Mexican Immigration in California
Soto’s poetry is often autobiographical, as is the case with ‘‘Oranges.’’ Soto was twelve—the age of the boy in this poem—in 1964. He grew up in a Mexican American family in Fresno, California, a city that drew many Mexican immigrants who came to the United States looking for jobs in the agricultural fields of the surrounding San Joaquin Valley. Field work has always been difficult physical labor, often involving stooping to the ground to harvest low-growing fruits and vegetables such as lettuce, artichoke, or strawberries. It is the physical labor involved in harvesting produce in the sun that has traditionally made the work unappealing for Americans who are able to find jobs that offer more money for less work. Workers from Mexico, which has had a more subdued economy, have crossed over to the United States for decades into border states like California, Texas, and New Mexico, to accept salaries that were much higher than they could earn in their own country.
Many of the workers came into the United States without proper documentation, which left them at the mercy of their employers, who could withhold wages, refuse decent housing or toilet facilities, or even physically abuse undocumented workers without much fear of punishment. That changed during the early 1960s, around the time when this poem takes place.
The factor that had the most effect on the lives of Mexican farm laborers was the advent of the United Farm Workers. It was founded by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Cha´vez, two community organizers who met while working for the Community Service Organization in Stockton, California. In 1962 they left to form the National Farm Workers Association, an organization devoted to fighting for the rights of migrant field workers. In 1965, the NFWA came to national prominence when it joined with the predominantly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in a five-year strike against grape growers in Delano, California. The two groups merged into the United Farm Workers, and Cha´vez, who led a 350- mile march from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento, became the recognizable face of the labor movement and an iconic personality in many Mexican American households. His powerful influence on the Latinos of California is evident in Soto’s 2003 biography, Cesar Cha´- vez: A Hero for Everyone.
Soto is often associated with the movement toward cultural diversity in literary studies because he has frequently written about his Mexican American background. Since the 1960s, there has been more emphasis on introducing examples from other cultures into recommended reading lists for schools in the United States. Although founded on the principle of the melting pot, which holds that the country is a place where people from around the world bring their cultural backgrounds to mix with those of others, the standard literature in the United States was, for most of the country’s history, very narrow in focus. It favored those of European background, using the country’s historical ties to Great Britain as an explanation for treating British literature as the United States’s antecedent. In the 1960s, however, different segments of society began to claim their traditions were at least as relevant as those handed down from Europe. The most conspicuous of these was the black pride movement, which took the tenets of the civil rights movement of the postwar generation to the next logical step, asserting that it is just as wrong to deny the importance of black Americans’ historical experiences as it is to deny that they deserve equal treatment under the law. Another influential social movement in the 1960s was the American Indian movement, organized in 1968 to advance the rights of Native Americans. The National Council of La Raza began in the same year as an advocacy group for Mexicans, and quickly expanded to support Hispanics of various national origins. The successes of these movements, as well as others like them, stemmed from a broadening awareness of the many different cultures that work together in the United States.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, as awareness of cultural diversity in the United States grew, schools gave more attention to representing members of ethnic and cultural minorities in their assigned readings. Standard reading lists that favored traditional writers, mostly the males of European descent of earlier generations who came to be referred to as ‘‘dead white men,’’ were opened up to contemporary writers, women, and minorities. In particular, the writings of Mexican American writers, referred to collectively as Chicano literature, came to the attention of literary critics and audiences in unprecedented numbers, owing to the wave of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries under new, relaxed immigration laws and to a heightened sense of ethnic pride in the Mexican American community.
It was around this time that Soto began publishing his writing. His clear voice and control of language made him a poet respected among his peers, and the fact that he brought to literature a perspective on Mexican American life that had not been represented often in print fit in well with the drive to create reading lists that reflected broader cultural diversity.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Gary Soto, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009