Remember the Latinos in the "So God Created a Farmer" Super Bowl Ad Last Year? Neither Do We.
Frank P. Barajas is a professor of history at California State University Channel Islands and the author of Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961.
With the National Football League playoffs decided and the approach of the final championship game on February 2nd, I am reminded of one Super Bowl XLVII commercial of last year. It was the fourth ranked, according to the NFL website, Chrysler Ram advertisement titled “To the Farmer in All of Us .”
Super Bowl XLVII will soon be upon us, and like over 110 million other Americans, I will be watching. And like a sizable chunk of that audience, I will be watching (partly) for the commercials .
And as an avid commercial watcher and, more importantly, a historian I can’t help but wonder if Chrysler will re-air one of the most popular ads of the last Super Bowl (still making the rounds today – the YouTube video has over 16 million views) -- their paean to Midwestern farm culture, set to Paul Harvey reciting his 1978 “So God Made a Farmer Speech.” (The ad, incidentally, was for the Dodge Ram pickup .)
The commercial raised my ire. It had all of the classic elements of nostalgia: avatars of Midwestern men, women, and children on family farms. Images of cornfields, livestock, and valorized country life.
But of the thirty-four slides, a meager two contained people of color.
I watch the Super Bowl every year with my family. My son wondered why the ad got me so upset. I replied with the question, “Were the ‘farmers’ in the commercial what you see in the fields of the Oxnard Plain in Ventura County, California?” (Fortunately, there's a multicultural remix online.)
Like the majority of “farmers” in California, the people that labor in the fields, orchards, and vineyards of Ventura County don’t own the land. A 2006 Farm Bureau report painted a revealing portrait of labor in Ventura County: 99 percent of farm workers are Hispanic; 57 percent are undocumented; and the average farm worker has over ten years of “agricultural experience.”
My parents, themselves the children of immigrants from the Mexican states of Michoacán and Chihuahua, toiled in the “factories in the field” of fruits and vegetables as defined by Carey McWilliams, the paterfamilias of California History. And the dream that they held for their children was that we would not, someday, want to be “farmers.”
Dating back to the mission era, California elites -- whether they be missionaries, rancheros, or wheat barons—monopolized the land as Native American, Asian, European, African, and Mexican peoples labored in the intense sun and bitter cold of agriculture. Periodically farm workers collectively protested their station, sometimes successfully, for modest demands such as a living wage, water to drink, adequate shelter, and safe work conditions.
This occurred on the Oxnard Plain in 1903 when a coalition of Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers and labor contractors formed the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. They resisted the attempt of a coterie of growers and financiers to slash the extant wage rate by 50 percent. The sugar beet barons also created the Western Agricultural Contracting Company to eliminate independent labor agents.
Despite the wealth and power of agribusiness, the JMLA enjoyed a victory against a class of employers that often pitted one ethnic group against another to undermine labor solidarity. The omission the history of labor from our broader history of agriculture preserves the Jeffersonian myth of the yeoman farmer as self-sufficient and individualistic.
Contrary to the yeoman legend, growers today belong to associations and bureaus to advance their interests, as farming is big business. Farmers have been doing so dating back to the nineteenth century. Even in the Midwest, the land of Paul Harvey’s farming nostalgia, sprouted organizations like the Grange and the Farmer-Labor Party.
But in Ventura County, the people that own the very valuable land (the total value of agricultural production in the county was recently valued at nearly $2 billion) are not the ones involved in the cultivation of the land. That’s done by an almost exclusively Hispanic, largely undocumented workforce for wages near or below the poverty line.
The Chrysler Super Bowl ad of last year veiled these realities from an audience seeking an escape from the anxiety filled actualities of modern life.
Indeed, the late historian Richard Hofstadter argued in a 1956 American Heritage essay titled “The Myth of the Happy Yeoman” that the more we find ourselves in an urbanized society the more powerful the fantasy of a fading agrarian ideal. Hofstadter also noted that since the early nineteenth century the market revolution of commerce and land speculation stoked the monetary passions of growers, not a spiritual devotion to the soil.
More recently, this nostalgic yearning has intensified as a demographic shift has emerged with an ever increasing number of people with origins like mine, from Mexico, and other parts of the world becoming the new majority. Chrysler might want to take note of this for its Super Bowl commercial this year as non-whites, like “All of Us,” buy trucks too.
Editor's note: No word on how Chrysler plans to advertise its pickups, but the latest buzz is that Bob Dylan is schilling for the new Chrysler 200 sedan.
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