Remembering Farms in the 1940s

Next time you put your hands on some fruits and vegetables from the supermarket, remember the farmers who grew your food

By Kat Avila, Contributing Writer
Published on LatinoLA: July 13, 2015

Remembering Farms in the 1940s

This past Saturday, July 11, I attended the unveiling of Richard Turner's sculpture "We Too Were Once Strangers" in Costa Mesa, at one end of the Flower Street Bike Trail. The monument features a giant stalk of celery, one of the main crops that were sold by Japanese American farmers in 1940-era Los Angeles and Orange County markets.

In the early '40s, before their forced WWII mass incarceration, about 2,000 Japanese Americans lived in Orange County. They owned almost 250 farms as 95% were involved in agriculture. (For a fascinating first-person WWII story, see Japanese American artist Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz's watercolor gallery "Camp Days, 1942-1945" at )

Tanaka Farms in Irvine is one of the few surviving farms. In 1998, the farm was forced to relocate because of development within the fast-growing city. The farm has educational tours, so children can see where their food really comes from, that produce doesn't just magically pop up from nowhere in a supermarket.

Last month Tanaka Farms held "Walk the Farm 2015" to raise funds not only for Japanese farmers still affected by the devastating 2011 earthquake in that country, but for Central Californian farmers hard hit by our ongoing drought, so severe that mandatory water use restrictions were ordered this year.

Farm work is hard, not just for farmers but for seasonal workers as well. My dad once talked about picking crops one summer to earn money for track shoes. (He was a miler in high school.) He and his friend slept out in the fields, and they ran out of canned food within a week.

But a Mexican family took them in and fed them. I remember the glowing look on my dad's face as he went on and on describing a traditional meal with beans and tortillas. But as they say, food tastes better than any rich man's fare to a starving man.

My dad and his three older brothers spent many hours picking vegetables on L.A. farms. In those days, the farms had new owners, because the Japanese American farmers and their families had been forced into internment camps.

He said, "I hated those farms. We worked so long out in the fields, sometimes as long as 10 hours a day. I was young, and it was very difficult for me. The summer sun was unmerciful, and the winter cold froze my fingers where I could hardly move them. That was a traumatic time of my life, changing from a city boy [in Boyle Heights] to a country boy, to live much poorer than we did in the city."

The 1940s was also a time of segregated schools for both Japanese and Mexican Americans. You might see an Asian face or two in an otherwise Mexican American school photograph. The Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles happened in 1943.

Then over 70 years later, we have Donald "the Clown" Trump visiting L.A. to insult Mexicans further. Every time he utters "illegal aliens" I think he's saying "illegal Martians," because that's how little he knows about the Mexican American and Mexican immigrant experience.

We Americans end up reading Trump's sensational and repeated lies in the press. And we are reminded of injustices that were and are perpetuated by like-minded people. The two Cuban American GOP candidates "Canadian" Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio from Florida can't relate to that experience many Los Angelenos are familiar with.

Next time you put your hands on some fruits and vegetables from the supermarket, remember the farmers who grew your food. And thank the Mexican and other Latino farmworkers in your heart when you see them working under the hot summer sun as you drive by in your air-conditioned car.

About Kat Avila, Contributing Writer:
A LatinoLA contributor on multicultural concerns and entertainment since 2002.

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