The citrus industry shaped Southern California’s landscape and people’s imaginations. While Anglo elite, chambers of commerce, and railroad companies promoted a romanticized citrus utopia to generate tourism and real estate sales, migrant and immigrant men and women labored behind the fantasy.
Fruit crate labels aimed to sell both citrus and Southern California. Lush groves and stately buildings suggest the status of the wealthy industrialists who transformed the agricultural landscape. Noticeably absent from this fantasy is the work it took to yield a profit. Instead, tourists feast on the nostalgic image. The mission-style home (in the background) calls up a fantasy version of the colonial Spanish past that disregards the racial violence to Native Americans, whose means of sustenance was destroyed by the Spanish influx of cattle and agriculture (like citrus), who nearly perished under Spanish, Mexican, and American rule, and who were forced from their lands and into servitude.
The financial success of growers depended on large supplies of low-wage laborers, mostly immigrants from China, Japan, and Mexico, along with Koreans, Filipinos, and for some time, Italians. These workers lived in camps and neighborhoods alongside the groves, segregated from the white community. In the 1910s and 1920s, some large citrus industrialists built their on-side housing for unmarried working men, also separating residences by race.
War on Pests
Historically, grove owners have used a variety of pest-control methods including cyanide fumigation tents (that functioned like their deadly successor, the gas chamber) and sulfur. These substances fed what would become agriculture’s chemical addiction producing unblemished and “quality” fruit; they declared war on pests, just as the mass production of cyanide for industrial groves would later be deployed for chemical warfare on people. This 193 image shows “sulfur dusting,” a mechanized but inexact method of spraying the trees that uses one of the oldest known pesticides, permitted by the USDA today.
While the use of DDT as an insecticide was restricted in the 1950s due to its toxic effects on the environment and the health of American citizens, U.S. Border officials shown here in 1956 liberally spray Mexican guest workers, or “braceros,” as they enter the country to temporarily work in agriculture. The citrus industry was highly dependent upon the Bracero Program (1942-1964) as a major source of its labor.
In 1941 nearly 800 Mexican American citrus workers in Corona, under the banner of the short-lived Corona Agricultural Citrus Workers Union, organized at their community baseball field to picket local packing houses for union recognition, fair wages, and better working conditions. Though small gains for laborers would be made from efforts such as these, the formation of unions by Mexican citrus workers was consistently undermined by growers and their anti-union alliances with media outlets, the government, law enforcement, vigilante groups, and guest worker programs.