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Yesterday's seeds, today's harvest

Beasts of the Field A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 Richard Steven Street Stanford University Press: 904 pp., $75; $29.95 paper * Photographing Farmworkers in California Richard Steven Street Stanford University Press: 330 pp., $39.95

June 27, 2004|Mark Arax | Mark Arax, a Times staff writer, is the author of "In My Father's Name" and co-author of "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire," written with Times business editor Rick Wartzman.

My grandfather, Aram, took the long road to California in the spring of 1920. His migration covered 7,000 miles by ship and train. There was no turning back.

Everything along the way seemed so farfetched to him -- the Statue of Liberty, the nation's capital, the budding factories of Detroit. It wasn't until the tracks reached Fresno that America came true. Outside his window, at the foot of the Sierra, the San Joaquin Valley shimmered. Vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields, row after perfect row. As his train chugged into town, my grandfather kept muttering the same words in Armenian. "Just like the old land."

The old land was a lazy village beneath the Mountain of Mist in Bursa, Turkey. Every month the Anatolian sun ripened another fruit, but it was the silk from the mulberry that gave the village its wealth. "We had a very easy life," he told me. "Our village was too prosperous to do its own work. The poor Turkish workers did it all. We used to have a name for them -- 'almost like slaves.' "

My grandfather survived the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Turks by hiding in an attic with Maupassant and Baudelaire. He came down after a year with plans to attend the Sorbonne University and write for a living. Then the letters from his Uncle Yervant in Fresno -- "watermelons as big as small boats" -- arrived. My grandfather was 19 when he took the bait.

He might have been forgiven for assuming the best when his uncle drove up to the depot that day in a shiny Model T Ford. It wasn't a week later that they headed three hours south on a country road and landed in Weedpatch. There, long before the Okies and Steinbeck arrived, my grandfather dropped to his hands and knees and began picking potatoes. Up and down the valley he trailed the harvest. Watermelons, peaches, grapes, oranges and olives. This new land wasn't like the old land. My grandfather had become one of the beasts of the field.

He was far luckier, it turned out, than the legions of migrant farmhands who came before him, men whose American rebirths and brutal journeys are vividly captured by Richard Steven Street in "Beasts of the Field," a stunning narrative history of California farmworkers from 1769 to 1913. It took my grandfather four seasons working alongside his widowed mother, sister and brother to go from fruit tramp to farmer. He would watch his brother, Harry, become a cop killer in 1934 and his son, Ara, become a murder victim in 1972 after both strayed from the farm.

My grandfather taught me, the oldest child of that murdered son, that our drama was part of a larger drama that played out in California agriculture long before his arrival. Because I spent years gathering his story, I thought I understood why the dreams of so many immigrants are swallowed up by the fields. Because I live in the San Joaquin Valley, the most productive farm belt in the world, a place built on the backs of fieldworkers, I thought I understood their lives. For the last six years, I've collected and written the narratives of the black sharecroppers, Mexicans and Okies who came here to pick the cotton for such giants as J.G. Boswell.

But "Beasts of the Field" is a history book that reaches into the present and changes the way we see things. I now understand why the lives of farmworkers so often end in the same broken place. Because it has always been this way -- as far back as the native Chumash and Gabrielinos who plowed the first fields in the shadow of the missions and the Chinese who erected the levees to drain the waters of the great Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the white Europeans who threshed the wheat as the giant metal harvester, the farm's first breathing machine, snorted and clawed at the earth.

For the first time, thanks to Street's 25-year labor of love, the whole extraordinary tapestry of that early era is before us. A photographer, journalist and scholar, Street hails from no academy and works for no publication. Logging thousands of miles from field to library to newspaper morgue, he has produced a work of monumental scholarship. One might ask if the subject hadn't been thoroughly mined. Countless academics and journalists, after all, have documented in articles and books the peculiar institution that is California agriculture. But although readers may believe that Carey McWilliams' seminal 1939 work, "Factories in the Field," offered the definitive word on the feudal empires of the soil, Street provides a far more exhaustive, layered and satisfying portrait. Simply put, Street's remarkable book belongs on the short shelf of such indispensable works of American history as Oscar Handlin's "The Uprooted" and Bernard Bailyn's "Voyagers to the West."

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