April 2019

A Voice Not Heard at Home

To the present and past Mexican farmworker families of Tulare County: I write for you and walk alongside you. Mis vecinos, you are right. You belong here, just as your history of endurance and resilience belongs in our archives.

by Sydnie Sousa

“California is home.” As a student at Georgetown University, I say this all the time, but I find the statement unfinished. If I left it at that, it would not be an accurate portrayal of the community that shaped me.

I follow up with a smile on my face and say with pride, “Tipton, California is home.” Home is a small rural town (population: 2,543 to be exact) predominantly comprised of agricultural laborers. Tipton can be found in Tulare County; nestled between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley’s fertile land has made Tulare one of the leading agricultural counties within the state of California.

As California agriculture exploded in the twenty century, growers developed an insatiable appetite for laborers. Agricultural work brought my father’s family to the United States and we have called California’s San Joaquin Valley home ever since. The first twenty-one years of my life were spent on a dairy farm. Raised by a community of Portuguese and Mexican farmworkers, immigrant farm labor is simply a part of who I am, wherever I go.

It is the reason I feel so inclined to share this story. A story detailing my experience in Tulare County’s archives and local history’s role in remembrance.  

As a first-generation college student, transferring from my local community college to a prestigious university three thousand miles from home was frightening. Amidst the fear was something greater: an opportunity to weave two worlds together. I wanted my Georgetown community of peers and professors to be introduced to mis vecinos and being accepted into the honors history program has done just that. It has provided me with the space to make meaning of my experiences in the milk barn and share both the joys and discomforts of agricultural life for migrant workers. When I was tasked with choosing a topic for my senior thesis, it was an easy decision—a chance to pay tribute to my home. I proudly decided to research “The Education of Mexican Farmworkers’ Children in Tulare County, 1930-40.”

“As a first-generation college student, transferring from my local community college to a prestigious university three thousand miles from home was frightening.”

After securing a grant through Georgetown’s History Department, I traveled to California for my research trip. I planned to visit the University of California Berkeley’s Archives, California State Bakersfield’s Special Collections, and the Visalia Branch of the Tulare County Library. Closest in proximity and richest in local history, the Annie Mitchell Reading Room in Tulare County made for an obvious starting place.

I was excited as I walked into my local library. My chance to tell the story of Mexican migrant children was finally here. I started working my way through the sources used from one of the leading scholars in the field, Kathleen Weiler. Weiler’s Country School Women: Teaching in Rural California: 1850-1950 narrates the accounts of Mexican migrant children from the perspective of the local and state government. It never occurred to me that her decision might not have come about by choice. As I continued to sort through documents, it became apparent that the county hardly documented how officials implemented educational policy or how students responded.

I was not discouraged that my starting point was unsuccessful. As history quickly teaches its students, one has to think creatively to triangulate findings.

I switched tactics and began to comb through educational records. Twenty years of school documents sat before me; the sheer amount of information was encouraging. What I found there was approximately three or four Mexican students in each class from first through eighth grade. Teachers listed comments next to students’ names on their academic performance, behavior, and areas for improvement. Educators left hardly any commentary for students with a Mexican surname. Next to names was a blank space, or at most a single word: “transferred.” My concern was suddenly growing.

Corcoran, California. Mexican children playing in a ditch which runs through a company cotton camp.
Dorothea Lange, November 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I tried finding answers in documents pertaining to the Farm Security Administration Camps in Tulare County throughout the 1930s, because the camps primarily housed agricultural laborers. I went through the records of registered families in both camps. No Mexican families were admitted to either. I spent the next two days sifting through miscellaneous boxes from 1910-1940 trying to piece together information. After I continued to come across minimal information regarding Mexican migrant children and their education, I contacted the head librarian. He and I sat down and he confirmed my deepest fear: the archive was empty of the voices I hoped to find.

I found this information shocking because the census told a different story. Going through the archives made it look as if Mexican migrants simply disappeared during this time period. Despite California’s Mexican Repatriation Act, the state census in 1927 counted 36,891 Mexican children as migratory, a figure that remained fairly constant throughout the 1930s. This is not to say that repatriation did not have a profound impact on the Mexican migrant population in California at large, but in Tulare County it was offset by immigrants who continued to travel to the United States from Mexico during this time period.

Something was not right. I asked myself: What am I missing? What am I incapable of seeing?

Something was not right. I asked myself: What am I missing? What am I incapable of seeing?

I started to walk myself through how we ‘do’ history. I have come to learn that documenting personal history is a privilege. It requires time, resources, an ability to read and write—a luxury not afforded to most in farmworking communities. That could explain why there was a lack of documents from Mexican migrant farmworkers themselves. But this is not the only way to record history; people’s stories are often accounted for by someone other than themselves. Why was no other population capturing the history of Mexican migrants in the 1930s? 

In the late summer of 1931, more than 500 members of the Ku Klux Klan attended the annual California State Klan Convention in Tulare County. I did a little digging on the relationship between Tulare County and the KKK. It shocked me to learn that Tulare County was the “center of the Klan activity” for all of California starting in 1925. Throughout the 1930s, a group of people in Tulare County were not working to record voices, but expunge them. Hatred, bigotry, and fear attempted to silence Mexican migrant families and the archive is a reflection of their efforts. 

I painfully acknowledge that there was a time when people worked to erase Mexican migrant families from our local history and succeeded. There is nothing in Tulare County archives on Mexican migrant education.

Photo Courtesy of the Visalia Times Delta. Photo by Joanna Briggs Johnson.

But Mexican migrants were in Tulare County and went beyond merely existing. They protested. They used their voices. The words are limited, but there is a story to be told. These three words, “Mujeres against KKK,” is the start. For Mexican migrants to speak out, document experiences, or organize would have come at a grave cost in Tulare County in the 1930s, but they did it anyway. This picture is a reflection of the community whose spirit lives on today throughout my hometown. I have watched this community work for their own rights, the rights of their children, and future generations. The stories of Mexican agricultural laborers and their children in Tulare County will not go untold.

This would not be a story of an unreconciled local history. Mexican culture and contribution brings our small rural community to life. The impact goes beyond the vibrant colors that sweep the streets, the beats of lively mariachi music that are heard from every other corner in Tipton, and the sweet sound of the word “mija” (mi hija) that brought me comfort throughout difficult days. Our archives should reflect the deep impact Mexican agricultural laborers and their families have had on our county. They should be committed to telling a story of a group of people who have stood up against overwhelming odds, demanded accountability, and provoked change—at great, even horrifying personal, costs. I am speaking out not to shame my community, but to say, this is our home. We are to be greater than bigotry and the current remembrance of our history.

After a week in the archives, I had to make a difficult decision. I changed my thesis topic after recognizing that it would not be possible to write something adequate given the available records. My topic had changed, but my passions had not. I wanted to find my place in the story. I wanted to ensure that I made some contribution to the issue. I wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

So what did I do? I first acknowledged that I do, in fact, play a continuing role in finding a solution to this issue. Shedding light on my experiences in the archives certainly calls attention to the problem, and makes for a good first step, but I still felt like I could do more—right here, right now.

The work I will do with my cohort at Stanford will ensure that the stories of individuals like mis vecinos will not sink into oblivion.

After learning of an opportunity from one of my professors, and spending a great deal of time on my application, I was selected for a research fellowship at Stanford University. As a fellow for the American Voices Project, I will have the opportunity to acquire oral histories as I conduct ethnographic research throughout rural communities across the United States. The work I will do with my cohort at Stanford will ensure that the stories of individuals like mis vecinos will not sink into oblivion. My hope is in the future, when a student wants to write their honors thesis on a specific community in the local history of their home, the archives will not be empty.

This is not the end of the story. There is still so much to be done and we, the collective, play a role. Next time you go to the grocery or stop to grab a bite to eat, think about who harvested your food. The chances are it was probably a migrant agricultural laborer. We are all connected to this issue and it is much closer to us than we think. It would be a good first step to recognize the everyday contributions this population makes to our society.

In unexpected moments, history—with power and simplicity—continues to remind me of my role, and I hope it reminds you of the role you play, too. Just a few weeks ago I was at the Library of Congress looking through Dorothea Lange’s images of Dust Bowl migrants in California and I came across this photo:

Mexican mother in California.“Sometimes I tell my children that I would like to go to Mexico, but they tell me ‘We don’t want to go; we belong here.’”
Dorothea Lange, June, 1935. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This photo may not be Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo of the Migrant Mother that many Americans immediately recognize, but it is a photo of a mother and a child who have an equally valuable story to tell. Photos like this remind me that even though I did not find what I wanted in my local archives, there is a glimmer of hope that this story is still out there somewhere, waiting to be told. These are the faces behind the smile that says, “California is home.”

To the present and past Mexican farmworker families of Tulare County: I write for you and walk alongside you. Mis vecinos, you are right. You belong here, just as your history of endurance and resilience belongs in our archives.

Sydnie Sousa is a senior at Georgetown University studying History. She was raised in California’s Central Valley, nestled between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The valley’s fertile land is home to California’s agricultural industry, which played a significant role in her upbringing. She is currently writing her senior honors thesis on Migrant Education in Kern County 1930-40. She looks forward to studying present-day rural poverty in America as a research fellow at Stanford next year.

1 comment on “A Voice Not Heard at Home

  1. 23thingsaboutdigitalknowledgepd

    I was left deeply touched by this – I am grateful for the deep read you offered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: