The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Summer 1996, Volume 42, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor
Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal By Devra Weber. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Photographs. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. ix + 338 pages. $40.00 cloth, $16.95 paper.
Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University, author of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (1990) and co-author with Arnoldo de Leon, North to Aztlan: Mexican Americans in United States History (1996).
During the 1930s a series of violent strikes took place in the cotton industry in California. They were the largest agricultural strikes in the state’s history and by in large they were by Mexicans and Mexican Americans who composed more than 70 percent of the work force. This book is a thorough and penetrating analysis of the political and economic factors that influenced labor activism in the cotton industry during the Great Depression. Professor Weber argues that the intervention of the federal government changed the relationship of workers to farm owners, by strengthening the large growers, encouraging unionization and by politicizing the class struggle.
This book contributes a great deal to what we know about the depression in California, and the economic history of Mexican Americans as well. Previous books have not recognized the crucial role that Mexicans played in these strikes and in the union organizing activities. A popular stereotype of the time was that Anglo migrants were more likely to be pro-union. This in fact was not the case, as Weber shows. Mexican and Mexican American migrants in the cotton fields brought with them a long tradition of labor and political activism. Many had participated in the Mexican Revolution and in strikes by the Partido Liberal Mexicano and other Mexican labor organizations. They were less likely to consider themselves temporary farm workers, as was true of the “Okies and Arkies” that also labored in the fields.
Weber is concerned with correcting other stereotypes–namely in the passivity and helplessness of the Mexican cotton pickers of this era. In fact they had a tremendously strong sense of community and family that made them able to withstand economic hardships and were the basis of their organizational life. The largest cotton strike of the decade occurred in 1933. Most of the leaders were Mexican migrants supported by their families and members of their communities. This strike resulted in a limited victory for the farm workers, because of the staying power of the rank and file that was largely Mexicano and because of federal intervention.
This is also a study of government and its influences on the cotton industry. Weber finds that the New Deal was a mixed blessing. Small cotton farmers were unable to benefit from the AAA and ultimately the reliance of unions on government intervention weakened their position. But the New Deal programs did provide a minimum wage for farm workers, by providing relief checks and the federal governments labor camps were models of humanitarianism. Due to grower’s political pressure, however, the federal labor laws ultimately excluded farm laborers from protection. The influence of the government was to institutionalize the conflict between growers and workers and thus to shift their attention away from strikes towards the political process. Ultimately, though the farm workers unions lost the support of the government because of the influence of big business.
Dark Sweat, White Gold is a book about courageous struggle despite overwhelming odds–the untold story of the Mexicans in the California cotton fields during the 1930s. It is a story that enlarges upon and revises the images given by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Based on primary sources including oral interviews, Professor Weber’s book is essential reading for those who seek to understand this era of California’s history. It is also a major contribution to Chicano history.