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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Working the Fields Growing for a Wider Market
3: Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895

Working the Fields

Specialty crops require a lot of labor. California growers hired large numbers of ethnic laborers to plant, cultivate, pick, and pack their crops. Watsonville farmers employed Chinese men to work the land until Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which stopped these laborers from immigrating. Growers then brought in Japanese workers. By 1900 Watsonville counted 400 Japanese among its few thousand residents. In the 1920s, when Japanese immigration was restricted, Watsonville agriculturalists became more dependent on Filipino and Mexican workers. With each new round of hiring, growers helped change the ethnic composition of central California.

Chinese workers in the field
Chinese workers in the field

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigration slowed to a trickle. By the 1890s, California’s overwhelmingly male Chinese population was aging and declining in numbers. Growers began to look for other sources of cheap labor.

Chinese who lived and worked in communities along the central coast of California in the late 1800s used these everyday domestic items.

 Bamboo cooking ladle
Bamboo cooking ladle
Rice bowl
Rice bowl
Chopsticks
Chopsticks
Serving bowls
Serving bowls
Embroidered silk woman's shoe for a bound foot
Embroidered silk woman's shoe for a bound foot
Inkstone and writing brush
Inkstone and writing brush
Chinese Dominoes
Chinese Dominoes
Jar for storing soy sauce
Jar for storing soy sauce
Whisk for cleaning pots
Whisk for cleaning pots
Grooming brush
Grooming brush
Kidney-pill box from Guangdong Province, China
Kidney-pill box from Guangdong Province, China
Izumizaki family in strawberry field with orchard, Pajaro Valley, California
Izumizaki family in strawberry field with orchard, Pajaro Valley, California

Young male Japanese immigrants replaced older Chinese laborers in the orchards and fields. Although Japanese men began their American lives as hired laborers, some eventually became small farmers. Many formed families, since a loophole in immigration law allowed Japanese women to enter the country to join their husbands. But in 1924 the National Origins Act barred all Japanese immigration, cutting off this source of farm labor.

Filipino farm workers, Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, September 1939

After the United States restricted Japanese immigration, California agriculturists hired men from the US colony of the Philippines to help fill their labor needs. By the late 1920s, Filipinos were the Pajaro Valley’s dominant labor group. In 1934, this migrant group was also legally restricted from entering the country, like the Chinese and Japanese before them.

Filipino farm workers, Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, September 1939
Mexican workers, Pajaro Valley, California, 1960s
Mexican workers, Pajaro Valley, California, 1960s

Mexican farm laborers had always worked in Watsonville’s fields, but they became an increasingly important source of labor after the 1920s. In 1942, the federally sponsored Bracero program encouraged Mexican nationals to work in the United States on a temporary basis. By the time the program ended in 1964, Mexicans had become the dominant source of farm labor in the Watsonville region.

What Happened Next?

What Happened to Farm Work?

Today—just as in 1895—Watsonville, California, is a center of agricultural production and heavily dependent on low-paid immigrant workers. But Watsonville now grows different crops and different people work the fields.

Agriculture remains a mainstay of California’s economy and continues to be highly commercialized. The orchards and sugar beet fields of the late 19th century gave way in the 20th century to truck crops such as lettuce and broccoli. After World War II, Watsonville became a frozen-food processing center, although in recent years these factories have moved overseas.

Watsonville’s population has also changed. Although Watsonville is home to Anglo, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino families, 70 percent of the population is now Latino and one-third of its residents are immigrants. Latinos began coming to Watsonville in the 1920s. During World War II, the Bracero program, which allowed Mexicans to enter the country on short-term labor contracts, helped expand the population. Since 1965, when immigration laws were changed, Watsonville’s Latino population has continued to grow. Heavily involved in farm labor—doing over 90 percent of the work in 2000—Latinos in Watsonville today provide most of the region’s low-cost laborers.

Workers picking strawberries, Pajaro Valley, California, 1980s
Workers picking strawberries, Pajaro Valley, California, 1980s
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