Book on California agribusiness published by former UC MEXUS postdoctoral scholar

Former UC MEXUS postdoctoral scholar Travis Du Bry is now also a published author. Du Bry, who received his doctorate in anthropology from the University of California, Riverside, in 2004, spent 2005 at UC MEXUS working on a manuscript based on his dissertation work in the rural community of Mecca, east of Palm Springs.

A native of Riverside County, Du Bry first took notice of agribusiness growing up in the rural town of Perris, about 15 miles from the UC Riverside campus. During his doctoral studies, he developed his research interest in farm laborer communities, social change and immigration. He also spent several years at UC Riverside working as the UC MEXUS Webmaster.

In 2006, Du Bry was a postdoctoral fellow at CIESAS in Mexico City. He currently is a lecturer and assistant project scientist in the UC Santa Barbara Department of Anthropology.

Du Bry's book, Immigrants, Settlers and Laborers: The Socioeconomic Transformation of a Farming Community, published by LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, is reviewed below by Christian Zlolniski, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Arlington.

Review by Christian Zlolniski

Farm worker communities in the United States are often portrayed as an undifferentiated world of inescapable poverty and tribulation with grim futures at best. In this refreshing book, Travis Du Bry challenges this common stereotype and presents an alternative view based on the study of Mecca, a rural Southern California town in the Coachella Valley specializing in the production of fresh vegetables and fruits. Using an ethnographic approach, Du Bry examines the profound impact that the shift from traditional field crops to high-value specialty crops has had on the occupational, social and political structure of Mecca since the 1980s. His central argument is that the new agriculture not only has increased the demand for year-round, permanent farm workers, but also has opened up new opportunities in specialized occupations, transformed the class structure of the community, and contributed to the settlement and socioeconomic mobility of an important segment of the local farm laborer population.

Written in a clear language and a direct style, this book makes a significant contribution to the tradition of rural community studies, particularly in California. Through case studies of farmers, farm laborers, and independent merchants and business owners, Du Bry traces the changes that the new agriculture has brought to Mecca in three key areas: its occupational and class structure, the social and ethnic makeup of the community, and the political control of the town's principal institutions and organizations. The result is a solid, nuanced and realistic portrayal of Mecca that captures its internal class complexity and ethnic heterogeneity and, at the same time, portrays the energy, vitality and resourcefulness with which Mexican-origin residents have infused this town.

Following on the steps of pioneers like Walter Goldsmith, who studied how corporate agriculture disrupted the social fabric of rural California, Du Bry takes up the task of examining the changes that have taken place since Goldsmith's classic work. The book is divided into seven chapters.

In Chapter One Du Bry revisits the founders of California's agrarian studies, making a compelling argument to move beyond them to understand how the re-intensification of agriculture has impacted the occupational structure in communities like Mecca.

Chapter Two narrates the demographic and social transformation of Mecca from an Anglo to a Mexican town. Relying on archival records and oral accounts by long-time residents, Du Bry provides a well-documented history of the town from the arrival of the Anglo homesteading pioneers in the late 1870s, to the development of industrial agriculture in the 1950s made possible by a massive state-sponsored irrigation water project. He also shows how the arrival of ex-Bracero workers in the late 1960s marked the beginning of the demographic and social transformation of Mecca into a Mexican town.

Chapter Three traces the shift from traditional farmers to corporate agriculture in the early 1950s in the Coachella Valley. Du Bry documents how high-value crops require considerably more labor than traditional field crops to irrigate, spray and maintain the large variety of vegetables and fruits produced throughout the year. Using case studies, he discusses the business strategies followed by big corporations, medium-sized firms and small farms that operate in the region.

Chapter Four shows how the reintensification of agriculture has affected occupational opportunities and socioeconomic mobility for farm workers in Mecca. Du Bry uncovers a class structure composed of owners of farm corporations and independent farmers; permanent employers including managers, foremen and specialized workers; and seasonal employers, presenting case studies to illustrate each of these categories.

Chapter Five documents how many farm laborers have moved out of labor camps and temporary housing, and bought their own homes in Mecca. Moving to their own homes has special social significance for Mexican workers, as it confers on them the status of full-fledged members of the community and symbolizes their upward mobility, the rural version of the American Dream. Unfortunately, the lack of housing in Mecca means that homesteading is beyond the means of a significant segment of the farm worker population which has few options but to live in overcrowded, rundown apartments or trailer parks. At the same time, the proliferation of merchants and small entrepreneurs running their own businesses in the service sector has added new dynamism to the local economy.

Chapter Six unveils Mecca's social divisions along class and ethnic lines. While older Mexican Americans in managerial positions occupy the top rung, Mexican immigrants employed in specialized occupations occupy the middle stratum, and indigenous immigrants, including Purépecha, Mixtec and Tarascan Indians are relegated to the bottom - experiencing racial discrimination and segregation. Yet in the local political arena, Mexican workers have become active participants in local organizations and institutions such as schools and churches, and have developed a strong sense of community.

Chapter Seven summarizes the major findings of the book and portrays Mecca as a dynamic community in flux, challenging the stereotypical image of farm laborers as a monolithic group of unskilled and impoverished workers, and highlighting the social and political agency through which they are improving life in this town.

Immigrants, Settlers, and Laborers brings a much-needed fresh perspective to the literature on rural farm-worker communities. While the book clearly describes the class and ethnic transformations that have occurred over the past few decades in Mecca, there is comparatively little discussion on gender differences, which could have contributed to a more rounded portrayal of the social transformations that have occurred in this community. Yet the policy implications of this study cannot be underestimated and fly in the face of one-bullet solutions that propose full mechanization of agriculture to put an end to the poverty that immigrants supposedly import with them. Providing a much more nuanced understanding of California's agriculture and its complex socioeconomic implications, Du Bry's study offers a realistic approach showing that immigrant communities like Mecca are here to stay. At a time when Mexican/Latino rural communities are spreading across the country, this book makes a central contribution to the fields of rural community, immigration, and ethnic studies, and should be also read by policy makers alike.

Christian Zlolniski is a social anthropologist specialized in globalization and labor migration. An assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Arlington, he is the author of Janitors, Street Vendors and Activists: The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley (University of California Press 2006). Currently he is collaborating in an interdisciplinary research project on economic development and labor migration in a rural community in Baja California, Mexico. He earned his doctoral degree in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Barbara in 1998.