Who would Chavez or Itliong lead if not for you guys on the front lines? You’re the ones making the most sacrifice. You’re still here while so many of the strikers have left. Chavez is getting all the press coverage. Everyone will remember him…But will anyone say the same things about you or any of those guys? Who will sing your praises, Manong Fausto? Who will even know it was the pinoys who had the courage to sit down because it was the right thing to do, even if Chavez said it was the wrong time to strike and had to be talked into it.
Patty Enrado’s novel, A Village in the Fields, follows the life of a Filipino immigrant laborer in California whose compassion and strong moral compass abetted a significant victory for powerless farm workers, but at tremendous personal cost. Paralleling many of the themes of Carlos Bulosan’s much loved 1943 novel-memoir, America Is in the Heart, Enrado’s story about shattered promises and dreams embedded in the Filipino-American immigration experience joins a rich cannon of literature on the migratory experience and its impact on familial relations, while also revealing the integral role Filipino Americans played in the Cesar Chavez story.
Fausto Empleo is our guide through this tale told in past and present. We meet him in 1997 at a retirement village in Delano, an old man living in anxiety and doubt about his past. He tells his story in full detail and in chronological order to the son of a friend who also serves as his nurse, and later to the son of his estranged cousin who is carrying secrets of his own.
A thread that runs through this story concerns promises made, kept and broken – between individuals, within and between families, in immigrant communities and between countries. There are references to the Filipino men fighting for the U.S. in WWII, but other books have covered these stories in greater detail. Enrado, who sprinkles Ilocano throughout the book, has bigger salted ikan to fry: the Great Delano Grape Strikes.
Fausto’s big, sensitive heart and strong dedication to family is only surpassed by a stronger moral compass and an unwavering need to do what he feels is right. A third of the way through this migrant’s tale we find that our hero is facing an unusual choice, and he will likely keep a promise that will destroy his home, his family and social relationships. The stakes are high and the losses great in the battle for humane conditions in the fields.
Enrado deftly takes us through the inner workings of familial relationships: the pride of showing only the good side of risk-taking, the lies immigrants tell to lure more family members to make the journey across borders, power struggles, cultural clashes, communication mishaps, more pride and more deceits all done with the intent to care for each other as only family members can. Fausto, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath carries a moral certainty and strength of will to battle something greater than himself. His compassion and selflessness is offset by fantastic mistakes due largely to his hubris and stubbornness. To him, however, it is all very simple: “Since the first day we walked out of the fields. When all the growers sign the union contracts, then we will have dignity, then we will have respect.”
While this novel is written in the tradition of The Grapes of Wrath, it is short on the various prose styles that Steinbeck brilliantly weaved into the fabric of his main narratives. A Village relies on the strength of its characters, their location and the historical context in which they find themselves, to enhance the humanist themes of the novel. The use of detail, subtlety and the dramatization of emotions are effective devices in a story dominated by male characters. There are some emotional twists, but the tempo is mostly steady. We have glimpses and negative reliefs of characters around Fausto. For example, the author describes a character, Luz extending her hand to thank Fausto for leaving his own home that he shares with his cousin as if she could exchange a handshake for a home. We do not enter Fausto’s head at this point, but what he recalls about Luz later in life begins to make sense. Subtleties like this exist throughout the book for all the characters which gives an air of authenticity to an old man trying to recollect his life and the people who streamed through it.
One such person is Larry Itliong, a person who existed and initiated the actual strike, but had largely been forgotten by mainstream depictions of history. Enrado introduces him as well as other real-life strike leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Philip Vera Cruz. Enrado pored over newspaper articles and interviews for research in a book that took 18 years to write. Her straight-forward telling leaves little room for doubt as to the pain endured from pesticide sprays, repetitive motions, and dirty living quarters. She illustrates the psychological tactics used by foremen in the fields to pit workers against each other based on race, thereby increasing productivity. And she allows her hero to see through their manipulation: “There was no need to create trouble and distrust. They were all poor. They were all still strangers in America - decades later.” At times the reader forgets the story is from one person’s perspective because Enrado carefully depicts all sides of the conflict from Chavez to the various unions; to Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino farm workers; to the growers and to the student protesters.
Patty Enrado’s first novel is descriptive, expository and action-driven with an emphasis on excavating forgotten stories. The narrative is thoughtful and ripe with imagery like the grapes left unharvested on their vines. There is no crafting or over-crafting in this accessible read that, although considered historical fiction, remains highly relevant today for as long as there are farm workers harvesting our food. This month, as we celebrate Cesar Chavez Day, let us also remember those who sacrificed and who continue to make sacrifices daily in the fields. Let us remember those who inspired and fought alongside him.