Growing up in the 1990s, I always marveled at the story of how my parents met on their way to a United Farm Workers (UFW) picket line. As former members of the UFW, my parents often shared nostalgic memories of their times standing outside grocery stores asking consumers to join a UFW boycott, traveling to Sacramento to appeal to state lawmakers, and participating in union gatherings and celebrations. My mother’s recollections of César Chávez, who led the UFW until his untimely death in 1993, were of a charismatic man filled with contagious optimism. Although the UFW held few contracts in the 1990s, my parents always spoke with pride about this union that began in Delano, California, in 1965 and achieved unimaginable feats like living wages, health benefits, a pension plan, an end to pesticide spraying while workers were in the fields, and freedom from sexual harassment.
These are the kinds of memories and perspectives that I found in the pages of The Strikers of Coachella. Focused on California’s Coachella Valley, Christian O. Paiz offers us a remarkable analysis of the UFW movement that centers the union’s grassroots and eschews unnecessary binaries of union victory or defeat. The work is a welcome change from the recent emphasis on the UFW’s failed leadership. If the book is nearly four hundred pages long, that is because Paiz skillfully captures the nuance of this history—foregrounding how Coachella’s strikers viewed the movement through a place-based politicization shaped by multiple ideological and social currents.
One of the major themes that resurfaces in this book again and again is the matter of contingency. The UFW movement, Paiz painstakingly reminds us, had “multiple beginnings and endings,” and was shaped by “overlaid trajectories and shifting visions.” He develops the framework of a “field of stories” to describe how people intersected and shaped each other’s lives as they assessed the possibilities of a better tomorrow and (re)created a movement to turn possibility into reality. The author refutes the argument that the UFW’s famous leader César Chávez was largely responsible for the union’s inability to maintain the labor contracts that it achieved in the 1970s and early 1980s, let alone expand to more regions. Recent labor histories have demonstrated the extraordinary measures that capital—with the help of the state—adopted in the 1970s and ‘80s to dismantle unions and foreclose collective action.
More than a history of the UFW Movement, the book is also a history of the larger Chicanx movement in the Coachella Valley covering nearly four-decades between 1945 and 1983. Many of the region’s young Chicana/os first became involved in activism supporting the UFW cause and subsequently focused their energies on other issues like education and public health. Although most members of the Coachella Valley’s Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) emphasized their U.S. citizenship, spoke English, and some belonged to a small middle class, they endorsed the UFW’s first strike, raised funds in support of the striking workers, condemned the local media for misrepresenting farm labor conditions, and organized other pro-UFW actions.
Without losing sight of the larger political economy that conditioned the UFW and Chicano movements, Paiz utilizes his formulation of a field of stories to explain how historical actors came together in struggle. He injects life into this history by weaving together the different—yet intersecting—lives of movement participants. The author’s voice takes on an almost poetic quality when he writes about the farmworkers who sustained the UFW movement. People, Paiz writes, “built the very movement that built them. They did so in the context of past and present UFW victories inside and outside the Coachella Valley. … Each farmworker thus moved in a shared space that, in turn, moved with them—contingently and unpredictably, almost magically.” Like the UFW movement, the Coachella Valley’s Chicano movement is one of multiple beginning and endings, set forth by a multiplicity of peoples with intersecting trajectories.
Some of the main reasons behind the union’s decline, Paiz shows through UFW member testimony, include a growing political conservatism, employers’ anti-labor practices, and Mexico’s economic downturn in the 1980s. Just as the union’s contract wins never carried with them a full political economic transformation nor reflected a strong and efficient organization, the UFW’s apparent defeats nonetheless empowered farmworkers to imagine radical possibilities. The Coachella Grape Strike of 1973 is a perfect example of this. To avoid renewing their 1970 labor contracts with the UFW, Coachella Valley grape growers invited the Teamsters union to create a fabricated jurisdictional dispute with the UFW in 1973. Coachella’s UFW members found themselves the targets of grower and Teamster violence and abandoned by a national media that repeated false narratives in the name of objectivity. Despite the very real problems that the union’s 1973 defeat posed to the Coachella Valley’s farmworker movement, Paiz argues, the strike “is best seen as producing spaces for community- and self-definition, spaces grappling with past marginality and envisioning future paths.” Union losses, like wins, are never complete nor guaranteed.
The fissures that existed among ethnic Mexicans and between Filipinxs and ethnic Mexicans, Paiz shows, made the UFW movement all the more extraordinary. While the Coachella Valley’s Mexican American community often demanded the rights that citizenship accorded them, immigrant Mexicans sustained political visions rooted in a Mexican national history of proletarian struggle. Filipinxs nearing retirement age viewed with frustration and disappointment how the union took a stronger Mexican identity with each passing year as agribusiness continued employing Mexican migrants as strikebreakers. I was relieved to see that Paiz thoughtfully addresses the complicated reality that agribusiness continuously employed Mexican migrants as strikebreakers. “We do not need to engage in xenophobic depictions of immigrants to note that many could not readily join UFW strikes or join unions for fear of strikes, because of their juridical vulnerability and/or commitments to families and communities in Mexico,” Paiz rightfully argues.
Paiz borrows the UFW’s metaphor of a “Rancher Nation” where agribusiness dominated the social, political, and cultural life of California’s farming communities. This Rancher Nation, Paiz shows, was founded on settler colonialism and its erasure of Indigenous peoples and nonwhite labor. It is impossible to fully comprehend the world-changing effects of the UFW movement without considering how the fight for dignified wages and conditions in the fields punctured the political economy where the rancher was king. In painting this world where the grower reigned supreme, Paiz avoids the conventional interpretations of a social class pyramid. Farm work, he shows, was rather organized into a “large social web with multiple concentrated clusters” wherein labor contractors dominated each cluster and offered privileges to the workers closest to them. It is this attention to farmworkers’ material and everyday experiences that makes The Strikers of Coachella a complex and layered analysis of the UFW movement.
The book’s appendix contains a list of the oral history interviews that Paiz conducted with those involved in the Coachella Valley’s UFW movement. The author interviewed more than 70 individuals between 2012 and 2020. In some cases, Paiz interviewed movement participants multiple times and throughout the course of several years. Sometimes the author’s informants shared their testimonies by themselves and in other occasions accompanied by friends or kin. This is an impressive oral history project that I hope becomes accessible to others. The stories and perspectives that movement participants shared with the author are the book’s most important contribution.
A woman farmworker, for instance, recalled the movement’s positive effects in her life with the oft-cited example of the portable restrooms that every employer was required to provide under the union contract. She marveled at the fact that the restroom even smelled like Pine-Sol, giving her the confidence that it was clean. In his analysis of this example, Paiz underscores the “daily choice between humiliation and humiliation [that farmworkers endured before unionization]—for what is to be forced to ‘hold it,’ like a desperate child, but merely a privatized form of humiliation?” Farmworkers’ memories and reflections about unionization’s quotidian yet momentous changes crystalize the power and promise of collective action.
One of the things I appreciated most about Paiz’s use of oral history interviews is the way he writes about his reading of these firsthand testimonies. For the author, it becomes clear, farmworkers’ oral histories are not mere stories that reaffirm one’s own conclusions or illustrate how misguided farmworkers can be in really understanding the past—their past. Rather, Paiz sees movement participants as who they are: the protagonists of their own stories who for brief, or extensive, periods of time came together to form something bigger. In chapter 10, Paiz provides the reader a glimpse into the sometimes thorny conversations he had with some union members. When questioned about the movement’s rapid decline, and the low wages and precarity that today’s farmworkers still face, Paiz’s informants insisted on finding triumphs where others see defeat. Pointing to the transformed political economy that made it possible for Paiz to become a university professor, some reminded their interviewer that the UFW and the larger Chicano Movement had made these structural changes possible. In this instance, Paiz allows us to think with him; to attempt to reconcile the contemporary disillusionment with a union leadership that seemingly failed its membership with his informants’ unending optimism for a better future, and their urging that the UFW movement’s many wins not be lost to newer generations. “What is evident now is that social movements are never in vain,” Paiz later concludes, “even when they fall short of their visions; that everything has an effect, whether seen or not; that afterlives remain, even if only as dying among dear friends or as traces insisting on another world.”
Alina R. Méndez is Assistant Professor of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno. She is currently revising her award-winning dissertation into a book titled Border Braceros: Migration, Farm Labor, and Social Reproduction in the Imperial Valley-Mexicali Borderlands, 1942-1968.