This is a Thanksgiving podcast, featuring three tasty audio pieces that celebrate family food traditions and workers who have given their lives to fill our tables. As we lay our tables with feasts this week and gather around them to count our blessings, I wanted to offer you all a bit of a treat. It’s been a long, hard fall for many. So, maybe now more than ever, it seems like people need to take a little care, enjoy a few tasty audio tidbits.
Tune in to this 4th episode in our Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley series to hear two student-produced audio pieces by Cindy Cervantes and Omar Gonzalez and a powerful performance by roots-blues musician and Central Valley native Lance Canales.
Thank you to Cindy Cervantes, Omar Gonzalez– and to Lisa Morehouse and Mario Sifuentez who helped produce their pieces. If you liked what you heard, you can check out other stories like this one, or on iTunes if you subscribe to this podcast. And by the way, if you rate the Cal Ag Roots podcast on iTunes, it will help other people discover it. We couldn’t have produced this story without the generous support of the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.
“I always feel like the day that the Hmong strawberry stand opens in the spring it feels like a holiday to me. It’s as good as Christmas and the best thing about living in Merced.”
Dawn Trook, producer ofthe radio play at the center of Podcast #7, told me there’s absolutely nothing sweeter than the strawberries grown by Hmong farmers in her home town, which is about an hour north of Fresno in California’s Central Valley. It turns out those strawberry stands that Dawn loves so much have a very unique place in the history of California’s Central Valley.
For the past 20 or 30 years, Hmong-American farmers have been cultivating scraps of land throughout California’s Central Valley that had previously been considered un-farmable. Like so many waves of immigrants before them, these growers have dotted the Valley’s landscape with surprising patches of green. One family is even rumored to be growing strawberries underneath an overpass in Fresno.
Cal Ag Roots Podcast #7 showcases another performance from our live story-telling event, Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley. We’re in the middle of a podcast series based on Borderlands (check out Podcast #5, if you haven’t already heard it). You’ll know if you’ve listened to previous episodes that we’re not afraid to feature works of art as a way of exploring farming history. The radio play, Ours to Lose, written by Yia Lee and produced by the Valley Roots Project, is based on an interesting research process. The play was written using a Story Circle process that involved interviews with real farmers from across the Central Valley. The result is a powerful and revealing portrait of Hmong-American farmers that really rings true, as you’ll hear in the audio portrait of Lilian Thaoxaochay, Hmong-American farm-kid-turned-anthropologist, which is the second part of our podcast.
I sat with Lilian in the shade of a mulberry tree on her family’s farm on 106 degree day in July. The heat seemed to have absolutely no effect on her brain activity, because she had incredibly interesting things to say, like,
“Hmong agriculture is not about economy. It’s about survival and sustainability and making yourself.”
Lillian’s comments stitch the fiction of Ours to Lose with the reality of her life. In a way, Lilian and this episode are in direct conversation with Podcast #6, which was an interview I did with farmer Mai Nguyen.
Mai made a powerful comment in that episode, which has really stuck with me. She sometimes frames the urgency of her work in terms of what it takes to combat climate change. She said that she has approximately 40 tries over that many seasons to get things right. And that, she told us, is going to take a polyculture of many minds.
We need borderlands and the people who are really good at navigating them because they are places where there’s a cultural equivalent to the ecological concept of the “edge-effect.” In ecology the richest places are where edges of environments come together, where rivers meet the ocean, where forests meet the meadow, where mountains meet the valleys. And the cultural edges of places like the Central Valley, I think, are exactly where we’ll find the ideas and innovations we need to move us into a farming future that we all want to live in.
It seems like this planet is really ours to lose.
This story was produced by the California Institute for Rural Studies and Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, director of the Cal Ag Roots Project. Cal Ag Roots is unearthing stories about important moments in the history of California farming in order to shed some light on current issues in agriculture.
Special thanks to the voices heard in this episode including Janaki Jagganath, Dawn Trook, the Ours to Lose Actors—Fuchi Thao, Ka Vang and Fong Xiong and Lilian Thaoxaochay. Thanks to Lilian for lending us the use of her beautiful farm photos—featured throughout this article. https://www.facebook.com/gtflorists Music for this episode was by Xylo-Ziko and Komiku and the Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo.
And a shout out to Cal Ag Roots funders including the Food and Farming Communications Fund and the 11th Hour Project. Thank you!
Recently, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services took the phrase “securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” out of its mission statement. The agency now focuses on “fairness, lawfulness, efficiency…and safeguarding the homeland.” In this political climate of xenophobia, fear and racist attempts to re-write American history, it is crucial that we tell, tell loudly, and tell often the stories of wave after wave of immigrants who shaped this country through every era of its existence.
California’s agricultural empire, the great Central Valley, is no exception. From the Chinese to the Japanese to the Filipinos to the Portuguese to the Armenians to the Sikhs to the Hmong, dozens of groups of people from all around the planet have dug their shovels and fingers into California dirt, planted seeds and cuttings with their machines and their hands, carved irrigation furrows and ditches with their tools and their sweat and tended craggy, sandy, cropland until it burst with bounty.
Cal Ag Roots Podcast #5: Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley shares stories about immigrant innovations in California farming that were told live at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. Tune in at the link above, or on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher to hear them.
There’s a stubborn, pernicious myth that masks that truth, of course. If we learn about California agriculture at all, we learn about technological miracles, about landscapes transformed through a massive infusion of science and money. If we picture the farms behind our supermarket abundance at all, we picture white, male farmers—a thousand Old McDonalds and their quaint red barns. And if we think about who harvests our food at all, we think about Mexican workers, anonymous, hunched over, faces covered.
But of course the truth is so much richer than those tired storylines. Not only is the Central Valley one of the most diverse places in the United States, but the immigrants arriving there through the centuries brought something with them besides capable hands and strong bodies. Yes, many of them were funneled into the industrial agricultural system and became a key input for California growers as they implemented their crop plans. But many also came to CA from rural areas—the plains of Laos, the mountains of Oaxaca, the Azore islands—with social, cultural and ecological knowledge about how to grow food.
Their farming wisdom shaped the industry in many small and large ways. A Japanese farmer invented the strawberry basket that allowed that fragile fruit to get to market. The iconic bing cherry is named for the Chinese farmer who first bred them. Filipino farm workers were striking and union organizing in farm fields before the formation of the United Farm Workers. Portugese immigrants invented California’s dairy industry and by the 1960’s were producing more than 90% of the milk in the state.
And because those stories are textured, vibrant and reflect reality more than the glossy, technology-worshiping, stories of powerful agricultural magnates, they crack open the myth of California farming. Telling these stories, telling them loudly, and telling them often is the only way to secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants—and to safeguard the homeland.
Huge thanks to the voices heard in the Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley podcast: Isao Fujimoto, Janaki Jagannath, Marisol Baca, Aideed Medina and Lupe Martinez (music). The Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo. We’re grateful to the Merced Multicultural Arts Center for hosting our live Borderlands event and to Tim Emerich and Roberto Mora for helping us to capture audio and video from the event.
Special shout-out to two key Cal Ag Roots funders: the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund. We couldn’t do this work without you!
On a rainy night on March 21, 2018 in Merced, Cal Ag Roots friends and fans gathered to hear stories celebrating the people who skillfully criss-cross cultural borders dozens of times a day as they shape the landscape of the San Joaquin Valley. Borderlands was a live story-telling event that challenged the common misunderstanding that the Central Valley is an agricultural wonder of the world because of a magical mixture of technology, capital and land. Taken together, the Borderlands performances, told an entirely different story. The stage lights of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center were trained that evening on people from communities who have come to the Valley from around the world with cultural, social and ecological farming knowledge that has helped to build the farming industry.
The black-box theater at the Merced Multicultural arts center was filled with color for Borderlands– Janaki Jagannath built an altar honoring farmworkers that featured a bounty of locally-grown fruits and vegetables along with farm implements, photos and the words “Quien Cuidará Su Jardín?” (Who Will Tend Their Garden?) and gorgeous woodcuts by Patricia Wakida (from Wasabi Press) set the scene for the Borderlands story-tellers’ stirring performances. We heard from Rosa Lopez, an indigenous woman from Oaxaca with a mole-making business in Fresno, and from Brian Nagata, a Buddhist priest who’s studied the history of Buddhist temples in the Valley. We were enchanted by a couple of student-produced audio pieces about family recipes by Omar Gonzalez and Cindy Cervantes and spell-bound by a performance of Ours to Lose, a play about a Hmong farming family written by Yia Lee and performed by Fong Xiong, Ka Vang and Fuchi Thao. A video produced by the Pan Valley Institute, From Our Roots/Desde Nuestras Raices brought the voices and faces of immigrants from across the Valley into the theater. Two powerful, Valley-based poets, Aideed Medina and Marisol Baca, treated us to a collaborative performance crafted just for Borderlands that explored the ways their stories and communities are intertwined. And then there was the music! Lupe Martinez opened the evening with songs and guitar from his field organizing days– and he was joined on vocals by Janaki Jagannath and Martha Armas-Kelly. Dayanna Sevilla sang a beautiful Cumbia del Mole and Lance Canales closed out the show with an incredible performance of Woody Guthrie’s Plane Crash at Los Gatos (Deportee).
This was the second major Cal Ag Roots live story-telling event since the project’s launch. Since March, I’ve been doing a lot of comparing Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley with our first live event, Docks to Delta, which was performed on the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015. Where Docks to Delta stimulated vibrant conversation and revealed the history behind the landscape we were traveling through, Borderlands moved the audience powerfully with passionate, often emotional, performances in a beautiful black-box theater setting. Designed as a kind of “after-party” for the 2018 Rural Justice Summit at UC Merced, we wanted Borderlands to explore some of the themes we had been discussing all day long at the Summit from a personal perspective, drawing heavily on art and story to open up new thinking about the Valley. I performed a framing Cal Ag Roots audio piece (which you’ll hear in the next Cal Ag Roots podcast episode), but for the majority of the evening we heard from San Joaquin Valley residents, telling their own stories, in their own voices. And the result was an incredibly heartfelt evening that left me feeling fortunate enough to have gotten an intimate glimpse into Valley life.
For those of you who missed the live performance of Borderlands, never fear! We captured the evening on video and audio, in order to share the stories widely. Over the next few months we’ll be featuring some of the highlights from Borderlands live as part of our Cal Ag Roots podcast– and, when we can, we’ll be sharing short videos from the event that relate to each of those stories. Here’s one of our absolute favorite moments from the evening, performed by Marisol Baca and Aideed Medina: Enláces: A Collaboration Between Two Poets.
Stay tuned for more from Borderlands– be sure to subscribe to the Cal Ag Roots podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast fix!
And thank you to Cal Ag Roots funders whose support makes our work possible: The 11th Hour Project, The Food and Farming Communications Fund, The National Endowment for the Humanities, California Humanities, The Switzer Foundation and a generous group of individual donors.