Lettuce Wars
“Lettuce Wars” is a book by Bruce Neuburger, published by Monthly Review Press. It gives the reader a look at farm worker conditions and an unofficial look behind the UFW. (Monthly Review Press)

Bruce Neuburger dedicated five years to write about his life as a farmworker in the fields of the rich Salinas Valley, California in his new book, “Lettuce Wars”, which takes readers on a unique voyage written by an activist who worked 10 years as a farmworker between 1970 and 1980.

“Lettuce Wars” takes a look at the infighting within Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers (UFW) and at labor abuses farm workers experience.

The value of this book goes far beyond a testimony of hard work, farming or the landscape surrounding the seasonal harvesting. Neuburger did a great job bringing up the historical and sociological context of the farmworkers’ movement of the XX century, the “invisible” strings that moves politics around agriculture and its huge appetite for cheap labor and voiceless workers.

“When people talk about that war and the ‘heroism’ of it all, they rarely, if ever, mention that it was the hundreds of thousands of black people who came to work in the factories and shipyards and the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who came to work the fields and railroads that made U.S. war effort and victory possible” writes Neuburger in his book.

This paragraph is a good example of Neuburger’s ‘take no prisoners’ tone when dealing with the official and rosy story of the American Dream fairytale.

The book is filled with personal stories of co-workers and their customs, food preferences, jokes, political thoughts, celebrations, and more. Funny or sad, real stories of real people who helped build the richness of the California valleys while getting in return a little bit more than just enough to replenish their energies to continue their labor the following day.

The author, born in New York in 1947, grew up in Long Beach, California. He attended University of California Los Angeles and enlisted in the US reserve as a way to avoid going to Vietnam, and later attended UC Berkeley. He became an anti-war activist and took residence in Salinas at the end of the 1960s. In 1970 he went to work in the fields to sustain himself.

farm workers, Lettuce Wars
Bruce Neuburger went from being a farm worker to an author and professor with this book, published by Monthly Review Press. (Monthly Review Press)

His description of the daily working routine in the fields bring memorable paragraphs to his book that makes you wonder what are politicians talking about when they describe agricultural work as “non-skilled.”

“You’ve got to keep the knife moving… Stabbing under the [lettuce] plant with a sharp, quick stroke, hoping for a smooth cut, then flipping the head over to strip off excess leaves and, if needed, another cut to get a smooth stem.”

A reader may wonder why Neuburger didn’t add some recipes to make this book a complete encyclopedia. Perhaps that may be next for this son of German Jews, who after his experience in the fields went on to become a taxicab driver, completed his degree and then moved to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) in San Francisco’s Community College.

“Lettuce Wars” also helps readers to learn a part of history that remain almost untouched, covered by a patina of devotion and obscurantism: Cesar Chavez’s status of deity created by his followers.

Cesar Chavez
Lettuce Wars talks about Cesar Chavez and the evolution of the United Farm Workers, without talking the official line of UFW. (AP Photo/Alan Greth, File)

While Neuburger skillfully avoids getting into personal and passionate discussions about Chavez’s personality and charisma, he analyze his organization’s transformation from a grassroots one to an autocracy, and the consequences to the farmworkers’ movement. He also tackles two little-talked about UFW issues: its fierce opposition to undocumented immigration during the 1960s and the “purges” that Chavez personally lead to expel “communists” from his organization in the 1970s.

“Lettuce Wars” is one of the very few well-documented books recently published dealing with the farmworkers’ movement from a different perspective other than the “official story” published by the UFW, giving voice to the many anonymous workers and activists who fought for their dignity and a better life for them and their families.

It should be a mandatory reference for those who want to know more about those turbulent years and the life of farmworkers.

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