I just recall as a baby waking up in a car and just hearing fruit hitting the aluminum ladders and being awoken by that some kind of weird unclear sorts and trying to find my parents while they were picking fruit. And it’s hard to identify parents since you only see the legs and the rest of the bodies are kind of within the trees.
Welcome to 1500 Stories, a podcast about something Americans don’t like to talk about–economic class. 1500 Stories is an art and digital storytelling project about economic inequality in the United States. My name is Jen Myhre and I founded 1500 Stories back in 2015. I have a day job teaching sociology–or as I like to call it, delivering the bad news–at a community college in the Silicon Valley and when my day job ends my work as a visual artist, documentarian and community organizer begins. You might be wondering about where the name 1500 Stories comes from. It comes from a visual data display I have nerded out on for over twenty years. It is a poster created by economist Stephen J. Rose depicting roughly the bottom 90% of Americans in terms of income and wealth. Posters don’t make good podcast material but if you were to look at you would notice that most of the people cluster at the bottom and most of the wealth and income clusters at the top. The poster only shows that bottom 90% because the top 10% can’t fit on the poster. In 1997 when I first started teaching the poster in my Introduction to Sociology classes, the poster would need to have been 3 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. By the time 2015 came around, the poster would need to have been 1500 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. That’s five miles long!! That phrase 1500 stories stuck with me and one day it hit me–STORIES!! We need to tell our stories about economic class. Since then, over 700 Americans, people living in very different economic situations, have opened up to the project about their lives. These people share openly about things Americans avoid talking about–things like money, and debt, their economic struggles, their worries and their hopes for the future. No matter where they fall on the economic ladder, everyone has a story.
This is the fourth and final episode of a mini-series about rural life in the U.S. These episodes have pulled back the curtain of something scholars refers to as the agrarian myth to look at the complexities of farm life. As we learned in previous episodes, the agrarian myth refers to romantic notions throughout American history and culture of rural people as the “real Americans” and rural living as the embodiment of core American ideals like self-sufficiency, individualism, family values and hard work. I shared how, even though I grew up in a rural area, the agrarian myth formed in my own imagination from bits of pop culture like The Farmer Says See-and-Say toy and Little House on the Prairie. Some folks trace the agrarian myth all the way back to Thomas Jefferson who wrote “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” That line alone, coming from Jefferson, gives us some clues about what might be problematic about the agrarian myth, given that, as it turned out, it was hundreds of enslaved people rather than Jefferson himself who were laboring on *his* earth and that *his* earth also happened to be land stolen by force from the first peoples of the continent. And so we need to dig beyond the agrarian myth to agrarian realities, which today look a lot more like industrial realities, as we also learned in previous episodes, thanks to the rise and dominance of commercial agriculture. Family farms are no longer dominant; large scale commercial farms produce the lion’s share of the agricultural income. And the California stories of growing up in farming, like that of Jesús whom we heard at the top of the episode, are stories of farm work rather than family farms. Jesús is now a college professor in his forties, with a spouse who works in the tech industry.
So I grew up 40 miles north of Sacramento, California in a very rural area where the only means of economic quote on quote gain was through agriculture. So my parents came from Mexico. Um via the bracero program, so they aren’t educated. Um so the only recourse they had once they came to America was to work in the fields. And so it didn’t require too much of any what we would consider academic thinking. So I grew up then with parents who were really busy working the land and I just recall my childhood some of it working in the fields.
Jesús’ story has a lot in common with Javier’s from the previous episode, in terms of the physical and mental toll that that kind of labor takes on a kid, and how destabilizing it feels to lose one’s community due to following the crops.
As a young child I recall to just waking up in random churches and not knowing where the hell I was. Because there were county programs that offered free child care. You know and they went through churches…You know… clearly, of course, you know like my experience was working in the fields. You work so hard, you have to be there like by 5.30 in the morning. You have yo beat this one, you have to beat the heat. And you need to work per contract. Like a particular bin of fruits will give you so much. Like you try to do it as quickly as you can, and eat as little as you can to make as much money as you can. And there comes that point where you’re so exhausted and tax where you transcend the way you look and feel, and you get to this almost zen like state of like mindfulness. I’m like I don’t care about anything because I’m so tired. I mean really.
It was quite common of course that those, there are migrant workers so I had a lot of friends that I would lose cause their families’ would follow the fruit. You know they would go like where did you go? Oh you went up north to the olives? Or where did he go? Oh he’s coming back cause it’s the season. And they travelled via the seasons.
Perhaps because he is a college professor now, Jesús articulates some things about his experiences as a child in a farmworker family that Javier did not. The indignities of racism and poverty in the U.S. run throughout Jesus’ story.
And of course since they were working in the fields, we were just you know we were considered poor. When I was in kindergarten, um, a key work collection. My first euphoric high if you will it is just when my first rush of dopamine was. One of my kindergarten teachers, Mrs Delasson, came in with a lot of bags of clothes right which was charity um from the church and I just recall how happy a lot of my friends were because they just got socks and the sense of pride of putting on this free clothes. and it was like Christmas. and I just remember that being extraordinary without understanding the significance or the context. um and I just recall our house being broken into and I was broken into because somebody was so poor even poorer than us so they stole our government food, the ham, the government cheese, the peanut-butter, waffles. so, and that was…you know I grew up poor. I grew up picking peaches. We were so poor I used to hate going back to school because I didn’t have back to school clothes. And um I was also made fun of that. One last thing I remember about growing up you know, people who grow up poor there is one incident, which will forever, not scare you, but makes you aware of your social place in the world. And it’s a realization if you will like, where were you when Bambi was killed or where were you September 11, it’s like where were you or what did you do when you realize you where poor. And for me it was when, I heard my grandmother crying, and you know i just followed the sobbing sound, and I saw her and she was stitching together my plastic shoes that were just of course torn apart and she was you know trying to stitch them together with fishing string, you know with the yarn, and with some glue and with some industrial shoe laces you use for construction boots cause my were filled and torn and I felt so much pride but there was so much disconnect with the way I felt versus the way my grandmother felt and I just sensed that something was utterly wrong. that it’s in a nutshell I guess.
In the wake of the 2016 election, speculation abounded about the role of rural America in the upset, and especially the rage of white rural working class voters. We heard a lot about rural poverty and those stories seemed always to be about poor white folks. The pundits never seem to mention people like Jesús’ family. Rural sociologist Gwen Sharp was raised on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. When she writes about rural poverty, she paints a different picture of it than the one we heard in the media after the 2016 election. When we think about rural poverty, the image we should have is multiracial and multicultural. For example, after looking a map of rural areas of highly concentrated poverty made by rural sociologists Daniel Lichter and Domenico Parisi, Gwen Sharp noticed something striking: “If you overlaid this map onto a map of American Indian reservations, you’d notice that many of these high-poverty [census] block-groups are on reservations–particularly in the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico.” What do sociologists mean by the phrase highly concentrated poverty? The phrase refers to areas where 20% or more of the population is poor. It turns out that rural African-Americans and Latinx-Americans are also more likely to live in areas of highly concentrated poverty than are White folks. Less than 40% of poor Whites live in neighborhoods with such high proportions of poverty, whereas the vast majority of both Blacks and Hispanics who are poor live in areas where many of their neighbors are poor as well. This kind of geographically isolated highly concentrated poverty often means, Gwen Sharp reminds us, lack of access to social services, decent schools, and the types of social networks that provide job leads and recommendations.
And it’s not just rural povery that is multi-racial and multi-cultural, rural America itself is increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural. Daniel Lichter and Kenneth Johnson (2006) explain that in general during the 1990s immigrant populations dispersed throughout the U.S. from cities into rural areas. In fact in many counties in-migration of immigrants replaced for out-migration from rural areas during the 1990s. Hundreds of counties in the midwest between Texas and the Dakotas lost population during that decade, but two thirds of these counties increased their population of foreign-born people. However much of that population growth led by immigrants is concentrated in counties with commercial agriculture industry, such as meatpacking and food processing.
Jesús’ immigrant family is increasingly common in rural America. Sociologists studying demographic shifts in the U.S. (Martha Crowley, Daniel Lichter and Zhenchao Qian, “Beyond Gateway Cities”) explain that increasingly Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and Mexican-Americans have moved into the rural areas and small towns of the midwest and southeast over the last 30 years. As a share of overall population, the percentages of people of Mexican ancestry has doubled in rural areas. Meat processing has become one of main sources of jobs for Mexican-ancestry folks living in the midwest and southeast.
However, Lichter and Johnson have also found that people of color are more highly segregated from white folks in rural areas than they are even in cities. “Like their big-city counterparts, nonmetropolitan blacks are America’s most highly segregated racial minority—roughly 30% to 40% higher than the indices observed for Hispanics and Native Americans.” (Lichter, Parisi, Grice & Taquino 2007). Some patterns of rural racial segregation are rooted in the history of white supremacy. Of black people who don’t live in city, over 90% live in the South. Among Native Americans, one-third live in rural America and most of these are on Indian reservation lands. While Mexican-Americans and new Latinx immigrations were heavily concentrated in the four southern border states, those groups are now more dispersed and increasingly moving to rural areas in the midwest. (Lichter, Parisi, Grice & Taquino 2007). Small towns in rural areas are also deeply racially segregated. (Lichter, Parisi, Grice & Taquino 2007).
Odds of poverty are twice as high for Mexican-ancestry folks working in agriculture than in other kinds of jobs. Rural areas have become the new “ghettos” for Mexican-ancestry folks living in poverty in the U.S. And these demographics shifts have not resulted in some kind of multiracial and multicultural utopia, as Jesús’ experiences attest.
And so I kind of felt the panic and insecurity of my father. You know he not believing in himself or doubting himself by virtue of lack of understanding language by lack of understanding government structure. By his lack of understanding the process of how one becomes quote on quote rich. So having said all that, I just felt that I was gonna be poor because the way I was treated, the way my expectations set grounded, I was gonna… I remember what my teacher said: I was gonna wind up dead in the ditch when I was 16. And you know when you only have one pair of pants, Milly, and you’re in the 8th grade and everybody is wanting to build and being aware of their social tight robe of budding into teenagers and how that identifies you. And you don’t have anything to identify. So the only way you don’t belong, so you rebel. And so I rebelled.
So when you walk into a particular store and buy water, the way people look at you takes you out of that state. You’re like look at that dirty Mexican coming in. There is…what the fuck…you know. And constantly be viewed and perceived, and we’re kinetic beings I mean we can’t quantify but we know intuitively…instinctively that we’re not wanted and don’t belong and I think that told just took a profound weight on just constantly being evaluated by virtue of the way people looked at them and talk down to them. 5 years of that, and you know what do you do, how do you respond. And without having a particular recourse certainly of course has to manifest into some um anger if you will. It boils over. I think thats why.
Stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have deep roots in the U.S. We can see this in examples like the fact that U.S. government used the title Operation Wetback as the official name of one of its immigration policies in the 1950s. According to the Pew Research Center, 4 out of 10 of Latinx-Americans have experienced discrimination at some point, such as being treated unfairly due to their background, being called offensive names, criticized for speaking Spanish in public, or been told to ‘go back to their home country’. The Pew Research Center also found that Latinx people who feel that others see them as nonwhite are also more likely to say they have experienced people acting as if they were suspicious of them or as if they were not smart. And as Jesús articulates, such experiences create a profound weight. When racism and poverty compound one another, that weight is even heavier.
There is so many instances of that and you know my dad just being so many because of not having enough money and cursing the world and being mad at his slot and destiny. I mean people don’t realize the psychological implication when one comes to the realization that all they will ever amount to is a field worker. I mean just think about the gravity of that. That all, despite, the hope and promise then one person will be the plateau as a janitor. What kind of…. God how do you accept that? How to you grapple with that? You know and I think that sometimes gets lost in a conversation. When we think about equality we forget about potential, prospect and rarely you think about like dignity as it is defined by social standing by virtue of the job.
Yet, for Jesús’ family, like so many others, hard work was both a way of life and a core value. In this way, Jesús’ family lives out the agrarian myth and embodies one of the core ideals of American culture. Jesús was asked about how he went from working in the fields as a child to teaching in college classroom as an adult, he can see how hard his parents worked and how hard he has worked but also acknowledges that’s not enough.
Yeah, luck. You know part of it was you know I was really blessed in that I have seen my father work. You know, wake up early in the morning. We were always the first ones to get there to work. We could never complain that we were tired. You know you always had to work harder and stronger. And somehow you know it’s the whole American ethos that somehow your hard work will pay off. You know and that whole competitive nature what it means to be in this country. And directly my father kind of, again you know, implicitly showed us via his minimal words and just you know showed us that one way of becoming quote on quote…you know work your ass off, which is such an immigrant thing to do. Because they grew up through their survivalist minds of because, you know, he was really really really poor. You know the hell do I know. That’s such glory, dude. I mean we have fucking running water we have toilets you know. And we have roads you know and oh my god a car. You know and so as a result of that hard work, of that survivalist syndrome I think to some degree it was kind of unintentionally, you know my family’s…to just work your ass off. And so that’s how I made it. You know despite the sit-backs and me having to deal with my own issues about language and how I did not fit with conventional known learning modalities. And struggling to read and despite all of that I knew that I was very fortunate to have an older brother, who worked really hard and I followed his footsteps and I always remember what I saw with my father, which is just work. And I still work really hard so , yeah I guess it’s luck .
Jesús can see clearly how and why hard work matters, but his upward mobility isn’t as simple as that. Like many other 1500 Stories participants, he can see the limitations of the common American belief in what sociologists like Michael Schwalbe call achievement ideology–the belief that people end up in the economic positions they do because of their hard work, talent and effort alone. The American dream holds true for some but on the balance is maybe more dream than reality.
Luck. What I tell my father…what he fails to understand and there is this whole notion that of course what my father has yet to fail to understand. Yes he worked hard and he worked so hard and granted he is such a profound vigilant… he will outwork, he will out determine anybody. and he in fact says with unwavering confidence…you know he says if had i known english i would have been president of the united states. i really firmly believe him. he is special. he is like a legend. and… however, when he worked in the fields, the owners of the land noticed that he is special. and they saw his drive and he knew he was really trustworthy and he could get work done. and he was honest. and he so they hired him as a Forman. and you know as a Forman he climbed up the quote on quote corporate agricultural ladder. um when he bought his first house, he rented it out. and they decided to live in a really cheap place. and so they person who sold him the house loved what he was doing and loved him for his story. he had other houses and he got a free loan. like interest free, tax, you know it doesn’t happen anymore you know. and so he kept building and building. you know that way and then finally he got his ow orchard and he saved and he didn’t buy the tractor to save money. and we were the tractor. but what i told my dad is what if mum had a cancer. what if you would have fall off the ladder. you know there is all these weird intangibles that we don’t acknowledge because here in America you are self made but we fail to acknowledge that other elements you know the role that this particular person played in to you becoming. or this person who helped you get your first house…or that particular person that allowed you , you know. no one is self made. you know and you will be nothing without my mother. you know and i think i acknowledge that. i would be nothing without my wife.
Sociologists Daniel Lichter and David Brown note that rural and urban areas have always been interdependent on one another, their boundaries are increasingly porous and on a whole bunch of different measures rural and urban populations are starting to look more and more similar. We need to move beyond what sociologist Nina Eliasoph dubbed as “the scorn wars” between rural and urban American, undoubtedly. And we also need to move beyond the agrarian myth. As these episodes on farm work demonstrate, the story of rural America is a story about hard work and the American dream but it is also a story about industrialization and corporatization, about disparities between concentrated wealth and deep poverty, about racism, about refugees and immigrants and child labor. We need to keep listening to those invisible stories.
This episode was written, produced and edited by Jennifer R. Myhre, with editing assistance from Lea Li and Deven Sutaria. The music that opens and closes each 1500 Stories episode was composed and produced by Benjamin Henderson, who also composed the additional music. You’ll find references for the sociology and data discussed in this episode in the show notes. The 1500 Stories podcast was launched thanks to generous financial assistance from the Mellon Foundation and American Council of Learned Societies community college faculty fellowship program. However, any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are our own and do not necessarily represent those of Mellon or ACLS. Thanks to Lea Li and Melinda Poley for their ears in early stages of drafting this episode. Special thanks to all of the storygatherers who conducted interviews for the project and all of the people who shared their stories so openly. You can hear and watch more of these stories at 1500stories.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at 1500 Stories. Thank you for listening. Listening deeply to another person’s story is one of the most valuable gifts you can give them. Imagine how the world might change if we really listened to each other.