Race, Rights, and Reform in the U.S. Farm Labor Camp Program
by Verónica Martínez-Matsuda
An examination of the Farm Security Administration's migrant camp system and the people it served
Today's concern for the quality of the produce on our plates has done little to guarantee U.S. farmworkers the necessary protections of sanitary housing, medical attention, and fair labor standards. The political discourse on farmworkers' rights is dominated by the view that migrant workers are not entitled to better protections because they are "noncitizens," as either immigrants or transients. Between 1935 and 1946, however, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) intervened dramatically on behalf of migrant families to expand the principles of American democracy, advance migrants' civil rights, and make farmworkers visible beyond their economic role as temporary laborers. In more than one hundred labor camps across the country, migrant families successfully worked with FSA officials to challenge their exclusion from the basic rights afforded by the New Deal.
In Migrant Citizenship, Verónica Martínez-Matsuda examines the history of the FSA's Migratory Labor Camp Program and its role in the lives of diverse farmworker families across the United States, describing how the camps provided migrants sanitary housing, full on-site medical service, a nursery school program, primary education, home-demonstration instruction, food for a healthy diet, recreational programing, and lessons in participatory democracy through self-governing councils. In these ways, she argues, the camps functioned as more than just labor centers aimed at improving agribusiness efficiency. Instead, they represented a profound "experiment in democracy" seeking to secure migrant farmworkers' full political and social participation in the United States. In recounting this chapter in the FSA's history, Migrant Citizenship provides insights into public policy concerning migrant workers, federal intervention in poor people's lives, and workers' cross-racial movements for social justice and offers a precedent for those seeking to combat the precarity in farm labor relations today.
"Migrant Citizenship is a magisterial study of the Farm Security Administration and the people it served. In an evocative work that speaks across several fields, Verónica Martínez-Matsuda reveals how FSA officials on the ground and in Washington challenged the political mind-set during World War II by expanding the range of services offered and the hopes for reform encoded within them, highlighting the agency's visionary experiments in democracy."—Vicki L. Ruiz, University of California, Irvine
"Verónica Martínez-Matsuda foregrounds the perseverance of the workers-especially Japanese and Mexican-who occupied agricultural labor camps in the 1930s and 1940s and drew upon the promises made during the New Deal to argue for 'civil rights' well before the concept applied to Latinx or Asian Americans. Her most important intervention may be her argument that the Farm Security Administration tried (and failed) to extend rights to noncitizens, anticipating the current vogue of rights regardless of citizenship. Migrant Citizenship will appeal to anyone interested in understanding the origins of farm worker activism in this country and the continued struggle to hold the state accountable for injustice in our food system."—Matt Garcia, author of From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement
- Winner of the David Montgomery Award, granted by the Organization of American Historians