Chapter 6 : Revolutionary San Diego and Tijuana
2. What role did the Mexicanos play in the settlement of the Imperial Valley?
There is thus a historical link between the Chicano communities of "El Vale" and the Chicano communities in San Diego. The entire agricultural complex of the Imperial Valley, including the towns of
- El Centro,
- Brawley, and
took place early in the twentieth century, largely as the result of the investments of U.S. railroad and land corporations along with the labor of thousands of Mexicanos, Chinese and Hindus.
In 1901 the first water entered the Imperial Valley and immediately a small farming community sprang up, named Mexicali. On the U.S. side hundreds of settlers rushed to file for sections of land and more than 100,000 acres were under plow within a few years. Soon the communities of El Centro, Calexico and Brawley were born.
In 1905 a disaster took place that would change the geography of California. Engineers had constructed a new intake gate on the Colorado River to avoid the problems of silting. Spring floods that year, however, washed away their temporary dams, and despite valiant efforts to stop it, the Colorado River changed course and began flowing, in its entirety, into the Imperial Valley following the Alamo canal. The river soon created a huge lake, called the Salton Sea. The river continued on its rampage for two more years, until it was finally re-channeled by the efforts of the Southern Pacific Rail Road, subsidized by the U.S. government. Thereafter the irrigation runoff from the fields of the Mexicali and Imperial Valleys flowed into the Salton Sea making it extremely saline.
Of course water and land meant little unless there were workers available to clear the fields, plant and harvest the crops. From the beginning the majority of the workers in the valley were Mexicans, although the corporations who bought up most of the land, imported other nationalities such as American Indians, Chinese, Hindus, Filipinos and Japanese. In addition small numbers of African-Americans and Anglo-Americans worked in the fields. The crops they planted and harvested were of every conceivable kind:
- wheat, and
Because of the weather and water usually three crops a year were possible. The population on both sides of the international border depended on the largesse of the agribusiness corporations, which controlled the economy.
Mexicano and Mexican Americans in the Valley lived in colonial conditions of poverty at the mercy of the farm owners. With racist assumptions and stereotypes about Mexicans, the white growers constantly "preferred" them over other workers because of the low wages they were able to pay. Said one grower: "
Mexicans are much to be preferred to whites. Once fixed, they are permanent and reliable. I do not think they are good for other types of work." During the 1920s occasional labor organizers tried to improve conditions for Mexicans in the Valley, but they were jailed, beaten and run out of town.
The Mexicans and Mexican Americans from El Valle looked west as a way out of conditions of semi-slavery. Until after World War II, few were able to make the move up out of the ranks of laborers and to escape the colonial conditions. Many of the most dynamic activists of the Chicano movement came from El Valle. They brought with them a heritage of struggle and hard work.