Our series of interviews with authors of new books in labor and working-class history continues with Verónica Martínez-Matsuda. The University of Pennsylvania Press published her Migrant Citizenship: Race, Rights, and Reform in the U.S. Farm Labor Camp Program in June. Martínez-Matsuda, an associate professor in the Department of Labor Relations, Law, and History at the Cornell ILR School, answered questions from Jacob Remes.
Your book is called Migrant Citizenship, which at first glance seems like a contradiction in terms. How did farmworkers craft a version of citizenship that didn’t depend on immigration status?
That’s right. Its contradiction was the very problem farmworkers and Farm Security Administration (FSA) officials tried to resolve through the camp program. During the 1930s and 1940s, stringent state and local residency laws, combined with deep-seated racial and class prejudice, left migrant farmworkers without a place to enact their basic rights. Even if they were formally U.S. citizens, farmworkers were regularly denied the right to vote, send their children to school, access public aid, and receive medical care because they were considered non-residents or non-citizens of the community and state in which they were seeking services. The transitory nature of migrant work, in other words, marked all farmworkers as “alien.” A big part of this story, therefore, involved uncovering how FSA officials and migrant families challenged the notion of juridical citizenship as a guarantor of democratic rights. Together, they argued that real democracy resulted not only from migrants’ full enfranchisement but also from their daily participation as citizens (regardless of formal status) in a political and social community characterized by collective responsibility and behavior.
Is there a character in your book you’re especially fond of?
There are truly so many fascinating individuals in this historical account. That’s part of what made this program extraordinary. For a long time I was fascinated by Laurence I. Hewes, Jr. He struck me as someone who clearly embodied why a race-relational analysis of the camp program is necessary. In 1935, Hewes began working for the Resettlement Administration (RA) in Washington, D.C., paying particular attention to the dislocation impacting white and Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South. In 1939, after the RA becomes the FSA, he is sent to San Francisco to serve as the agency’s Region IX Director. In 1942, Hewes is busy overseeing the expansion of the labor camp program in the West when he’s called in to help coordinate the evacuation and relocation of all persons of Japanese ancestry on account of E.O. 9066. Among other things, Hewes oversaw the operation and sale of Japanese farms, and worked with FSA architects to design World War II internment camps. Within months of commencing these operations, he is also sent to Mexico City to begin negotiations for a new Mexican Farm Labor Supply Program, better known as the Bracero Program. That one man could traverse this terrain seemed astonishing at first, but it really is a clear example of how these processes and the struggles they produced overlapped in significant ways. The last thing I’ll mention is that Hewes wrote a memoir later in his life titled Boxcar in the Sand, which is super interesting because he’s very candid about how he felt in carrying out these assignments.
note: Verónica Martínez-Matsuda published "Pandemic Exposes Vulnerabilities of Workers on Farms" for History News Network recently.