appear to have raised the market value of the workers or to have created a large demand for highly-paid skilled labor. Correlatively, Mexican demand for the more high-tech goods and the special services offered by the US and Canada has been disappointing. In other words, the real wealth generated by NAFTA has not been equitably distributed. In the first decade of NAFTA, poverty rates increased, with over one-third of the population living in deprivation. Similarly, the distribution of wealth further trended toward those best situated to benefit from the opportunities of NAFTA. The top ten percent of wealthy Mexicans controlled forty percent of income, whereas in the United States the top ten percent accounts for only twenty-five percent of income. The percentage of Mexicans considered middle class has declined since the passage of NAFTA. In 1990, 45% of Mexicans were either considered upper (6.8%) or middle (38.2%) income. Those same groupings in 2010 represented 3.0% (upper) and 32% (middle). The corresponding percentage of lower income Mexicans rose from 55% to 65%. Furthermore, over 10 percent of Mexico’s population is regarded as living in extreme poverty.
Other measures of the levels of despair in Mexico would be the correlation between the passage of NAFTA and the spike in emigration to the US. From 1990 to 2014, the number of Mexican immigrants nearly tripled from 4.3 million to 11.7 million. The immigration question has created levels of political discord between Mexico and the US that harken back to the worst periods of relations between the two countries. The mass migration of Mexicans into the US is only part of the problem created by the displacement of rural workers due to the mountains of corn that have entered Mexico since 1994. There has also been a mass movement of rural Mexicans to the peripheral regions of Mexico’s major cities, creating growing communities of slums that are tied in some instances to the underworld activities of the drug cartels. In an astounding statistic, one out of ten Mexican households depends on remittances from family members working in the US for half of its monthly household income. Immigrants send about $25 billion dollars back into the Mexican economy each year through these remittances. Were these payments to be cut off suddenly, it might create the circumstances for social unrest. It would seem that until NAFTA implements programs that better ensure the distribution of wealth generated by the new arrangements, it will never realize its vision of stable economic growth and political integrity.
A comparative examination of NAFTA with the European Union (EU) may serve to illustrate the inherent weaknesses of a neo-liberal economic model that does not effectively institute political programs that transcend the borders of the states involved. It seems paradoxical that virtually everything can flow back-and-forth across the US-Mexican border except people. While the investment banks, insurance companies, major industrial corporations, and agribusiness interests all had a place at the negotiating table for NAFTA, the legal provisions of NAFTA had no meaningful input from those groups in society who stood to lose in the economic transformation that occurred. The bi-partisan support for the agreement in the US, negotiated by the Republican George H.W. Bush and signed into law by the Democrat Bill Clinton, paralleled the support in Mexico from the leadership of the PRI as well as the PAN. NAFTA did not establish a supranational organization such as the European parliament that might address transnational problems that arose in the implementation of NAFTA. Provisions designed to protect workers’ rights and the environment are largely voluntary and applicable only in relation to national law.
The concept of comparative advantage thus only applied to investment: money may flow where the greatest returns prevail. Labor, however, cannot move across borders to where wages are highest. As long as that is the case, the workforce of Mexico, the US, and Canada will remain in a competitive relationship easily exploited by financiers and demagogic politicians looking to take political advantage of working class resentment against both the foreign competition for industrial jobs and the large, undocumented migration of workers into the US spurred by the displacements caused by NAFTA in Mexico’s rural economy. At times, NAFTA seems a perverse hybrid of the worst of supranationalism and nationalism.
However, Mexico’s relations with the US have taken a turn for the worse. In a campaign whose ultimate presidential victor stated in his first address that Mexicans are bringing drugs to our country failed to mention that our country is consuming those drugs. Also rarely considered in the US is the fact that one dollar spent on prevention is more effective than seven dollars spent on interdiction. Also rarely mentioned in the US debate on security at the Mexican border is the fact that ninety-percent of the weapons that go into Mexico that are used by the drug lords originate in the US and that $10 billion of Mexican drug money is laundered by US banks and businesses with minimal oversight.
The concern over the economic costs of undocumented workers in the US, moreover, rarely considers those costs in relation the benefits that accrue to both the US and Mexico. Instead, the last twenty years have seen the growth of a demagogic politics centered on notions of cultural exclusion, forced assimilation, and mandatory English. While such programs have failed at the state level in California’s infamous 1994 Proposition 187, the national success of such policies has shifted the scale and the dangers of this question to the federal level. The border remains a scar from the many wounds inflicted on it. It will either heal through diligent and careful treatment or fester into an infection that will not be contained.
The good news is that the hate-filled, hypocritical, xenophobic politics of the Republican Party failed miserably in California, which may provide a portent for the rest of the country. Governor Pete Wilson’s attempt to blame immigrants for draining the state budget and consequently denying them access to health care services and education triggered a powerful political response that united the state’s rapidly growing Latinx community. Not only has the Republican Party become moribund in California, the number of Latinx representatives in the state legislature has expanded exponentially. Prior to 1994, Latinxs were almost as likely to vote Republican as Democratic, whereas after 1994 they were twice as likely to vote Democratic. In 1992, 62% of Latinxs identified as Democrats but by 2000 that number had risen to 75%. Not only did Proposition 187 increase Latinx support for the Democratic Party, it spurred many to become naturalized citizens and increased the voter registration rate from 52% in 1990 to 67% in 1996. Moreover, Latinxs increased from 7% of the electorate in 1992 to 23% in 2008. The percentage of Latinxs in the State Assembly grew from about 6% in 1990 to 28% by 2018.
This long drift into the history of Mexico intended to contribute further background for more fully grasping Arax’s passionate appreciation for the experiences of Latinx immigrants in California. The Dreamt Land is an empowering book that gives voice to the voiceless and names to the anonymous. His many ventures into the small and desperately poor communities of workers who make such a valuable contribution to our food supply and economy are indispensable reminders of people too often forgotten by those of us who benefit from their labor. He takes us to their homes, their schools, their fields, their churches, their restaurants, and their tiendas. In an earlier book, West of the West, he even gets into a passenger van with Oaxacan immigrants at 4 a.m. to accompany them to the fields where they work. In short, if you do not know Huron or Brawley or Earlimart or Orange Cove, you do not know your lunch.
While reading The Dreamt Land, I also happened to watch Mark Ruffalo’s powerful film, Dark Waters. In normal times such two prophetic and disturbing works would fade into that long list of concerns that we should do something about but never do. But these are not normal times. When COVID-19 hit, it revealed how ill-prepared we are for a major catastrophe both with regard to the public’s understanding of the science as well as the social order’s capacity to cope with the consequences. Then, in the midst of pandemic, the televised murder of George Floyd brought full voice to a public no longer willing to accept that a large segment of our population will no longer allow for the systemic oppression of people who live on the margins of society. We seem to be headed toward a moment of inflexion, a necessary change in direction resulting from an awareness our current course is approaching imminent catastrophe.
Whether the issue is agricultural water waste or industrial pollution or social distancing to lower the death curve of COVID-19, we can no longer accept the devil’s choice between our lives and our livelihoods. We can no longer accept the false dichotomy between our economy and our environment. The COVID-19 experience is a precautionary tale that reminds us how vulnerable we are in relation to the powerful forces of biology. It is a challenge to our collective imaginations and ability to create communities of healing, compassion, knowledge, and mutual assistance. It is a reminder to stand humbly before the Creator and appreciate that we are all part of a magnificent and transitory order in which we have been assigned a special stewardship role.
COVID-19 is not a hoax. Climate change is not a hoax. The California water crisis is not a hoax. They are all calls to humility. They are all calls to limit the power of money in shaping decisions that affect our ability to preserve the earth for future generations.