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Bittersweet Fruit: El Monte's Berry Strike of 1933

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In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.

The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933 was one of the largest organized labor strikes to challenge the agricultural industry of Southern California in 1933. Although it was not the first strike to arise in the season, it was the first to gain public recognition and attention. Just as the berry picking season was about to start, workers decided to put in place a work stoppage to address stagnating wages during the Great Depression of the 1930s and declining working conditions. It was a labor struggle that would involve the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' International Union (CAWIU), the local (mostly Mexican) workers, Japanese growers, white elected officials with a vested economic interest, and Mexican consular office. However, despite the El Monte Berry Strike's visibility and intensity, it would see workers and organizers win only marginal victories that kept many of the offending institutions and parties in place. Nonetheless, it provided fuel that would help ignite subsequent labor strikes throughout California.

The Berry Fields

In May 1933, Hicks camp was nearing full capacity. More than 1,500 migrant workers prepared to take part in the berry harvest, which would begin in May and last through August. Hicks camp was, like the surrounding neighborhoods of Medina Court and Hayes Camp, a migrant labor camp set up to house the families who worked on the local fields. Hicks camp was not envisioned as a permanent neighborhood, but became one as people settled down to build a home and establish a local culture. Men, women, and children would quickly assemble homes of cardboard and repurposed box-carts on a non-descript tract of land that lacked paved roads or basic plumbing. By the time of the Berry Strike, there were about 1,500 residents packed into the 22-acre plot of land; the population would drop only as low as 1,000 residents during the off-season.

However, this large, mostly Mexican labor force laid down their roots in El Monte in an especially precarious economic time, as workers in Hicks camp faced a labor market that had 185 workers for every 100 available jobs. Agricultural wages, historically meager and exploitative, were dropping throughout California as the market was gutted by arriving Dust Bowl migrants. A large population of displaced Arkansas and Oklahoma residents, fleeing severe drought and depressed economies back home, moved in mass to California seeking better opportunities.

Berry picking was backbreaking and tedious work. Workers would rise as early as 4 a.m. to prepare the day's food and arrive at the fields by 6 a.m. Work was quick-paced with the worker having to expertly pick the ripened berry, while not damaging unripened berries and avoiding any bad berries. Work continued like this for 10-12 hours. Since wages were based on the type of berry picked, it was difficult to accurately calculate a market wage earned by any individual worker. At their peak, and for experienced workers, prices for raspberries averaged at 40 cents per crate, and youngberries and blackberries at 20 cents per crate. According to Charles Wollenberg's "Race and Class in Rural California: The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933," The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce placed estimates as high as 25 cents while Mexican workers placed the average to 15 cents, and argued that a low of 9 cents per hour was not out of the norm. The variability of the wages hints at a constantly shifting and insecure work environment in which workers could not count on having a weekly or even daily guaranteed wage.

As a result, at the end of May 1933, a group of workers, Mexican, white, and Japanese, organized and presented demands to S. Fukami, secretary for the Japanese Growers Association, for higher, more consistent wages of 35 cents per hour that would allow them to have a secure and predictable income. The workers, however, found little support among the Japanese farm operators, and in response a general meeting was called for at Hicks Camp on June 1.

The Strike

At Hicks Camp during the general meeting, the organizers proposed a strike. A total of 50 workers, a mix of Mexican, Filipino, and Japanese, and two CAWIU organizers comprised the strike committee. Over 500 workers at Hicks were present at the initial vote to go on strike, and took up the campaign by leafleting, posting bulletins, and organizing daily meetings to keep people up to date on the direction of the strike. CAWIU literature was disseminated in English, Spanish, and Japanese as organizers tried to recruit members to a farm workers union. Striker Augstine Ramos remembers the following: "In those days only the poor people worked for the farmers, the big shots. They were getting paid very low wages -- people couldn't make a living any more. That prompted people; as small as they were, as unorganized as they were, they had something in common. They got together and went on strike."

The conditions affecting the El Monte workers were not unique, and instead reflected the operations of the larger agricultural industry in all of California that sought to exploit the poverty-ridden labor force. The work stoppage would grow and encompass other El Monte agricultural camps, including Chino and Medina Court, expanded into areas of La Puente, and spread as far as the celery fields of Santa Monica. According to La Opinion newspaper, over 2,000 workers were refusing to work by June 7. A week later the figure had risen to 7,000.

However, despite its early momentum, the Berry Strike was soon met with internal and external challenges. In earlier decades Mexican workers had found support and solidarity in Japanese laborers, who also faced historical discrimination and segregation by dominant white Anglo culture. Though both communities were relegated to Lexington Elementary of El Monte, or the same side of segregated theaters, by the 1930s worker demographics had changed and their relationship shifted. By the time of the Berry Strike, these similarities were obscured by an overseer-worker relationship that was carried out on a daily basis in the fields. As expressed by one of the laborers, Senora Torres, "[The Japanese farmers] would work in the field, but you knew they were the boss." The Japanese, perceived by the community as the "boss," became a logical target for striking Mexican workers, who saw the Japanese farmers as the visible agents who could redress their concerns over wages and working conditions.

While Mexican laborers constituted most of the agricultural migrant labor force, the Japanese operated most of the land on which they worked. The San Gabriel valley was home to about 700 acres of berries, and 80 percent of that land was operated by Japanese growers. Although the Japanese had an established presence in the industry, most of the land operated was in fact owned by white landowners who leased the land to Japanese foremen. This land leasing system was a result of the California Alien Land Act of 1913, which imposed severe restrictions on Japanese ownership of land and restricted leasing agreements to three years. However, these rules were circumvented by the practice of parents passing land onto the Nisei, second-generation immigrants who were exempt from the law because they were recognized American citizens.

During the strike, the Japanese community organized family members to work in the fields, and children were excused from school in order to salvage the berry harvest. On the weekend of June 30-31, the surrounding community was also enlisted by initiatives that allowed them to harvest their own berries at discounted rates. The seeming benevolence of the Japanese land operators to allow people to harvest their own berries both alienated the striking Mexican workers and built a level of public sympathy for the growers.

Strawberry pickers in the fields outside El Monte. | Courtesy of La Historia Society of El Monte
Strawberry pickers in the fields outside El Monte. | Courtesy of La Historia Society of El Monte

Radical vs. Conservative Leadership

Internally, within a period of a few weeks, leadership disputes would compromise the strikers' movement and eventually their gains. Although the CAWIU is often credited as instigating the strike, their role was short-lived -- a result of both internal and external pressures. Within the Berry Strike, The Comite Pro-Huelga had been formed to support the region's striking Mexican workers. Its membership included nationalist leaders from local fraternal and mutualista self-help organizations, the local Mexican consulate, and strikers themselves. Its leaders, Los Angeles consulate Alejandro Martinez and vice-consul Ricardo Hill, discouraged direct worker action. At a community meeting held on June 9, Hill called for the expulsion of CAWIU's Lino Chacon and J. Ruiz for "frequently urging militant measures against scabs" and for the distribution of communist literature. While it should be noted that the CAWIU was indeed a Communist-aligned organization, many of El Monte's organizers drew their radical roots from a Mexican tradition strongly influenced by anarchist movements such as by the prominent Ricardo Flores Magón who'd already organized in El Monte and the Greater Los Angeles area in the 1910s.

As noted by Gilbert Gonzalez in "The Los Angeles County Strike of 1933," the fervor with which Hill sought the termination of the radical leadership was in keeping with his upbringing as a member of the upper class in Mexico, which had viewed labor organizing as a controlled element of national politics. Further noted by the Los Angeles Times, Hill urged the strikers "to run the agitators out and were told that when that was done an earnest effort will be made to obtain a settlement." At the center of the disagreement between Hill and the CAWIU-style of organizing was a fundamental difference in tactics and vision. For Hill, labor was not concerned with bringing about any type of proletariat revolution. The growers themselves understood that Hill's priority was to win a compromise, and so to that end they moved to eliminate the radical union organizers as well. According to the local Japanese newspaper Rafu Shimpo, the growers believed that "if the radical element [were] weeded out of the union movement[,] the farmers [would] have a better chance to cooperate with labor."

To this end, Hill relied heavily on external entities, mainly the Los Angeles Police Department's Red Squad, to undermine and eventually dismantle the radical leadership of the berry strike. By June 10, 1933 a large segment of the CAWIU was denounced by Hill as "reds" who did not stand for the interest of Mexican workers, and most of its leadership were arrested by June 13. The Red Squad was notorious for infiltrating and dismantling all types of leftist organizations, especially militant labor unions. An officer in the Squad observed the following, "I warned them to stay away, owing to their affiliation to the Communist Subsidiary organization...if their consul was advising and directing them, I was sure they would not get into trouble, but if they were communist led and directed, it might lead to trouble for them, such as deportations..." Beyond its use as a scare tactic, in the context of the 1930s which saw the implementation of the Mexican Repatriation program, deportation for all peoples of Mexican descent was a very real threat. People were systematically deported, irrespective of actual citizenship, based on the perceived notion that they were Mexican.

A woman picks berries, date unknown. | Courtesy of La Historia Society of El Monte
A woman picks berries, date unknown. | Courtesy of La Historia Society of El Monte

Compromise and Legacy

Under these conditions, and without the radicalized influence of the CAWIU, Hill and the Comite were free to move forward with talks centered on compromise and agreement. As the Mexican strike organizers, the Japanese land operators, and white interests penned an agreement on July 6, the Berry Strike came to an end. Workers earned a substantial victory in acquiring a daily wage of $1.50, as well as agreements to hire back workers in an expeditious manner and prohibit reprisals. However, following the agreement, labor organizers found themselves holding a quickly dissolving and pyrrhic victory. Not only had many workers already lost a whole season of work, but on July 10 the Bureau of Industrial Relations announced that the July 6 agreement only applied to the vegetable farms of the coast and would not to be enforced in the berry farms of the valley. Although heavily protested by the Mexican unions, the Bureau argued that there was no lasting "binding agreement," and the Japanese growers were not held accountable. Further, in 1933, in an act of retribution, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, with the support of the white community, proposed that "Mexican farm labor deprived of further county relief aid if found participating in any labor agitation...Deportation of foreigners implicated in such action is further recommended." Such threats were made after a season of striking, in which a large part of the laboring community had earned no income to support their families.

It is difficult to characterize the El Monte Berry Strike as a tangible victory for the Mexican and working class communities; yet its legacy would manifest in the months and years that followed. While the victories secured by the union were easily and quickly pushed aside by the Japanese growers and white landowners, the strike was a clear indication of the mood of labor in the agriculture industry at the time, as thirty more major strikes would impact California in the next twelve months. The legacy of the El Monte Berry Strike can be viewed as one of empowerment for a community that was viewed as migrant and un-American in its mindset. The Strike served to awaken the class consciousness of a generation of labor organizers that would continue to participate in strikes and agitate against the agribusiness industry. According to Wollenberg, one El Monte veteran was quoted as saying, "if there is no strike in the San Joaquin Valley now, there will be when we get there." And he was right. The San Joaquin Cotton Strike of 1933 was the largest agricultural strike seen by California, as 18,000 workers took to the picket lines demanding fairer wages and better working conditions.

The El Monte Berry Strike instilled within workers a sense of value and an understanding of collective struggle. As Augustine Ramos had observed at the beginning of the Berry Strike, people understood that they had a common struggle, and only through collective action would they be able to overcome it.

A version of this essay was published on Tropics of Meta on March 30, 2015.


Further Reading:

Gonzalez, Gilbert. "The Los Angeles County Strike of 1933." Center for Research on Latinos in a Global Society. July 1, 1996: 21, accessed April 4, 2015.
Hoffman, Abraham. "The El Monte Berry Picker's Strike, 1933." Journal of the West. no. 1 (1973): 71-84

Lopez, Ronald W. "The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933."Aztal-Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and Arts. no. 1 (1970): 101-114.

Spaulding, Charles. "The Mexican Strike of El Monte, California." Sociology and Social Research. : 571-580.

Wollenberg, Charles. "Race and Class in Rural California: The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933," California Historical Society, 51, no. 2 (1972): 155-164, (accessed January 22, 2014).

Modell, John. The Economics and Politics of Racial Accomodation: The Japanese of Los Angeles 1900-1942. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Ruiz, Vicki. From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Weber, Devra Anne. "The Organizing of Mexicano Agricultural Workers: Imperial Valley and Los Angeles, 1928-1934: An Oral History Approach."Aztlan-Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and Arts. no. 2 (1972): 314-316.

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