Two books document a pivotal civil rights struggle and new challenges for Latinos
The migrant workers that paraded through Maurice Jourdane's law office brought unending accounts of discrimination and legal troubles: Their children spoke no English and had been labeled as retarded and placed in special education classes; families had been swindled out of thousands of dollars by furniture rental businesses; others lived in the streets when the growers closed their labor camps, leaving them nowhere to go.
In addition to battling these legal plights that plagued poor Latinos, Jourdane and his fellow lawyers at the California Rural Legal Assistance office fought one of the most significant workers' rights battles in labor history: the abolition of "El Cortito," the short-handled hoe, which by design permanently injured and deformed the backs of migrant workers that weeded lettuce, sugar beets, and strawberries for agri-giants.
A new book by University of Houston imprint Arte Público, El Cortito, chronicles the labor and civil rights struggles of the 1960s and '70s, in particular the ground-breaking case that pitted the small legal team against the state's Department of Industrial Safety and a band of huge agricultural corporations. Despite statements from other growers who testified that their yields were higher when workers used long-handled hoes, and testimony by injured workers, medical experts, and doctors about the dangers of the short-handled hoe, the DIS initially ruled against them. Only after the California Supreme Court intervened were growers forced to abolish the use of El Cortito.
Jourdane ably describes the oppressive environment of the time, including the struggles of the United Farm Workers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. Although the writing occasionally feels forced and the conversations seem recreated, Jourdane connects the dots between politics (the hoe ban didn't occur until Jerry Brown had replaced Ronald Reagan as governor) and business that continues today.
Also in the publisher's Hispanic Civil Rights Series, La Causa contains a series of academic essays that detail the influence of Latinos in the Midwest. For those who imagine the Midwest as a vast white wilderness, the book points out that Chicago, not San Antonio or Houston, can claim the second-largest Mexican-American population in the country.
Although the dense data and massive footnotes are hard for the layperson to wade through, the chapters' summaries make excellent observations about the political and cultural status of Latinos - Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, among others - who are transforming the Midwestern landscape.
Activism has raised consciousness about housing, employment, and educational discrimination, but as La Causa points out, a leadership void has developed in the Latino community. Much is at stake: the English-only movement threatens bilingual and dual language education; as a group, Latino workers still earn subpar wages compared to their Anglo counterparts; and as Latinos feel more at home in the U.S., there is the danger that in assimilating, they will lose their cultural identity.
Add America's post-9/11 xenophobia that has turned public opinion and policy against legal immigration and pigeonholed all illegal immigrants as terrorist threats, and Latinos, while the fastest-growing minority group, are also at risk of losing much of the ground for which they've fought. •
By Lisa Sorg