For most people, the Fourth of July is as American as apple pie. But for me, this quintessential American holiday is more synonymous with a fruit that grows a bit closer to the earth – strawberries.
This crop is singularly responsible for the success of generations of immigrants from Japan, Mexico and Southeast Asia, whose paths to the American Dream quite literally have wound their way through California’s strawberry fields.
A diverse community of 400 family farmers dominates the state’s strawberry production, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of all the strawberries grown in the United States, according to a California Strawberry Commission report issued this week.
Sixty-five percent of these farmers are of Mexican descent, and a quarter of the state’s Latino strawberry farmers worked their way up from field workers to supervisors and eventually owners of their own farms. Another 20 percent are Asian Americans, primarily Japanese and, most recently, Laotians. The remaining 15 percent are European Americans, with some tracing their ancestry to Gold Rush pioneers.
The story of my father, Luis Chavez, illustrates this immigrant experience. He came to the United States from a small rural town in Jalisco, Mexico. Born in 1934, he was raised in a home without electricity or running water. He hasn’t attended a single day of school in his entire life. His family grew corn and beans to survive. With no money in his pockets, he arrived in California in search of a better life in 1955, as part of the Bracero program – an agreement between the United States and Mexico to bring Mexican citizens here to address the need for farm labor during World War II.
Like generations of immigrants, my father realized that the key to success was hard work. He first took a job in a dairy, working double shifts for 16 years until the family could scrape up enough money to lease an acre to plant strawberries. While still working their regular jobs, my parents would get up at 4 a.m. every day, before we were awake, to tend their plot and slowly build their business. Gradually, they expanded to become self-sustaining as L&G Farms. My siblings and I now work side by side with my father to farm 300 acres in Santa Maria, where we employ several hundred people.
This story is not uncommon. But why are so many immigrants drawn to strawberry farming?
The answer – according to the commission report, “Growing the American Dream: California Strawberry Farming’s Rich History of Immigrants & Opportunity” – can be found in the economics and the unique aspects of California strawberry farming. Due to their high yield, year-round harvesting and strong consumer demand, strawberries are able to sustain a family on a relatively small parcel of land. Immigrant farmers can lease, and not have to buy, their farmland.
With our deep and long-standing immigrant tradition, California strawberry farmers have been highly vocal in advocating for immigration reform. Certainly, we are concerned about the need for a pool of workers to harvest our crops. But more importantly, we share a desire to make sure that future generations of immigrants have the opportunity for the upward mobility that strawberries have provided for our family.
Along with other California strawberry farmers, and Silicon Valley executives, I have made several trips to Capitol Hill to tell Congress about the critical need for meaningful immigration reform. While it seemed the nation was on the brink of achieving landmark legislation this past year, the effort has stalled, in part due to election-year politics.
But immigration reform should not be postponed indefinitely. And it definitely should not be a partisan matter.
Consider my colleague, Jesus Alvarado, a first-generation Mexican American farmer from Salinas. On one of our trips to Capitol Hill, he eagerly sought out a statue of President Ronald Reagan, his hero. It was Reagan who granted amnesty to many of the nation’s immigrants, including Alvarado. This simple act paved the way for him to become an American citizen and ultimately work his way to becoming a strawberry farmer who now employs nearly a hundred workers. Another American Dream realized.
The Fourth of July celebration provides a strong reminder about the sacrifice, pride and contributions made by this nation’s immigrants throughout our history. It also underscores the fact that immigration reform is as American as, well, strawberry fields.
Lorena Chavez is a second-generation Santa Maria strawberry farmer and secretary-treasurer of the California Strawberry Commission.