The California farmlands have long served as a popular symbol of America’s natural abundance and endless opportunity. Yet, from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart to Helena Maria Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus, many novels, plays, movies, and songs have dramatized the brutality and hardships of working in the California fields. Little scholarship has focused on what these cultural productions tell us about who belongs in America, and in what ways they are allowed to belong. In The Nature of California, Sarah Wald analyzes this legacy and its consequences by examining the paradoxical representations of California farmers and farmworkers from the Dust Bowl migration to present-day movements for food justice and immigrant rights.
Analyzing fiction, nonfiction, news coverage, activist literature, memoirs, and more, Wald gives us a new way of thinking through questions of national belonging by probing the relationships among race, labor, and landownership. Bringing together ecocriticism and critical race theory, she pays special attention to marginalized groups, examining how Japanese American journalists, Filipino workers, United Farm Workers members, and contemporary immigrants-rights activists, among others, pushed back against the standard narratives of landownership and citizenship.