Variation on the Valley Whine, or Syrup on the Well Known Substance

Submitted: May 06, 2014
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

Maybe it's getting to be time to tell David Mas Masumoto that "menos es Mas." Far be it for mere anonymous journalists to dare criticize our latest version of "Father of the Valley." Far be it for us to request that the great spiritus poeticus of Del Rey give us an actual argument, grammatical and everything. But we know that great writers are above the confusions of ordinary readers like us experience in the glare of their brilliance.

 

 

 

 

Nevertheless, when a great man writes about Our Valley, a great man who is the author of a celebrated prose corrido de un durazno (Requiem for a Peach [1995] and Wisdom of the Last Farmer [2009]) we must pay attention. After all, the LA Times or Masumoto's agent, called the author the "Rockstar Farmer." Dude! We must pay attention. We are polite. We believe in culture, therefore we must pay attention, even when we think our respect for literature is being abused in ways we are going to try to express between the lines in italics below. -- blj

 

4-26-14

Fresno Bee

David Mas Masumoto: If Steinbeck were a farmer...David Mas Masumoto. David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach” and “Wisdom of the Last Farmer.”...4-27-14

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/26/3897064/david-mas-masumoto-if-steinbeck.html?sp=/99/274/1344/193/

 

Actually, the problem begins with the lead. Does he mean "If Steinbeck had been a farmer." Or does he mean it in its subjunctive sense? If the latter, it implies that Steinbeck is still alive. If the latter, the improbability of Steinbeck wandering around the Valley in the present would offer some comic possibilities. But, sadly, if this is the correct reading of the text, Masumoto is using the trope to set up a lugubrious whine on behalf of small, organic farmers, a goat's bleat next to the lion's roar of the ever-thirsting agribusiness. 

 

Seventy-five years ago, John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” a tale about the plight of displaced Okies and their journey from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the Central Valley of California, where they hoped to find work and a new life.

 

 

 

 

"Rockstar" Masumoto is too old to lightly use the word "Okie." That might work for a younger generation but for his and ours, that was a fighting word. It was meant as an insult and taken as one.

 

When I first read “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school, I was stunned to see a side of our Valley, our farms and our people I had not imagined. A land of plenty contrasting the plight of farmworkers. The constant struggle of poverty while trying to scratch out a living in our dirt. Hunger in a land where growing food is driven by business and money.

 

 Masumoto grew up on a fruit farm, yet could not imagine the "plight of farmworkers"? He really wouldn't have had to imagine that plight because it was all around him, at least during harvest season. (Valley counties drove out migrant farmworkers in the off-seasons to avoid paying unemployment to them.) But the real dishonesty of the contrast is that you cannot contrast a "land of plenty" with a "plight of farmworkers." How about middling to rich farmers v. farmworkers, as in the real farm labor strikes of the 1950's in the San Joaquin Valley. Masumoto grew up in Del Rey. Doesn't he remember when Luis Valdez had his Teatro Campesino in the old movie theater there? They were certainly talking, shouting, screaming, in both English and Spanish, about the "plight of the farmworker." Masumoto writes like he never heard of a farm labor union or a strike.

 

 

 

 

The next sentence is pure weasel: The constant struggle of poverty while trying to scratch out a living in our dirt. Whose poverty, whose dirt? Is the author the farmworker or the farm owner? Or both. How can he not imagine the plight of farmworkers if he was one?

 

 

 

 

"Hunger in a land where growing food is driven by business and money?" First, a complete sentence would be nice, but the Great Masumoto is too big for English grammar, evidently. He prefers the vaguer shapes of literary water colors perhaps. Yes, farmworkers and their children went to bed hungry when we were growing up in the Valley, they still do, and the organic farming movement didn't do one damn thing to improve that. In fact, as soon as certified organic farmers realized they couldn't rely on unpaid interns from college to do farm work, they went right back to exploiting Mexicans, just like any agribusiness does.

 

 

 

 

Steinbeck wrote his seminal work during the Great Depression, an era of great suffering. “The Grapes of Wrath” examined the crushing economic forces on the human spirit and the search for dignity.

 

Why does this famous author force us to rewrite his sentences? We have these "crushing economic forces" in one corner, the "human spirit" in another and the "search for dignity" in a third corner, and the referee examining them from who knows what distance. The sentence is a pro wrestling match in search of a subject instead of two verbal clauses.

 

But what if Steinbeck were a farmer who wrote today? How might we re-envision his words as he rewrites his books?

 

Hey, what does "re-envision" mean? We up here in Merced County are leery of words like that because we go to meetings with people who go to weekend workshops on small farming and organic farming. When they return to assert their "leadership" by "educating" us dimwitted stay-at-homes, we hear this word "vision." A lot. It comes out like bits of undigested food in the regurgitation of the latest version of all we have to believe because it came from the latest envisioning workshop at UC Davis or Asilomar (the great asylum by the sea).

 

Now, here comes the whine. It is pure fantasy for a number of reasons. Steinbeck knew a lot of small farmers because he grew up in Salinas where there are still small farmers. He really didn't have that much trouble figuring out the "crazy world of farming" (you think Valley fruit is weird, try Salinas Valley lettuce) or, in fact, the crazy world of the economics of the Great Depression. But Masumoto is so busy putting the kitsch polish on the Great Valley Whine that he won't acknowledge Steinbeck's major contribution to that knowledge: In Dubious Battle, about a bloody Watsonville apple strike. But Mas has his bourgeoise obsessions. He's so full of self pity and business anxieties that he he blames low food prices on the consumers!

 

 

 

 

Some consumers might resent that enough to look into farm subsidies like that $5,600 in disaster payments Myrtle Masumoto of Del Rey received. Every little bit helps the frugal family farmer.

 

Steinbeck might be my neighbor, and I believe we’d trade stories, trying to make sense of a crazy world of farming. We would talk about an economic system that drives the price of food lower and lower. We struggle as farmers in a cheap food system. When “The Grapes of Wrath” was published, Americans spent 35 percent of their income on food. In the 1960s, it had dropped to 18 to 20 percent. Today it’s less than 10 percent, and there is a seemingly never-ending demand to grow food cheaper and cheaper. What’s good for the consumer squeezes us farmers. We need to simply work harder.

Readers often forget that the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath” were displaced farmers and were not always farmworkers. Arriving in California, they sought a place of their own, not unlike the immigrant farm story repeated over and over in our Valley. My grandparents arrived in the 1900s from Japan, aliens in a foreign land. They, like the Joads, were displaced from the farm in their homeland. Once in America, they faced a hostile land filled with discrimination and “Alien Land Laws” that prevented specifically “Orientals” from land ownership.

 

But here we find that Masumoto cannot acknowledge the race of the people he actually does employ, the people on whose backs his leisure to write poetry is built: Mexican farm workers, not other ethnic groups aspiring to be small farmers at least in this country. It seems pretty obvious is one actually reads Steinbeck that his sympathy was for the worker, not the farmer. He one book focused on farmers was East of Eden, a story of very dubious characters said to have been drawn from life in Salinas. 

 

Steinbeck the farmer might write a tale of new immigrants, the Hmong and other refugees from Southeast Asia or the Sikh farmers from Punjab, India, or Armenians from east Europe. Instead of a clash between farmworkers and farmers, he might pen a new novel about class struggle: the small guy vs. the machinery of capitalism.

 

Why wouldn't he write a story about the real class struggle: between workers in a state of undocumented debt servitude and their labor contractors and the farmers who sponsor this extremely mean system?

 

The destructive power of economic privilege and power over the “little guy” might become a rallying cry for the new Steinbeck.

The new “Grapes of Wrath” may also focus on a revolution on the farm for the past century: the epic shift from horses to tractors. The adoption of the new technology of mechanization can be depicted in an almost perfect economic curve, a graph with a giant “X” with tractors steadily replacing horses from the early 1900s to the present.

 

On small fruit farms like the Masumotos' the replacement of a horse with a tractor would not really change the number of seasonal workers required much, if at all. It took longer to work the ground by horse and horses had to be fed all year, working or now, yet they produced good fertilizer.

 

The evolution meant vast numbers of farmworkers were displaced – but equally as significant, they were absorbed into an ever-expanding urban industrial workforce. Tens of thousands of laborers were more than happy to leave the land for the bright and prosperous lights of the city. From one perspective, mechanization on the farm was bad only if you were a horse.

 

Steinbeck the farmer might write about the crushed hopes of those working hard with a fleeting dream of prosperity.

 

"crushed hopes," "working hard," "fleeting dream of prosperty": three cliches strung together meaning less than words can say.

 

I once wrote about finding torn lottery tickets in my fields, discarded hopes from our workers. I don’t play the lottery; the odds are stacked against you.

 

Let's see: who are they stacked against? "I" or "you"? And it should be "discarded hopes of our workers, shouldn't it. But, of course, in Mas-speak, we are left to imagine what the Great Author might be saying since it would be indelicate for him to simply say what he means, or might mean, or doesn't mean.

 

I also can’t share the same dreams as my workers. As they remind me, I already own a farm.

If Steinbeck was a farmer, race would be a major issue. When “The Grapes of Wrath” was written, America in the 1930s was 90 percent white and only 1.5 percent Latino. By 2010, whites were 72 percent, and Latinos had grown to about 17 percent.

Over the past century, waves of immigrants filled our Valley’s fields. Cheap labor fueled the rapid and successful expansion of our agrarian base. A common theme was often the tension between those at the bottom fighting for the scraps left for them.

 

Steinbeck has been criticized ad nauseum for not being sensitive to race, again, particularly the name of the race that in Mundo Mas must not be spoken -- Mexicans -- although Steinbeck wrote a number of pieces about Mexicans. But Steinbeck was a lot clearer about what the class war in the Valley was and -- if he were alive today -- is, than Masumoto will ever be because no California farmer can be honest about the labor situation. Few are even legal on the best of days. Therefore, when they try to express liberal sentiments about  the situation, they resort to pouring syrup on the well known substance...

 

Yet all these characters may have journeyed a common path: a search for home. An eternal optimism permeates our lands, a collective narrative about the human spirit to work the earth and plant roots. Dreams were embedded in the hardpan of our soils.

 

Another word for "eternal optimism" is the willful avoidance of social reality by our cultural leaders. Masumoto for years has been having his peach cobbler and eating it too -- the humble Del Rey dirt farmer and the nationally recognized or at least promoted "Rockstar Farmer."

 

The new Joad family from “The Grapes of Wrath” would now be a Latino family from Mexico, crossing physical and emotional borders. Their route would be along the back roads, perhaps even Route 66 of today, still journeying off the main highways. The new Joads would be part of an invisible population whose forgotten hands continue to pick and harvest our foods. Steinbeck the farmer would be fighting for immigration reform, knowing firsthand the role farmworkers play in our food system.

 

Neither the Joads nor Mexicans were or are invisible except to cultural ideologues with a political economic stake in ignoring them. And no group has a greater interest in that invisibility than farmers do. And among farmers, none have a greater interest than orchardists who require hand labor for cultivation and harvest. Farmers do get squeezed by suppliers and buyers and farmers squeeze their workers to recoup their losses.

 

 

 

 

As far as Steinbeck fighting for immigration reform, he might write an article or two but he was too much the writer to be a political activist, anymore than Masumoto, the Rockstar Farmer/Writer is.

 

 

 

 

What is this "literary insight" about "physical and emotional borders"? Is he perhaps trying to say that the US/Mexican border is terrifying for migrants these days? Is this some sort of literary code that means that living as an undocumented worker, as most farmworkers are, is stressful?

 

Steinbeck the farmer would still be passionate about writing stories of connection, about people who are not rich with money but wealthy in relationships. He would share in a story of people on the land, and our quest to scratch out a living in a green valley of dreams.

 

Actually, some of Steinbeck's best stories are about seriously alienated characters, not about people "wealthy in relationships." East of Eden, Winter of Our Discontent, In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row, Long Valley are all stories about different states of alienation, including but not limited to the twisted, the bitter, the lonely and drunks As for Grapes of Wrath, the wrath dominates, is explored, expressed and explained. I don't think it would be misleading to say that Steinbeck's view of the life of the Oklahoma/Texas,Arkansas/Louisiana migrant farm workers might be summed up by saying: Food first; then we can talk about "wealthy in relationships." Some might say Cannery Row is about rich personal relationships; others would argue the main theme is alcoholism, which also figures heavily in Tortilla Flats. And Steinbeck wrote often about people "rich with money," which ordinary people might call "rich people," but Mundo Mas is so much richer, at least in prepositions.

 

We will just finish by saying that we and most people we know do not regard the San Joaquin Valley of California as a "green valley of dreams." We include among most people the state and federal governments, who regard the place as one of the worst polluted regions in the nation, containing the grossest inequalities of income in the state and nation (worse than Appalachia). It is a brutal place for all remaining wildlife and fish. And it is a laboratory for everything wrong with industrial capitalist agribusiness where the world should study to learn to avoid what happened here. Some who have studied it call the Valley another failed hydraulic society. Irrigated agriculture, runs the argument, ultimately destroys the soil and the society based on it.

 

 

 

 

We just don't feel that Masumoto laid a glove on the problem in this little confection for the McClatchy chain.

 

 

 

 

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