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Farm "Fascism"?

The attitude problem of some chile and onion growers.


The first year I lived in Deming, I read a book about farm workers that said John Steinbeck had used the phrase "farm fascism" a few times in his writings. It may seem like kind of a minor thing to recall over a decade later, but I distinctly remember how I spent a few minutes searching through the index for "Steinbeck" to see if he'd ever lived in New Mexico.

To me the phrase neatly described the kind of arrogant, lying, huffy, asinine things I had heard coming from the lips of chile and onion growers in this part of the state, although "fascism" in this sense is a usage that doesn't have a dictionary definition.

I was under the impression that what I was hearing from some of the farmers I was talking to was probably a throwback to another era, like a lot of things are in New Mexico — sometimes in really charming ways, sometimes in not-at-all-charming ways.

Back then I spoke a few times by phone to Greg Schell in Florida, known as a farmworker advocate "guru." He said some fairly sympathetic things about the growers in terms of their economic situation, but added, with a sense of humor, "They're so offensive" — in agreement with me. I was a little surprised some farmers had the same personalities in Florida, too. So it's not just New Mexico where this stuff goes on.

A really flagrant example of this attitude I'm talking about was the published response by John Van Sweden, then president of the Las Cruces Farm Bureau, to an Associated Press (AP) article in the Las Cruces Sun-News in 1997. The article had exposed child labor in the chile fields. Van Sweden complained that a respected news organization like AP shouldn't be practicing such a low standard of journalism. He claimed piously that chile growers adhered to the "spirit and letter of the law."

The thing was, the AP article had actual photos of kids in the fields. Did Van Sweden really think he could fool anybody? I myself had published a photo of children picking chile in Hatch, in a small Albuquerque magazine. What was he thinking?

Another example is the poor agricultural extension agent in Roswell who told me the pickers drink beer in the fields and leave cans in the furrows, with the sly insinuation that they were lazy slobs. This man, as I sat with the phone to my ear, went on and on in a voice so low that I really couldn't hear him. I think he was ashamed of what he was saying.

I have seen empty soda cans left in the furrows of the fields, and have even done that myself. It's common. (And I know that labor contractors sell beer, illegally, in the fields occasionally.) But I'm quite sure that if the contractor told the workers not to throw cans around, they'd stomp on them and slip them inside their shirt or in a pocket. Workers don't usually misbehave in the fields.

Oppressors sometimes turn things upside-down and say they're the ones suffering. An example of this was a statement a farmer's wife in Hatch made during a very bad chile harvest. When I asked her how the growers were doing, she said, somberly, "We're on our knees." But as for the pickers, "They don't have any problem at all. There's work to do, but they don't want to do it!"

The reason all these examples are from the past is that I got really sick of hearing this stuff several years ago, and felt really ineffective. It was positively bad for my health. So my ingenious solution was to drop the whole thing for a while.

But the definition of "fascist" that my mind has been working on over the past decade is "prejudice against the poor." I don't know anyone else who thinks along these lines. Prejudice against the poor is not part of the political dialogue in the US, and racism is. But this still holds up well for me.

I've never used the word "fascist" before in any piece I've written, because I know how readers react to it. They would associate that word with the kind of crude, toxic slogans thrown around by some leftists in the Sixties. And so would I, before I knew these farmers.

Something else Schell said was that the growers are "pillars of the community." This is absolutely true. And the stereotype of the down-to-earth good sense, self-effacing humor and hard work of the American farmer does actually exist out there. I realize now it was my error that I went around talking just to the leading growers, who are wealthier by definition than the rank-and-file and tend to be more defensive.

Ranchers and farmers in this country are admired for their self-reliance. It's true that it takes a lot of strength and intelligence to manage a farm or ranch (although they do get help from the government in bad years). But there was an incident in Deming that shows how this individualistic philosophy can be downright dangerous when raised to the pitch it sometimes is here.

An editor of the Deming Headlight a few years back, Tom Schultes, once told me that in the early Nineties he covered a story about a collision between a car and a farmer's truck with no headlights. The car went right up under the truck and the woman and her two grandchildren in the car died. When Schultes interviewed the grower, his defiant comment was, "No one can tell me what to do." What hubris — in this case murderous.

I've seen bumper stickers that read, "US farmers feed the world." I think there should also be ones that say, "Mexican farmworkers feed the world." It could be added, "and sometimes don't have enough to eat."

I wish growers would take time to extend a little respect to their workers. Both parties have an absolute need of each other. Both growers and pickers are part of the same equation, indispensable to each other.

This is so obvious right now with the current farmworker shortage in the US due to the crackdown on illegal immigrants. The grower needs the fieldworker to bring in the $25,000-$50,000 that most of them get. The farmworker needs his job to pay for his food and drink and the roof over his head, if he's not sleeping in a field or in his car, as a few do.

I wish the growers would learn to take themselves a lot less seriously, and take their workers more seriously. With the balance adjusted, the rank smell of fascism might just evaporate.


Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.


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