By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong
Can water laws meant to protect small family farms be used to give Latinx farmworkers a stake in land ownership in the Central Valley?
This question was central to Mario Sifuentez’s presentation “Land, Food Security and Water Rights in the Central Valley: Farmworkers, the Westlands, and the National Land for People” on Oct. 7, at the UC Merced Center for the Humanities seminar.
Sifuentez, a Center for the Humanities Fellow and assistant professor who specializes in labor, immigration, food and agriculture at UC Merced, said that during the 1970s, The National Land for People movement, based in Fresno, attempted to use a 1902 law on the books limiting farms that received federal irrigation to 160 acres.
The 1902 Reclamation law, passed during the Progressive Era, was intended to prevent federally funded irrigation projects from being used by robber barons and large corporations, including railroads, in land grabs.
Enforcement of this law on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley proved difficult, Sifuentez said, as family farming corporations would add to their ownership of land by having the title of farm land put in the names of employees, friends or neighbors to skirt the law.
A populist movement connected to the United Farm Workers was founded in 1964 by George Ballis, a populist activist. He envisioned enforcement of the Reclamation Act allowing those who worked the land as farm workers to be able to buy land and become small-scale farmers themselves.
The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is the site of some of the largest farms, Sifuentez noted. This has created vast wealth for family corporations who benefit from Federal water reclamation projects, but has also left Latinix farm workers living in conditions where they do not always have access to clean drinking water.
National Land for People focused their efforts on confronting the Westlands Water District, which stretches from Kettleman City in the south to land north of Mendota. Although National Land for People were successful in winning lawsuits to enforce the Reclamation Act, that progress came to a halt in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The 1902 law was gutted by his administration, and land owners using federal reclamation water were subsequently allowed to own over 900 acres, and were no longer required to reside on the land.
Sifuentez plans to write his next academic book on National Land for People and its quest to empower and give property to the people who actually planted, harvested and processed the crops on the west side of the valley. His first book, Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest, was published this year by Rutgers University Press.