At the turn of the century, approximately 2,300 Mexican laborers worked in Southern California’s citrus groves. By 1940, that number jumped to approximately 25,000 men and women, nearly one hundred percent of the workforce. It is estimated that over 150,000 Mexicans lived in picker communities throughout California’s citrus belt in the twentieth century. By the 1920s, most of these workers were married men with families. Citrus growers recruited family men in large numbers because they assumed that fathers would be less likely to strike or leave poor working conditions than single men.
Working conditions for these pickers were grueling. For much of the year, Southern California groves were hot and dusty, but winters and early mornings could be bitterly cold. As late as the 1960s, citrus companies did not provide restrooms in the groves for their workers. Work began as early as six in the morning, and continued until five in the afternoon. However, working hours were not always steady, since weather conditions and demand often determined when and how long men worked. Pickers carried their gear – fourteen-foot wooden ladders, gloves, sacks, and clippers – into the groves with them. The wooden ladders were heavy, narrow, and potentially hazardous as men climbed up and down them with hefty sacks on their backs. One full sack could fill a single crate, and each crate could weigh up to 55 pounds. Pickers could stop for half-hour an hour for lunch and rest if they chose, but many men continued to work through their breaks. Companies paid their workers by the box, at a rate of about 15-18 cents each in the 1940s, and so many men worked as much as possible to maximize their pay. A former citrus worker recalled seeing men eating their tacos in one hand while they continued picking with the other.
Many men felt compelled to work so hard because most pickers lived in general poverty. A 1939 Senate report found that pickers averaged 30 to 35 cents per hour, for a total yearly salary of four hundred dollars a year. Many families would supplement their incomes by working in related agricultural industries, such as grapes or lettuce. However, Lupe Perez, who grew up in a family of citrus workers, recalled that “we were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor.” With a husband working in the fields and a wife working in the picking house, he remembered, families could afford to buy a home, a truck, and send their children to school. Working hard and providing for one’s family was a point of personal honor.
Unlike other agricultural communities composed of migrant labor, citrus communities were built upon a stable, relatively permanent residential community of laborers, most of whom were afforded year-round employment in the local industry. Between working long hours in the groves and living closely together in workers’ villages and camps, pickers often developed a strong sense of camaraderie and community. Pickers drank together after work, attended church together with their families, and socialized at dances and parties. Former pickers recall joking around with each other at work, ribbing each other, exchanging friendly insults, and twisting each others’ ladders to send other men plunging through the tree branches.
With the outbreak of World War II, pickers left the groves to serve in the army. Under pressure from agricultural industries, the government instituted the “bracero program,” in which Mexican citizens would work in American industries on short-term contracts. Post-war suburbanization and industrialization continued to usher in changes in the citrus labor force and in citrus communities, who increasingly found employment outside agriculture in fields such as factory work or construction. By 1946, braceros were eighty percent of the picking force, and would remain so until the fall of citrus in the 1960s.