When I was growing up, one of the slurs used for people who looked like me was “beaners.”
I grew up in Salinas, California, a place famous for two things, lettuce and John Steinbeck. Many waves of immigrants—Spaniards, “Okies,” Filipinos, Japanese, and Mexicans—have come to Salinas to farm and to work on farms. My family arrived in the 1970’s. My dad, from Texas, worked as a lawyer for farm workers, and my mom, born in Kansas and raised in Washington, taught English to the children of farm workers.
As a little kid I was lucky enough to spend my time in a daycare run by a woman named Maché, originally from Guadalajara. She babysat us in the house she shared with her sister, brother-in-law, and their kids. There were strict rules at Maché’s. We weren’t allowed to touch the little glass figurines in the front room. In the back yard we could run around and play on the concrete, but the vegetable garden was completely off limits. We couldn’t talk during meals—we might choke Maché warned—so in silence we ate lunches we brought from home, peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat, fruit, and cookies. We ate in the kitchen, where a pot of beans was always going, and where Maché’s sister made fresh tortillas every day for her family, not for us. Only once or twice did I get to have a taste of the beans, salty, rich and smoky, and I can still conjure up the heaven that was those tortillas, made with sweet white flour and creamy lard.
In the afternoon, Mache’s brother-in-law Don Pedro came home from the fields. I remember his boots and the short knife he used to cut the heads of iceberg lettuce. I remember his baseball cap, and I remember that he would go straight to his garden, stepping over the lengths of twine bounding the space, watering and weeding his vegetables. On the other side of the yard, across the concrete and next to the fence was a nopal, which the family also ate, though I had a hard time picturing how, what with the needles of the cactus.
I thought of this family when I read an article in The Atlantic in 2010 entitled “Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students.” In the article the writer asks, “Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor?”
If you’ve ever worked in a lettuce field you know how preposterous this argument is, setting up the laziest kind of false equivalency. Gardening is nothing like modern farm work. Industrialized farming breaks jobs into highly repetitive tasks, divided to the point that even in the fields there are assembly lines, different crews assigned to cutting, trimming, wrapping, boxing, and carting away the lettuce. Efficiency is the point of the work, not growing fresh food. Why wouldn’t a “stitcher,” who assembles and staples boxes on top of a flat bed truck all day want to go home to garden his own plot?
Words matter. Gardening and farm work are called different things because they are different. Assigning value to words is the privilege of those in power. Words are put on immigrants. An “immigrant farm worker” isn’t supposed to like “gardening” because the immigrant should want to avoid the shame of “manual labor.”
The word “beaner” is a slur because of the way it ties together food, origins, and shame.
The buzzwords explored in this issue—sustainability, artisanal, organic, local, farm-to-table, healthy—describe qualities and practices that are very familiar to many immigrants, even if the words used are different. These buzzwords are also associated with cultural power. Let’s claim the privilege of assigning value to the food we love. Beans are the food of the gods, especially the artisanal, organic kind. Let’s use these buzzwords words to tell the stories we want to tell.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.