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The Mean Streets of Huron

Richard Street | California, United States

Organization: Streetshots

Every April and November Huron, the poorest town in California, produces 90 percent of the lettuce consumed in the United States. The bars are packed with tired field hands. The five legal labor camps are overflowing. A resident population of criminals preys on intoxicated field hands wandering home from the bars at night. When men leave the bars, criminals pounce on them, knowing that on Friday nights field hands have just been paid, and after cashing their checks, pack a wad of cash in their back pockets. On Saturday nights the Huron police department rolls from one call to another in a never-ending combat triage to assist field hand such as this field hand was robbed and beaten as he walked to his barracks inside a garage on Fourth street.

I stumbled into this story in 1986, at Kesterson National Wildlife refuge, near Los Banos, CA, after photographing ducks, geese, and other water birds hatched with brains outside their heads, two beaks, and missing body parts or parts where they shouldn't be. Selenium washed out of San Joaquin Valley farms by massive, endless irrigation had poured into an uncompleted drainage canal that ended a few miles south of Los Banos. Curious about the source of the tainted water, I began searching the agricultural system that had produced this catastrophe. On that journey, I discovered an even greater human catastrophe in Huron,  an isolated and claustrophobic farm town with no McDonalds, no movie theater, no high school. Huron didn't have a lot of things most towns take for granted. Essentially a giant labor camp for farmers in Westlands Water District, the largest private water district in the United States, Huron was the poorest town in California, in the richest agricultural county in the world.

Richard Steven Street, Jon Lewis: Photographs of the California Grape Strike (University of Nebraska Press, 2013)

Street, Everyone Had Cameras: Photographers and Farmworkers in California (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008)

Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California

Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford University Press, 2004)

Street, Photographing Farmworkers in California (Stanford University Press, 2004)

 Street, Organizing for Our Lives: News Voices from Rural Communities (New Sage Press/California Rural Legal Assistance, Portland, 1992), Introduction by César Chávez.

 Street, Kern County Diary: The Forgotten Photographs of Carleton E. Watkins, 1881-1888 (Bakersfield, Kern County Museum, 1983).

 Street, “The Documentary Eye: How Economist Paul S. Taylor Pioneered Social Documentary Photography,” California magazine 120 (May/June 2009), 51-58

 Street, “Delano Diary:  The Visual Adventure and Social Documentary Work of Jon Lewis, Photographer of the Delano, California Grape Strike, 1966-1970,” Southern California Quarterly 91 (Summer 2009), 191-235.

Street, “Photographing from the bullpen on assignment, when César Chávez ended his fast at Forty Acres, August 21, 1988,” 77  Pacific Historical Review (Winter 2008), 151-153 (and photograph)

 Street, “Leonard Nadel’s Photo Essay on Bracero Laborers in California,” Center 27: Record of Activities and Research Reports, June 2006-May 2007, National Gallery of Art, Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (Wash., DC, 2007), 152-155.

 Street, “Poverty in the Valley of Plenty: The National Farm Labor Union, DiGiorgio Farms, and Suppression of Documentary Photography in California, 1947-66,” Labor History 48 (February 2007), 25-48.

 Street, “The Photographer’s Double: The Photographer as Historian, the Historian as Photographer,” Visual Communication Quarterly 13 (Spring 2006), 66-89

 Street, “Lange’s Antecedents: The Emergence of Social Documentary Photography of California’s Farmworkers,” Pacific Historical Review 75 (August 2006), 385-428.

Street, “Framing Farm Workers Through a Historian’s Lens,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 7, 2002, B13-15 reprinted in History News Network.

 

 

Every March and November, when Huron produces 90 percent of all the lettuce in the United States, the population expands from 6,000 to nearly 12,000. Most of the influx consists of single, transient men who follow the lettuce circuit. Stranded in this increasingly impoverished, dysfunctional farm town, they make do in one of five labor camps, dozens of derelict trailers, countless garage barracks, and even the bushes. Vividly underscoring the huge and widening gap between rich and poor in rural California, Knife Fight City caps a multi-volume, multi-decade effort uniting scholarship, literary journalism, and social documentary photography. 

By questioning the over- dependence on industrialized, petro-agriculture and scrutinizing its consequences, I aim at heating up the debate about the nature of agribusiness, nudge food production toward a more humane and sustainable system, put a human face on a situation that all too often is reduced to statistics and bar graphs, and provide a model that encourages academics to adopt a broadened and more engaged approach to scholarship.

California Rural Legal Assistance

California Institute for Rural Studies

Fund for Investigative Journalism

 

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