If you were standing in an orange grove even fifty years ago, you would have seen children working there, picking from the lower branches and collecting the fallen fruit in their bags. These children were called “ratas,” Spanish for “rats,” because they scurried around underfoot like rodents.
By the 1920s, growers began to hire more and more married men, who would settle in camps or towns around the groves with their families. Companies assumed that men with families to support would form a more easily controllable labor force, and hoped that by encouraging children to join their parents at work early, they would grow into docile employees. As a result, whole families, including children, might be employed in the citrus industry. Boys joined their male relatives in the field. Some children started picking simply because both of their parents worked and nobody was there to care for them at home. Other families needed the income their children provided, while some boys worked merely to earn spending money for themselves.
During school vacations and before class, boys as young as age five worked with their fathers or other relatives in the fields, essentially as picking assistants. Each picker had their own boxes and the amount of fruit collected in those crates by the end of the day would determine their wages. Ratas helped supplement their harvest, and the family paycheck, by picking fruit from the lowest branches. These children were unpaid, but by adding their filled bags to their fathers’ picking boxes, they increased his paycheck for the day. Given the low wages of citrus pickers, ratas’ work could be crucial for their families’ survival. These children did not have work permits or protections though, since citrus companies had technically never hired them. Working conditions were also harsh. Ratas began picking very early in the morning while it was still dark. Depending on the time of year, the groves would either be cold or extremely hot and dry. When temperatures dropped during the winter, many children would also be recruited to help light smudging pots, which burned diesel fuel to generate a cloud of smoke that prevented frost from forming on the citrus fruits. Children who helped with smudging would be awake as early as midnight, and worked throughout the early morning. The smoke was choking and oppressive, and sometimes boys would have to go to school with ash on their faces because they had been until the moment they had to leave for school. Teachers who worked in citrus communities knew their students worked long hours before coming to class, and accommodated their schedules. Steve Reyes, a former rata, recalled using the school showers to wash up before joining the rest of the class.
Some ratas worked the entire summer, while others avoided work by enrolling in summer courses. After receiving a work permit, teenagers could officially join picking crews at around age fourteen to sixteen, and start earning wages of their own. Working regularly as a picker required missing some class time, and so students needed paperwork from their schools in order to release them for part of the day. Each new picker received his own identifying picking number and his own set of equipment, including a fourteen-foot wooden ladder, a sack, clippers, and a pair of gloves. Being issued your own number and picking supplies marked a boy’s transition from “rata” to man.
Although children continued to work in the fields well into the 1960s, the use of family labor and ratas declined as a result of the second world war. WWII broke down patterns of family labor as men and women went off to war or moved into other industries. In order to fill this labor shortage, citrus companies began to contract single, adult men from Mexico to work in the groves on short-term contracts under the bracero program. The combination of higher rates of school attendance, decreasing cultural acceptance of child labor, and a shrinking citrus industry in Southern California also contributed to the decline of “ratas.” However, the issue of minors’ field labor has not disappeared, and today sixty percent of working children are employed in agriculture. As of the year 2000, between 300,000 and 800,000 children, many of them undocumented, labored in the industry.