A Woman’s World: A History of Female Labor in Citrus Packinghouses

Packinghouses are the hubs of the citrus industry. They connect the groves to the rest of the world. The packinghouses transform naturally grown fruits into objects for consumption and distribution around the world. Since the 1890s women have comprised the majority of packinghouse labor. The story of the packinghouses is the story of women working together to build communities and make their way in California.

Chinese immigrant workers at Whipple Ranch, circa 1886.

Once commercial groves sprang up across what was soon to be called the citrus belt in southern California, growers needed facilities to get the oranges ready for market. These early packinghouses were more like outdoor tents where the fruit was washed, organized into crates and then sent off on the train to be sold. The first packinghouse workers were Chinese and Japanese men who transitioned from gold prospecting during the 1849 gold rush to working in agriculture once the gold veins had been mined out. Although these careful workers were instrumental in the rise of citrus cultivation anti-Asian sentiment swept through America in the 1880s with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion act and the 1892 Geary act. As a result, many Chinese and Japanese workers fled or were forcefully run out of town.

Chinese and Korean Laborers in the fields

Chinese and Korean Laborers in the fields.

Although the acts restricted immigration some workers stayed on and tried to hold on to their work in the citrus industry. One letter written by the Redlands Chamber of Commerce to an Edward D. Ripley in 1905 shows that there were still Asians working in the citrus industry but that their position was precarious. The letter states: “The labor market is in a demoralized condition in Redlands and vicinity, due to so many unreliable men applying for and receiving work, and doing the work in such a manner as to compel employers to get Japanese, which all our orange growers very much regret, preferring, as they do, to give reliable white men $2 per day, rather than $1.50 to a reliable Jap.”11 Letter from the Redlands Chamber of Commerce to Edward D. Ripply dated January 17, 1905, Redlands Chamber of Commerce, Accessed at the A.K. Smiley Public Library. As the fervor of anti-Asian sentiment threatened to boil over the pressure mounted on employers to employ white laborers. As a result, packinghouses transitioned from Asian male workers to white female workers.


White female packinghouse worker in Redlands, California

White female packinghouse worker in Redlands, California.”

A.K. Smiley Public Library

These white female workers came to dominate the modern packinghouses. These packinghouses had come a long way from the early packing structures, rather than simple tents or lean toos the new packinghouses were large structures, usually built of wood or brick and positioned nearby railroad tracks to make orange distribution easier. Oranges were transported via horse, and later carload to the packinghouses, where the oranges were washed, sized, graded, wrapped and packed. The first step was washing the oranges in a bath of water and varying chemicals. Next, the oranges were sorted by size each was assigned a number such as 180 which indicated how many of those sized oranges could fit in a crate, after this procedure they were graded. The art of grading consisted of scanning a sea of oranges and picking out the best, average, and not so great oranges. The best oranges were called “fancy” they were often perfectly round, bright orange and without any scratches or imperfections. “Choice” grade oranges are the middle ground. They are good quality but may have minor injuries or discolorations which prevent them from achieving fancy status. The lowest grade was “Juice” these oranges, although not spoiled in any way did not have a good appearance, they could be cracked, split, too small, not orange enough or lumpy since the inner orange was still useful they were made into orange juice. After grading packers would carefully place the oranges into crates. Each packer stood at her station and picked oranges from a conveyor belt, she used one hand to wrap the oranges in a light paper, twisted the ends and delicately placed the orange in the crate to be ready for market.22 “Oral History with Steve Solis, Manager of National Orange Company Packing House, Riverside, 1991,” One Packer Eunice Gonzales recalls the packing process,

Throughout this presentation when I refer to packing work or packing I am including the work of washing, grading, and sizing as well, all of these aspects of labor were critical to the citrus industry.

By the turn of the century, packing was considered to be woman’s work. Unlike the picking of oranges, packing was done indoors and was seen as less strenuous and dirty than being out in the fields picking.44 As seen in various letters from the Redlands Chamber of Commerce, including one to Ms. Anna Freshour dated March 23, 1906, from the Redlands Chamber of Commerce collection at A.K. Smiley Public Library. As a result, since the 1900s women have worked in the packinghouses and men have worked in the groves. One woman, Ms. Jennifer Griffis, like many of her contemporaries sent a letter from her home in Pennsylvania to Redlands to inquire about work. In her letter from 1906, she asks “A middle age energetic woman would like to make a home in Southern California if she can find something in light work which may add to her income (which is small) sufficiently to enable her to care for herself comfortably…” In response, she received a letter from the secretary of the chamber of commerce in Redlands explaining that “the work is light and pleasant, requiring only a clear head and nimble hand”55 Letter from the Redlands Chamber of Commerce to Miss Jefferson Griffiths dated July 6, 1906, Redlands Chamber of Commerce, Accessed at the A.K. Smiley Public Library. Furthermore the letter describes the work found in the citrus industry as “respectable.”

Women packers in Covina stop work for a photograph taken around 1910 by photographer Clarence Tucker

Women packers in Covina stop work for a photograph taken around 1910 by photographer Clarence Tucker.

Covina Public Library

Respectable was the key word here in a time when the west was still viewed as ‘wild’ and in a sense ‘uncivilized’ although the area had been the home of countless Native American and Mexican communities. An old joke says it all, that there were “no ladies west of Dodge City and no women west of Albuquerque,” The west was seen as a man’s world, a dangerous place filled with thieves, prostitutes, and other vices not suitable for a woman let alone a respectable lady. However, despite this, many women, many of them single, decided to make their way out west for a better life. At the same time the west was disparaged, tourist boosters, the majority of whom were centered in Los Angeles, were attempting to make California the land of opportunity, describing the ocean, warm Mediterranean climate and the abundance of agriculture and fresh air. These idyllic descriptions entranced some women who were thirsty for adventure or tired of working in dirty cities, doing factory work, or housekeeping. For many working alongside groves under a blue sky, in a new and exciting place seemed like paradise.

Unfortunately, the reality of packinghouse work, although respectable was not light and pleasant. The women worked in an assembly line fashion alongside loud machinery doing repetitive work day after day. Once these ladies arrived in California, it became apparent that to make a living as a packer one needed to become a model packer. The women who sorted, washed, graded and packed the citrus were paid based on how many fruits they handled in the day, this pay system is often referred to as “piece rate wages.” The faster a woman could pack the more she was paid. A woman’s speed was of the utmost importance and was the difference between a living wage and poverty.

For instance, in 1933 the Covina Argus published a story on the relationship between the piece rate pay and reaching the established minimum wage.66 “New Woman’s Wage Scale for Orange Packing,” Covina Argus, July 21, 1933. At the time the state of California had recently raised the minimum wage to 27.5 cents an hour or 2$ and 20 cents a day for women and minors.  The Covina packinghouses had established workers would earn 5 cents per box and the packinghouses claimed that the average worker would be able to pack over 40 boxes a day and therefore reach the minimum wage. However new recruits, the young, elderly or slow would then not reach the established minimum wage. To achieve this minimum wage these women would need to pack a single crate in under 10 minutes. Those who could not would have a difficult time purchasing the food they needed for themselves and their family. The more efficient a woman could work the better it was for their employer and in this system the better it was for her and her family.

In order to encourage women to work long hours and as fast as they could the citrus industry often held large packing competitions. One of the largest of these competitions was the San Bernardino National Orange Show, an annual spectacle where people from across the United States could gather to experience the splendor of citrus. The show would feature ‘exhibits’ inclining trains, bridges, and gardens made from oranges, as well as exhibits advertising the mechanical indigeneity of the citrus industry.77 “Features of the National Citrus Fruit Show,” The San Bernardino County Sun, March 9, 1911. Part of this ingenuity was with the packing house workers. Each year this show featured a packing competition where women would face off to earn cash prizes. The event had very strict rules: they were judged based upon their speedy time, how well the oranges were wrapped (carelessness would lose points) and the twist, how well each twist on the oranges looked.88 “Speedy Orange Packers Prepare for Contest,” accessed February 1, 2017, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/8698443/speedy_orange_packers_prepare_for/. The woman with the most points would win and often be featured in the newspaper. One such woman was Vera Coyazo a resident of Redlands was featured in The San Bernardino County Sun on Fri, Mar 6, 1953, below her picture it states that she won the competition 4 years in a row. Her record set in 1952 was 7 minutes 12.5 seconds.99 “World’s Champion,” The San Bernardino County Sun, March 6, 1953. Notice that this time, the “fastest” in the world is only three minutes faster than what the women in 1933 needed to achieve consistency throughout an 8-hour workday, using less advanced and most likely slower machinery.

Vera Coyazo (misspelled as Coyaza) poses for the San Bernardino County Sun newspaper

Vera Coyazo (misspelled as Coyaza) poses for the San Bernardino County Sun newspaper.

Some of these women were also invited to participate in the “Model Packinghouse” where visitors at orange shows could watch the women as they performed their work. Visitors could purchase crates of oranges that had been freshly packed before their eyes by this model group.1010 “Packing House of Fontana Is Novel,” The San Bernardino County Sun, February 19, 1915. he visitors would marvel at the women’s mechanistic type work. Like at the real packinghouses, the packinghouse owners believed that by always “keeping an eye” on the packers this would prevent sloppy work and increase the worker’s speed.1111 “Fontana’s Packing Plant Proves Center of Attraction to Throng,” The San Bernardino County Sun, February 17, 1924. The worker’s precision, speed, and labor were all on display, at these shows, and in the real packinghouses. The women who won the competitions and were featured in these exhibits were celebrated as model employees who were speedy, efficient, neat and the cornerstone of the citrus industry and its success.

Not all citrus workers fit into the ideal “model packer type.” Many were simply unable to pack as fast as the others and as a result, it became difficult for them to make a living. New recruits often faced a sharp learning curve, keeping their daily wages low and often making it near impossible to feed their families. Much of the work of packing was like a competition, some women were able to meet the expectations placed upon them while the majority struggled just to provide for themselves and their family. For many, this ideal was an unattainable goal.

Starting in the 1920s, the citrus packinghouse labor force transitioned as Mexican workers began settling in California in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. Entire families fled Mexico during the 1911 Revolution in search of a home and stable working conditions. One of the main industries that these new immigrants settled into was the citrus industry. In many cases, these immigrants were welcomed by the owners of groves and packinghouses. Packinghouse managers and owners viewed these immigrants as more efficient workers who would accept seasonal work. On such manager, a Mr. C. M. Brown responded to a survey on Mexican workers in the citrus industry in 1929 Stating that:

It was assumed that Mexican and Mexican-American laborers could live off depressed wages and could be more dependable for seasonal work. In addition, many of these same owners viewed the “Mexican peon family” as a reproducible labor force.1313 A common way to refer to the Mexican-American Family unit. This phrase was often utilized in segregation literature particularly by administrator Merton Hill. Hill, Merton E., “The Development of an Americanization Program” (University of California, 1928). Because wages were so low in the citrus industry it was common that the entire family would work in the groves, the men would pick the fruit, the women would pack the fruit and children called ratas the Spanish word for rats would follow the men in the fields and pick the low hanging fruit. As families grew the owner was assured more workers. Often citrus communities included segregated schools, where the Mexican students were separated from the white students and taught English in relation to the citrus industry and were funneled into citrus jobs.

Students at the Bryn Mawr Mexican School pose for a class picture, taken around 1920

Students at the Bryn Mawr Mexican School pose for a class picture, taken around 1920.

Courtesy of the Loma Linda Area Parks and Historical Society Digital Archive, part of the Mary Cooke and Eva Yanez collection.

In the 1940s the war changed the citrus industry. As a result of the war women, more than ever were fed into the workforce. As more defense jobs opened in California many white women began to gravitate towards higher paying industrial work.1414 González, Gilbert G., Labor and Community: The Camps of Mexican Citrus Pickers in Southern California Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Aug. 1991), pp. 293 During this time Mexican-American women became the majority in the packinghouses. Packinghouses began to actively recruit Latinas to meet the high packing demands created by the war. The U.S. government bought almost the entirety of the citrus crop during the height of the war to feed their navy, the oranges were used to prevent scurvy among the crew. To meet this high demand for oranges, packinghouse workers often labored for 9-10 hours a day and even weekends.1515 García, Matt. A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970. (Chapel Hill N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.) page 166. One Riverside Resident Simona Valero worked in the Arlington Packinghouse during the war. As a young girl, she remembers the very cold interior of the packinghouses and her freezing fingers as she sorted the oranges. Listen to her recollections about packing in the 1940s.

Even though the industry was blossoming the wages paid to these women were still low since the piece rate system still prevailed.

Packinghouse women

Many women were in a precarious position. One packinghouse worker Eunice Gonzalez recalls the high stakes in packing:

Despite wage discrimination and the strenuous work of packing, women still managed to converse with one another while on the packing line and form close relationships. These women worked long hours alongside each other and especially during the lunch breaks there was lots of socializing.

Eunice Gonzalez with her husband Rafael and her daughter Christine

Eunice Gonzalez with her husband Rafael and her daughter Christine

Although Eunice Gonzalez had to quit packing she does fondly remember the packing community, in her oral history she remembers “It was a lot of socializing, being among a bunch of people and stuff. During the lunchtime, it was nice just to sit outside and talk and eat and stuff.”1818 Gonzalez. During these coveted breaks, these women shared local gossip, recipes, advice, and even beauty regimens. Simona Valero to this day still follows the advice of her fellow packer,

Part of this community building centered around food. Sharing food is especially important in Mexican culture, it is a time to bring people together, share experience and enjoy the taste of home. Many Mothers and wives who were also workers themselves supported the men in the groves by packing food for them for lunches and especially on smudging days. During the frigid winter, the oranges were at risk of freezing. Freezes would harden the pith and cause the orange to lose its flavor. Oranges can last for only a few minutes at 28 degrees Fahrenheit before the juice freezes, ruining the taste and texture of the oranges. To prevent this, grove owners would send out smudging teams who would light large containers of kerosene which would create clouds of black smoke that blanketed the groves in hopes of warming them. Often it was young men of high school age who went out to smudge the groves. They needed to lug large barrels of oil to each pot to fill them and light them, often during the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning. Like picking, smudging was seen as a man’s job. To show support the women would band together to cook a hearty breakfast or dinner for the workers after they returned. Eunice Gonzalez remembers helping her mother with this task: “We used to love to because you know, we were young girls and that time and there was a lot of young men out there working in the orange groves, so we used to help my mother cook and help serve the men. And if someone were too shy, we’d take it out to the bunkhouse to-for them to eat. She always had big pots of coffee ready for them, so you know? My mother used to run restaurants here in Redlands and consequently people knew what a good cook she was, and they – I tell you, they used to fight for a spot on the truck to go to the Fairbanks Ranch.”2020 Gonzalez, Citrus, Labor, and Community in East San Bernardino Valley: An Oral History

These women not only shared food, local gossip, and family affairs. They also discussed their low wages and hardships. As a close-knit community, they often relied on each other for support. Many of the Mexican- American packinghouse workers participated in mutualistas (mutual aid societies) such as the Sociedad Progresista Mexicana which provided life insurance to poor families and recent immigrants.2121 Ruiz, Viki L. From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) 86. These community organizations were the core of the Mexican-American community. For example, the Sociedad Progesista Mexicana functioned as a type of insurance program, were members could contribute money to a larger pot that would help others in need. These organizations held the citrus communities together during tough times, such as droughts and freezes when many workers were laid off since there were fewer oranges to pick and pack.

At times this resistance resulted in organized strikes. In 1968 sixty Redlands packinghouse women shut down four packinghouses during a strike. On the morning of December 9th, they refused to work in an effort to secure a pay increase from 6¢ a box to 7¢. In 1968 the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. To meet this, women were packing 27 boxes an hour or 213 in an eight-hour workday. One striker exclaimed, “We have to kill ourselves to average $2 an hour”.2222 “Want 7 Cents a Carton: Packers Strike Four Local Citrus Houses,” Redlands Daily Facts, December 9, 1968. These women banded together over their shared concerns about the harsh realities they faced. In the end, their walkout was successful, and their demands were met. The next day they were packing again but making about 15¢ to 20¢ more an hour. Struggles like this embody the difficulties of packinghouse work and the perseverance, determination, and solidarity of past and present packinghouse women.

The Redlands Daily Facts newspaper covered a strike that hit four packinghouses in Redlands, reporting that around 60 women were striking

The Redlands Daily Facts newspaper covered a strike that hit four packinghouses in Redlands, reporting that around 60 women were striking.

In addition to collective action, many community leaders came out of the packinghouses. One such activist, Rafaela Landeros Rey worked as an orange packer for Bryn Mawr Food Growers Association for 30 years and was the leading force in desegregating the local school. Since 1911 there had been a Mexican school in the district which denied Mexican students an equal education. The owner of the packinghouse Rafaela Rey worked at was Wesley Break. Who had a seat on the Board of Education and was a strong advocate of segregation because it supplied him with a Mexican American workforce for his groves and packinghouses. By keeping them segregated he was able to emphasize that the white foremen and owners were superior and to cut off opportunities for these students outside of citrus work and other manual labor or mechanical jobs. Bryn Mawr residents still remember his lack of compassion, charging them exorbitantly for wood in the winter that he was going to dispose of anyway.2323 Fred Ramos, Unrecorded Interview, October 4, 2017, Loma Linda Area Parks and Historical Society. In 1942 with the help of a Mexican American School Teacher Fernanda Cruz, and a rival grove owner’s wife and avid archer Ruth Davis, Rey campaigned for Davis as a write-in candidate for the school board of the Mission District. Davis won taking over Break’s seat on the board and closed the segregated Bryn Mawr school allowing for the district to be integrated.

Starting at 11:17 you can hear Rafaela Rey discuss the desegregation of Bryn Mawr School.

These relationships created a distinct “packinghouse culture” emerging from a combination of gender roles, assembly line work, friendship and, at certain times, collective resistance and action. This culture persists in the packinghouses of today. Although packinghouses and the citrus industry in California declined significantly in the post-war period there are still a handful of packinghouses today. As in the past, the majority of the workers in the packinghouse are Latina women. As women’s workplace rights began to increase in the post-war era, the notion that packing was a woman’s work continued to plague workers. In the 1990s, women workers at several of the largest lemon packing companies in California won sexual discrimination cases charging unequal access to the same hours, jobs, and pay as men.

One such case occurred in Oxnard at the Oxnard Lemon Co. Since the early days of packing women were given the lower paying jobs while men would be promoted to supervisors or foremen. In 1991 a brave group of women sued the company for sexual discrimination.2424 See Patrick McCartney, “Oxnard : 7 Farm Workers File Sex Bias Lawsuit,” Los Angeles Times, December 25, 1991, http://articles.latimes.com/1991-12-25/local/me-992_1_oxnard-lemon; Jeff McDonald, “Oxnard: Packinghouse Had Bias in Hiring, Judge Rules,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1993, http://articles.latimes.com/1993-06-03/local/me-42967_1_judge-rules; Frank Barajas, Curious Unions : Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961 (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). These women filed charged that the Oxnard Lemon Co hired women only for the lower paid positions of fruit grading which includes sorting, washing and packing fruit. Men were able to apply for better-paying jobs such as forklift operations and promotions to foreman and supervisor. Most of the women were given fewer regular and overtime hours of work than male employees. The Lawsuit was filed by the California Rural Legal Assistance on behalf of 7 female employees. Luckily this case came on the heels of the Saticoy Lemon Assn. case from 1987 in which they paid $550,000 to 76 women employees.

One of the plaintiffs for the Oxnard case was Frances Guzman, who in 1993 has sorted and packed lemons for 15 years, never received a promotion. She also heads the Ventura County Chapter of the Farmworker Woman’s leadership Project, an effort aimed at teaching female agricultural workers how to speak for themselves and make the desired changes within their workplace and communities. Guzman is asking the same questions, other leaders before her have asked: “What if someday the women got organized? What would the growers do? We pick their fruit, we bring in their money. If they wanted their work done, they would have to listen.”2525 Fred Alvarez, “A Budding Movement : Labor: Women Farm Workers Begin Addressing Issues of Wage and Promotion Discrimination. They Are at the Vanguard of Pushing for Changes.,” Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1993, https://articles.latimes.com/1993-03-29/local/me-16617_1_women-farm-workers. The lawyer Valeriano Saucedo, represented these women from Oxnard, as well as other cases of citrus packinghouse discrimination including the women from the Saticoy Lemon Association and two women against the Dole Food Company. Today the Woman’s Leadership Project is still going strong now under the name Lideres Campesinas, which continues to advocate for workers rights.

While the citrus industry declined in the Inland Empire during the post war era. The Corona-College Heights Orange and Lemon Association continues to operate as a packinghouse today. This is one of two packinghouses still functioning in Riverside, and the only packinghouse that operates all year. In order to do this, they pack all several types of citrus as well as avocados.

Packinghouses have always relied, in one form or another, on new technologies, such as the train, conveyor belt. Today’s packing houses are more and more mechanized and many of the jobs in the packing houses are on the verge of disappearing or have already disappeared. The insides of contemporary packinghouses are loud, full of the sounds of swirling machinery and motors, as loud and deafening as airplane engines. There are machines that wash the oranges, dry the oranges, and even spray them with a thin coat of wax, which has replaced the orange wrapper. Some of the technology is even more advanced. For example, at the CCH packinghouse, they have a new machine that sorts the oranges by size and grade by using cameras. The machine is programmed to know what oranges are fancy, choice and juice grade.

Elizabeth Caranza a citrus packer for the Citrus State Historic Park

Women like Elizabeth Carranza, shown here, continue to form the heart of the packing industry.

Thomas McGovern

At the moment the machines still make significant errors, enough errors so that the packinghouse still needs a small team of expert graders to correct the machine’s mistakes. In many cases, however, the grading teams have been cut down by half and those still in the packinghouses continue to have precarious jobs and the machines and technology improve. Even the speedy orange packers have been replaced. Machines now pack the oranges by using suction cups to pick up rows of oranges and place them in cardboard crates. The women now man the machines and make sure to feed the machine cartons to fill with oranges. In specific cases, women still pack the fruits by hand. Misfit or small sized oranges that do not fit the specifications of the machine are packed by a team of 2 packers. One of them is Elizabeth Carrranza, who has worked for the CCH for 31 years and is still known as the fastest packer in the packinghouse.2626 Elizabeth Carranza, Tour of the Corona College Heights Orange and Lemon Association, interview by Catherine Gudis and Audrey Maier, February 17, 2017, California Citrus State Historic Park. She is so fast that she has retained her job even after machines have threatened to take it away. With so many packinghouses investing in these technologies, it is unclear how much longer many of these packing jobs will last.

From Jennifer Griffis to Vera Coyazo, to Simona Valero to Elizabeth women continue, at least for now, to be the lifeblood of the packinghouse. It is their labor that transforms the fruit on the tree to fruit we see at the supermarkets. In light of this, I would like to leave you with a quotation from San Bernardino Poet Juan Delgado “When you peel an orange does the oil of their labor linger on your manos?”2727 Juan Delgado, Manos, Espaldas, y Blossoms, May 2017.