In the Coachella Valley, the top elected officials — U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, state Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, and Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez — were all raised in the city of Coachella by immigrant farmworker parents. This is noteworthy as the new book Coachella takes a deep dive into the city’s history, which wasn’t always so supportive of its non-white residents. Author Jeff Crider, a former Desert Sun and Press-Enterprise reporter, used public documents, news reports, and interviews to trace how immigrants from Mexico, Japan, and other countries provided the muscle for the Coachella Valley’s economic growth since the early 1900s. The book is available at coachella.org/about-us/history/history-book.
The following excerpt focuses on the discrimination, poor working conditions, and political challenges immigrants faced on the road to building a community and prosperity.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY CLEMENTINA OLLOQUE
The UFW office in downtown Coachella.
According to the latest U.S. Census, 97.5 percent of Coachella’s 45,443 residents are Hispanic, and 39.6 percent of them are foreign-born immigrants.
For over a century, in fact, immigrants from Mexico and their descendants have provided most of the manpower for the Coachella Valley’s agriculture and tourism industries. Immigrants from Central America and their descendants are joining their ranks in increasing numbers.
“Immigrants of Mexican and Central American background … are the only ones who are willing to perform the arduous work under extreme weather conditions in order to put food on [people’s] tables,” says Bianca Berriozábel, operations coordinator for Pueblo Unido CDC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to economic development, infrastructure needs and affordable housing in the eastern Coachella Valley. “It is through their hard labor that the Coachella Valley continues to produce millions of dollars in revenue from the crops grown each year.”
Indeed, $639.6 million in agricultural products were produced in the Coachella Valley in 2016, according to the Riverside County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY COACHELLA VALLEY MEXICAN AMERICAN PIONEERS
East valley date planters.
Immigrants also provide much of the labor for the valley’s $5.5 billion tourism industry, which includes more than 18,000 hotel rooms and 124 golf courses. “A lot of the folks working in the hotels, the golf course landscapers, and the people working in the kitchens of restaurants are immigrants,” says Christian Paiz, an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who grew up in Thermal. “A great percentage of them are from Latin America.”
While many of today’s Coachella residents have family just across the border in Mexicali, the earliest immigrants came from throughout Mexico seeking refuge from political violence and economic instability caused by the Mexican Revolution and later the Cristero Revolution of the 1920s.
The Coachella Valley’s farm fields also enticed immigrants of Mexican descent who had previously settled in Arizona and other states and worked in agriculture or mining.
However, some of the earliest Mexican immigrants came to the Coachella Valley and other areas of the United States to help build the railroads, according to Jeffrey Marcos Garcilazo, who documented their efforts in his 2016 book, Traqueros: Mexican railroad workers in the United States, 1870-1930.
Coachella also attracted immigrants from other countries, including Japan, Portugal, Turkey, Armenia, as well as migrants from other states, including African Americans fleeing persecution in the South.
WHILE MOSTLY MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS fueled Coachella’s growth for more than a century, white settlers, who came into the Coachella Valley following the construction of a Southern Pacific Railroad line between Los Angeles and Yuma, originally developed the townsite.
Jason L. Rector was the first recorded non-Native American to make a permanent home in Coachella, which was originally called Woodspur. A native of Iowa, Rector was active in the real estate, farming, and cattle businesses before accepting a job with Southern Pacific Railroad and the A.N. Towne Estate to harvest mesquite trees in the eastern Coachella Valley for the Los Angeles market.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD BAGDASARIAN
Farmworker harvests green pepper.
But the development of Woodspur into the thriving farming community of Coachella didn’t take place until after Rector and his brother, Lon B. Rector, drilled a well in April 1900 near the corner of Grapefruit Avenue and Fifth Street and discovered a significant groundwater supply. They quickly realized that it could transform the desert sands of the eastern Coachella Valley into productive farmland.
“Thus fortified with a water supply, the Rector brothers began, in November 1900, to clear the native brush from a tract of twenty-five acres, which, in the course of the next three months, they planted to barley, wheat, cantaloupes, watermelons and sugar beets,” the Los Angeles Times Magazine wrote in a March 23, 1902 report, adding, “The land proved wonderfully fertile, and all of the crops did well, coming to maturity in a phenomenally short time.”
It didn’t take long for enterprising farmers to follow the Rectors’ lead. Two years after the Rectors drilled their test well, there were over 100 artesian wells and growing numbers of settlers transforming the eastern Coachella Valley into farmland. “The whole secret of this profitable production lies, of course, in the fact that the desert farmers are able to capture the very earliest market,” the Times noted. “Their crops mature at least a month earlier than those of the Salt River Valley, near Phoenix, Arizona, and the Salt River crops are at least a month earlier than those of Southern California.”
Coachella-area farmers found demand for their produce not only in Southern California, but from across the country. They marketed and shipped through the Coachella Producers Association, an entity initially formed by 27 growers, according to the Times, which noted strong demand for Coachella’s high-quality cantaloupes.
As farming operations expanded across the eastern Coachella Valley, so did the demand for farm labor. But before growers began to recruit and employ Mexican immigrants in large numbers, they initially relied on local Cahuilla Indians to help with harvest and packing operations. Growers affiliated with the Coachella Producers Association also recruited farmworkers from Japan.
By tapping local Cahuilla Indian and later Japanese laborers, growers quickly transformed Coachella and the eastern Coachella Valley into a thriving agricultural mecca.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVEN BILLER
A mural by The Date Farmers on the side of Casa de Trabajador commemorates the grape boycott of 1965.
DURING THE INITIAL YEARS of the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1934, the U.S. government under President Herbert Hoover used a combination of zero-tolerance immigration policies, mass deportations, and negative publicity to create a climate of fear to encourage Mexican immigrants to return to Mexico along with their American-born children.
“Americans, reeling from the economic disorientation of the depression, sought a convenient scapegoat,” Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez write in their 2006 book, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. “They found it in the Mexican community. In a frenzy of anti-Mexican hysteria, wholesale punitive measures were proposed and undertaken by government officials at the federal, state, and local levels. Laws were passed depriving Mexicans of jobs in the public and private sectors. Immigration and deportation laws were enacted to restrict emigration and hasten the departure of those already here. Contributing to the brutalizing experience were the mass deportations and repatriation drives. Violence and ‘scare-head’ tactics were utilized to get rid of the burdensome and unwanted horde. An incessant cry of ‘Get rid of the Mexicans’ swept the country.”
The Los Angeles Times documented the repatriation in numerous stories, but Coachella Valley newspapers say very little about deportations during this period.
Historians estimate that anywhere from 400,000 to over 1 million Mexicans and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent were sent to Mexico during this period. Many left on their own. No records are available involving repatriations of Coachella Valley residents at the Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino, which was established in the late 1930s, according to consulate officials.
Newspaper reports from the 1930s document efforts by the Mexican government to provide land for people who were repatriated, but it did not have nearly enough land or resources to assist everyone who was deported.
However, it wouldn’t be long before the United States would again need large numbers of Mexican immigrant workers. By the time World War II began, farmers in the Coachella Valley and across the country faced a manpower shortage, which prompted them in 1942 to lobby the government to establish the Bracero Program for guest workers from Mexico.
In 2005, the state of California apologized for its involvement in the repatriation program with the passage of Senate Bill 670, otherwise known as the “Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program.” The U.S. government has issued no such apology.
In a frenzy of anti-Mexican hysteria, wholesale punitive measures were proposed and undertaken by government officials at the federal, state, and local levels.
ON DECEMBER 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 64 Japanese residents of Coachella gathered at Coachella Presbyterian Church and publicly pledged their allegiance to the United States and to the U.S. Constitution. But they would soon be taken with their families to Poston, Arizona, to one of 10 relocation camps that were set up throughout the western United States after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the internment of more than 117,000 people of Japanese descent.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed its own resolution “requesting the military authorities to exclude all enemy aliens from Riverside County and also to remove all Japanese, irrespective of citizenship, from the confines of the county,” according to a February 27, 1942 report in The Submarine.
The relocation of eastern Coachella Valley students of Japanese descent is documented in the commemorative book Coachella Valley Union High School: The First 50 Years 1910-1960. “One of the saddest days in the history of Coachella Valley Union High School had to have been May 19, 1942,” the authors wrote. “On that day, all Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the Coachella Valley, citizens and non-citizens alike, were put on buses, with one suitcase or a small box apiece, and taken to a hurriedly constructed internment camp called Poston, located in the desolate mesquite desert outside of Parker, Arizona.”
Charles Shibata, an Indio native of Japanese descent, was dumbfounded by the government’s orders. “It never occurred to me that I was not an American,” Shibata told The Desert Sun in an August 15, 1995 interview, when he was 72. “I was born here, raised here, went to schools here, never been to Japan. I was just like any boy who had been born here.”
Shibata was attending Los Angeles City College when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He subsequently returned home to his family’s farm and joined them and roughly 30 other Coachella Valley families of Japanese descent at the internment camp, which was set up on Native American land in Poston.
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which compensated about 60,000 surviving Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps during World War II. Recipients received a formal apology from the government as well as $20,000 in compensation. The apology and compensation didn’t come easily, however. Congress approved the Civil Liberties Act only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese American Citizens League, according to an August 9, 2013 report by National Public Radio.
By the time World War II began, farmers in the Coachella Valley and across the country faced a manpower shortage, which prompted them in 1942 to lobby the government to establish the Bracero Program for guest workers from Mexico.
WHILE FARMWORKERS OF COACHELLA and other eastern Coachella Valley communities worked quietly for decades, they would eventually attract national media attention for supporting the rise of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union.
Mexican immigrants and their families had been the predominant farm labor force in the Coachella Valley and throughout California for most of the 20th century, but the initial strike activity against California’s table grape growers in 1965 was precipitated in the Coachella area by migrant Filipino farmworkers affiliated with the AFL-CIO-chartered Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.
The strike lasted 10 days and encompassed almost 1,000 farmworkers, according to an Associated Press report from May 12, 1965, that also noted farmworkers returned to Coachella Valley table grape fields after winning a 15-cent-per-hour increase, boosting their pay to $1.40 per hour.
The AP noted the historical significance of the Coachella Valley growers’ May 1965 agreement. “The strike marked the first time growers have met in formal talks with union leaders, and agreed to pay what the union was asking,” the Los Angeles Times reported on May 13, 1965, “although the union failed to get formal recognition as bargaining agent.”
The strike action by the Filipino farmworkers affiliated with AWOC would ultimately trigger the biggest grapeworker strike in California history.
Chavez organized numerous marches and protests in Coachella and used the UFW office at 722 Vine Street whenever he was in town.
One year after launching the Delano strike, AWOC and the National Farm Workers Association, which was cofounded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Heurta in 1962, merged to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) union in 1966. Many influential people were involved in organizing farmworkers in the 1960s, including Huerta and Filipino labor leaders, but it was Chavez who would ultimately become recognized as the chief spokesman for farmworker rights.
Chavez is credited with securing the first collective bargaining agreements between farmworkers and growers as well as the first health benefits for farmworkers and their families. Chavez’s union contracts also required growers to provide farmworkers with rest periods, clean drinking water, hand-washing stations, and clothing to protect workers from pesticide exposure.
Chavez organized numerous marches and protests in Coachella and used the UFW office at 722 Vine Street whenever he was in town.
Coachella was also in national headlines in the early 1970s as Chavez and the UFW battled the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union for the right to represent farmworkers. Chavez took the Teamsters to court alleging they had colluded with growers to block the UFW’s labor organizing efforts. The California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in Chavez’s favor.
Chavez would face many subsequent court battles and continued to fight for the UFW and for farmworker rights until his death on April 23, 1993 at the age of 66.
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