Here is the interview:
Rural California Report (RCR): How did you choose the title for your book? What does it represent?
Melanie (M): The title of the book was Ken’s idea, but it perfectly expresses our experience in the Central Valley in several ways. It alludes to the California Dream and hints that not all is well in paradise. The bright light of that dream: of a better life, of riches, of plenty, casts a long shadow. We always felt that so many people lived in the shadows in the valley. Such as the undocumented people, and hardworking people who had a fear of the authorities who might deport and exploit them. But at the same time, people had dreams of the possibility of having a better life for their families, of education, and of better living conditions. We wanted to make clear that both of these worlds existed simultaneously. The title also alludes to the geography of the valley and the great light one can experience there. It’s funny to think about – the bright sunlight tends to flatten everything out but the clouds define and highlight what is there – there is a lot of room for metaphorical play.
RCR: What inspired you to investigate and document the San Joaquin Valley? And do you think the fact that many Californians are used to just “driving through” the region that it is so easily forgotten?
M : I had been one of those Californians that just drives through. Even while catching a glimpse of the California Aqueduct and some orchards, I never thought anything about water and its importance, or the fact that the San Joaquin Valley is the breadbasket of America and that the agricultural business is so tied to our lives and politics in California, until I ended up doing research for another piece of writing.
I had to go through birth and death records in Visalia and got to handle the giant ledgers filled with loopy fountain pen handwriting. I saw how people had come from all over the world to be a part of the California Dream. Then I went to the Tulare library to look through the newspapers to find information and ended up following the story of the cotton strike near Corcoran in 1933. The fight was bitter, violent and both the growers and pickers went at it in full. When I started my drive back home, I started to really look at what was around me. What I saw were a great number of brand new housing developments going into prime agricultural land. I didn’t know that moment was the peak of a housing boom that would bust within a year and create the worst conditions since that cotton strike in 1933, and for the same reasons. All I knew is that it seemed very strange and that no one seemed to be in charge of managing the need for agricultural land against the need for housing stock right where so much of the country’s food is grown.
RCR: The project was a five-year endeavor. Did you ever think it would involve that many years and how did you decide to stop working and publish the book?
M: It was a five-year project in part because we both had regular jobs and we are independent journalists. Ken has always used this model of using the occasional small grant and then self-funding projects. It’s a good way to work because thinking about the story as it evolves over time allows doors and windows to open, and things that are not seen in first observations have a way of percolating over time and revealing themselves more fully later on. The story started out because of the housing boom, but as we kept asking how and why it was happening, the story kept getting bigger and more complicated. Cause and effect kept turning back on itself and we had to go back and learn a lot of California and labor history. In the end, we understood that the problem stems from the government being out of touch with the people and really serving the special interest groups. We felt the story revealed itself over time and came to an end naturally.
RCR: Share a few of the stories that stuck in your mind from the overall experience. Do the faces, and the stories that you heard, still stick in your mind today?
Ken (K): There are so many stories and people that are alive and well inside us both. The initial foray into the valley was for the May 1, 2006 Immigration March, and it was an amazing event to see undocumented people empowered, in the streets, feeling seen and being heard. It was a family event, kids in tow, and we were energized by the experience. Melanie had a wonderful farm tour with Rick Cosyns, and we both observed the Water March of 2008. We were really touched by all the people we met who live in a trailer court in Mendota, especially Yolanda Prada. She described her life there with her brother, mother and son.
M: Ken did a lot of good work photographing the “bank owned” signs, and overgrown lawns but felt he could never do justice to the economic collapse that we witnessed in the region. So one day he got the idea of hanging out at a local U-Haul truck lot in Merced, and waited until a family arrived that had been hit by the downturn. It happened quickly. He followed a couple with three children and photographed them. It was intense seeing the effect up close. It was so moving to see acres of land with newly paved roads, streetlights and fire hydrants laid out and land marked for building, turned into ghost towns. Tumble weeds blowing down vacant streets. We also saw families who had made a happy home in the valley despite the incredible stresses of low paying work.
(Image by Ken Light)
RCR: Melanie, you mentioned in your interview with California Watch how this project was “an exercise in understanding and seeing inequality on a massive scale” and “while I love the idea of prosperity, I don’t think that it should be on the backs of everyone else.” Describe how this experience revealed this to you?
It is not really news that most Americans enjoy food and goods made by people earning rock bottom wages either here or abroad. We hear about it, see pictures of it, but it is quite another thing to stand in a vineyard talking to and watching families picking and packing champagne grapes and then going to the supermarket the next day and seeing the very same boxes for sale. Here are my diary notes about that:
“I talk to a few people but finally have a pretty good talk with Fernando, a 15-year-old with one of his otherwise beautiful front teeth reduced to a black nub. He is working with his mother and, while not the most articulate of people, I piece together that people work in teams, picking and packing. They get $4.25 per lug. The lugs say Sarkis Farm and Sarabian Farms. I counted 24 lugs in their pile around lunchtime. There are 20 one-pound tubs in each lug. Normally, they also work with his dad, who is picking some other crop that day. With the dad, they can fill 45 lugs in a day, so that is $191.25 max per day for a whole family. They come in from Reedley. Fernando says their rent has gone up but the wage has not. The season lasts from April to October. He doesn’t skip school to work and hopes to graduate from high school, but he wasn’t that sure what year he was. He just finished his first year and when I said that he would be a sophomore, he looked like he didn’t know what that meant. At a certain point, everyone got very alert. One of the women said the majordomo was coming. Indeed, a neatly dressed man got out of a shiny van and walked around, looking at the grapes, how they were packed, trying out a few and so on.
When we leave I am so completely drained and parched from the heat and all I was doing was standing around. We drink a mix of orange juice, water and ice and it is the best thing I have ever tasted! On Henderson Road toward Kerman, we see peach orchards that have posts holding up the branches because they are so loaded with fruit. The abundance is mind-boggling.
This whole experience made me wonder about the economics of the whole process. How much do they pay the majordomo? How much did it cost the family to ride to work? How much does an apartment cost? What is the profit on these fancy champagne grapes?
At a nearby town, someone told me that a two-bedroom apartment costs about $200. I found the grapes labeled and selling for $2.99 at Pak N Save and at the Safeway in Orinda, distributed by Fazio marketing in Fresno. I need more info!!”
The average income for a farmworker is $15,000. The other statistics are frightening. Barbara Ehrenreich said that after she worked as a maid in an upscale hotel for Nickel and Dimed it didn’t feel good to stay in a hotel like that anymore. I have to say that it doesn’t feel good to buy great food knowing how the system is exploiting the workers.
RCR: Ken, how did this book and reporting experience differ from some of your other works, which documented similar injustices affecting forgotten communities and people, such as “Delta Time” and “Coal Hollow?”
First, Melanie drew me into this story, and it was her keen sense that something important was happening in the San Joaquin Valley and that I should travel into it and see for myself. My mind and photography was looking at other issues far from home and the valley. The issues in the valley have huge similarities to both Delta Time and Coal Hollow in that all three are communities hidden from the main stream, dominated by extractive industries, coal, cotton and industrial agriculture, and they have people who are willing to share their voices through photos and conversations. They want to be seen and heard. The major difference was the harshness of the economic downturn that hit the valley shortly after we started and the resistance manifested by the large outpouring of undocumented immigrants for the massive demonstrations on May 1, 2006. The other difference was this story is so close to me in many ways. I am a Californian and the outcome of the struggles here that plays out in state politics affects my daily life much more than the other stories.
RCR: What was the process like selecting photos to include in the book? How many did you have to go through? And also how did you pick the cover photo?
K: There were thousands of photos, over 1000 rolls of film, and it was difficult and at the same time easy. Some images just shout at you, while others are more difficult choices. The hardest part was the sequencing of the images for the book.
M: Choosing photos to work well with the text often meant reordering groups of photos. Ken did an initial edit, shared it with Sandra Phillips at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), who offered some thoughts, and then we worked for days thinking and talking about it. We laid the images on huge tables and walked around the room. We moved photos, talked about them, thought how they worked against each other and how they connected to the text, which is an integral part of this project. We strived to make the reader of our book, stop and read the text, so that they would get a deeper understanding of the story than the photos could possibly give alone.
The cover image felt like it could draw a viewer into our book, but also represented the idea of shadows and dreams of life for many in the Central Valley.
RCR: Through the injustice that you saw and documented in the Central Valley, were there any positives that came to light? Or what struck you the most about the people that you spoke to?
K: One of the most distressing realizations Melanie had is that there is a massive divide between the coastal Californian and the inland Californian. In the Bay Area, where we live, people are rewarded for being iconoclastic and ready to try something new, but in the valley, tradition and the status quo are very strong and people are punished for bucking it. That is a great and stable feature of society until the underlying structure requires adaptation. Then change becomes more difficult and can be more abrupt because it is put off too long. In this case, the environment has been pushed to the limit. Simple economic pressure as well as some acceptance of the need to honor environmental concerns has moved some growers to start to try more sustainable ways of growing. We came away largely pessimistic because the farmworkers are probably in as bad shape as they were during the Depression, though the amazing outpouring for the Immigration March was a good start for people in the valley to become seen and valued.
M: We all want the same thing. People work hard to achieve a better life. People dream of their children moving forward and up the economic ladder. It was amazing to see all the community activists working so unselfishly trying to make communities better to empower people so this might happen. Most people we met wanted to tell stories, share their world so they and others might have a voice. They want to be part of the American dream: having their children go to college, getting good jobs with fair pay, having a decent roof over their heads, and being empowered to participate in the American democracy. We hope our book will serve as an educational and motivational tool to both the valley people, the coastal Californians and people across the country, because our fate is tied together.