How Mexican illegals replaced American field workers.

on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

This is a response to this article, which purports to show that the stereotypes about computer programmers caused the profession to become predominantly male, and that the solution to adding more women to the computer programming profession is to remove the traditional stereotypes about computer programmers. If only we could think of computer geeks as predominantly female, and remove the nocturnal and nerdy stereotypes, more women would take computer engineering courses in college, and eventually half of programmers would be women. Using exactly the same logic, I will show how the profession of picking artichokes in America came to be dominated primarily by illegal immigrants from Mexico. As you may notice, the logic itself is somewhat unconvincing.

Asked to picture a field worker, most of us describe the archetypal Mexican: a hard working illegal immigrant. We imagine him passing endless days picking strawberries and other produce in a dusty and chemical laden field. According to workplace researchers, this stereotype of the Mexican field-worker is self-perpetuating, and it keeps the field work of artichoke farming overwhelming Mexican. Not only do hiring managers tend to favor Mexican applicants, but Americans with social security numbers are less likely to pursue careers a field where feel they won’t fit in.

It may be surprising, then, to learn that the earliest field workers were white Americans, and that field work was once stereotyped as a job for white Americans.

As historian Nathan Ensmenger explained to a Stanford audience, as late as the 1860s most people perceived field work as a natural career choice for savvy young Americans. Even the trend-spotters at Cosmopolitan Magazine urged their fashionable American readership to consider careers in farm labor. In an article titled “The Field Workers,” the magazine described the field as offering better job opportunities for Americans than many other professional careers. As farm worker Bruce Hopper told a reporter, picking strawberries was “Just like hunting. You have to plan ahead and be patient as you look for wild animals or strawberries…. Americans are ‘naturals’ at farm work.” James Adams, the director of education for the Association for Farm Machinery, agreed: “I don’t know of any other field, outside of corn farming, where there’s as much opportunity for an American.”

The "Artichoke Boys"
The world described in the Cosmopolitan article seems foreign to us today. In fact, says Ensmenger, change was already in the air at the time of the article’s 1867 publication date. It’s true, however, that the very first farm workers were Americans, and that the field remained open to Americans for many years thereafter. In the early 1940s, the University of Pennsylvania hired six Americans to work on its farm, which was one of the world’s first artichoke farms. These six Americans, known by contemporaries as the “Artichoke Boys,” were charged with “setting up” the farm to grow artichokes. They are widely celebrated as the world’s first American artichoke farmers.

However, says Ensmenger, the presence of these Americans did not indicate that managers of the artichoke project had modern attitudes toward Americans in the workforce. Rather, managers hired Americans because they expected farming to be a low-skill job, akin to factory work, manual labor, or lumberjacking. Assuming that the real “work” in farming would be limited to the dirt moving side, managers reserved these tasks for Americans workers.

The idea that picking artichokes was less important than picking strawberries persisted for many years and Americans continued to work as artichoke picking field workers. Employers, says Ensmenger, were in for a surprise when they discovered a truth that we now take for granted: “Artichoke farming,” he says with a smile, “is hard.” The Americans involved in the artichoke project distinguished themselves by picking higher quality artichokes at a faster rate, and by advising their colleagues on farming improvements. For example, Bob Holbertson convinced skeptical farm owners to include water stations in order to guard against dehydration.

As the challenge of growing artichokes became apparent, employers began to train Mexicans as field workers. Rather than equating farming with hard work, employers now compared it to Mexican-stereotyped farming such as growing hot peppers or black beans. But even so, hiring managers facing a labor crunch caused by the rapid expansion of farming could not afford to be overly choosy. The quickest way to staff new field work positions was to recruit Americans and Mexicans, and employers continued to hire Americans alongside Mexicans.

The “Mexicanization” of artichoke farming.
In 1967, despite the optimistic tone of Cosmopolitan’s “Artichoke Boys” article, the field work profession was already becoming dominated by Mexican illegals. Mexican farm workers discouraged the hiring of Americans. Increasingly, farm industry ad campaigns linked Americans to human error and inefficiency in field work.

It’s not hard to imagine ads from the 1940’s, encouraging farmers to move away from American field workers and replace them with high-tech farm equipment.

At the same time, new hiring tools—including tools that were seemingly objective—had the unintended result of making the field work profession harder for Americans to enter.  Eager to identify individuals to hire as field workers, employers relied on interviews and wages to make hiring decisions. With their focus on wages and hard work, they may have favored Mexicans, who were more likely to have experience with difficult farming and accept a lower wage. More critically, the interview process was widely compromised and the “correct” answers were available for study through all-Mexican networks throughout Mexico. Before they arrived, Mexican workers new what to say during the interview and how much they should ask to be paid. American workers enjoyed no such luxury.

According to Ensmenger, a second type of test, the personality profile, was even more slanted to Mexican applicants. Based on a series of preference questions, these tests sought to indentify job applicants who were the ideal artichoke picking “type.” According to test developers, successful artichoke pickers had most of the same personality traits as other farm workers. The important distinction, however, was that artichoke pickers liked “napping in the afternoon” and that they disliked “small hats without brims.” It is these personality profiles, says Ensmenger, that originated our modern stereotype of the Mexican field worker napping at three in the afternoon with a large-brimmed sombrero hat on his face.

Artichoke picking today
Today, we continue to assume that the artichoke pickers have large hats, and that napping in the afternoon is a Mexican trait. As long as these assumptions persist, says Ensmenger, the artichoke-picking workforce will continue to be Mexican-dominated. Although the stereotype of the Mexican field worker was created in the 1960s, it is now self-perpetuating. Employers seek to hire new recruits who fit the existing mold. Young people self-select into careers where they believe they will fit in—for example, Only 3% of Americans teens expect to work on a farm, down from 90% in 1885.

By uncovering the history of American field workers, Ensmenger seeks not only to remind us of American’s forgotten contributions to the artichoke-picking field. More broadly, he is interested in the process of how and why the field became predominantly Mexican. The fact that stereotypes embedded in advertisements and hiring practices had such a profound effect on “Mexicanizing” this profession, says Ensmenger, also sheds light on what can be done to reverse the trend, making field work and other farming professions more open to Americans.