Working the Land: Latina Women and Children Picking and Shelling Walnuts by Hand, El Monte, ca. 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While the greater Los Angeles agricultural economy was most famously known through the dominance of the orange industry, another major element was the raising of walnuts.  The eastern San Gabriel Valley, in particular, was a prominent region for walnut raising with Puente being, around 1920, what was billed as the world’s largest packing house for the product.

During the 1920s, the 92-acre Workman Homestead, owned by Walter P. Temple, had a significant orchard of walnuts on it, though it is not known how productive the trees were or how productive the harvests proved to be.  Photographs of the Homestead, however, show that walnuts remained on the ranch even after the Temples lost the property in 1932.

By the World War II era, however, the infiltration of the codling moth proved to be the virtual death knell for the industry, though postwar suburban development, with masses of housing tracts, schools, shopping centers and streets and freeways certainly would have hastened the end.  Still, for decades, the walnut industry was a major one in our region and we even have a local city, Walnut, named for the popular nut.

While an enterprising walnut orchardist could be very financially successful with a prudent operation of his groves, what is generally not well remembered are those who constituted the labor force working in the orchards.  The 1910 revolution in Mexico, for example, ushered in a large wave of migrants from that country fleeing the destruction and devastation caused by the upheaval.

Homestead Site Aerial View Distant From North East 99.55.156(2)
Though this aerial view from the Homestead collection dates to about 1940, the walnut trees shown in the foreground and elsewhere on the Workman Homestead dated back to Walter Temple’s ownership from 1917 to 1932.  A codling moth infestation ravaged the region’s walnuts during the World War II period.

Many of these new arrivals, among them a huge number of which worked on farms and ranches in their native land, wound up working as agricultural laborers.  A significant proportion of them were itinerant, traveling up and down California for seasonal work in whatever product was being planted and harvested.

With the latter task, in particular, it was very common for primitive work camps to be established in orchards, with workers and their families living in crude wooden dwellings (bunkhouses or smaller units), tents, or even out in the open.  Conditions could be very difficult during the harvesting season, which generally took place in September and October and picking and shelling had to be done quickly to avoid the occurrence of mold.

Not only was the labor difficult with the nuts staining hands and clothing and the weather often hot, including our notorious Santa Ana winds, but the pay was low and primitive housing, cheap food and basic goods and supplies were often deducted from wages, but still profitable for the orchardist.

As throughout our history, low wage labor supports the low prices Americans want for their goods and services and long before César Chávez and the United Farm Workers and like labor organizations, there was no representation for agricultural laborers, especially recent immigrants.

When the Great Depression hit in late 1929 and worsened in the decade that followed, significant numbers of native Mexicans, including field workers, were deported back to their home country, while poor farmers and working class folks from the Dust Bowl states and elsewhere came to California and took up much of the same labor.

0217042 158 Walnuts Shelling And Picking Walnuts By Hand El Monte Calif 2010.62.1.1.jpg
Also from the museum collection is this stereoscopic photograph by Philip Brigandi showing four females, possibly three generations from the same family, picking and shelling walnuts in an orchard in El Monte.

One of the few photographs in the Homestead’s collection showing Latino agricultural laborers at work is the accompanying stereoscopic photograph showing what could be three generations of females at work picking and shelling walnuts on the ground in a walnut orchard in El Monte, which had large segregated migrant camps.  It may be that the older woman next to the younger of two girls is the grandmother, while the woman closer to the camera is her daughter.  The two girls, presumably, are the third generation.

What is striking and haunting to this observer, although this, of course, speculation, is that the two women and the older girl are looking downward, perhaps focused on their work, but possibly also downcast and maybe even embarrassed or humiliated by being photographed, while the youngest girl looks directly at the photographer in what could be a plaintive (meaning sad or mournful) way.  Today, we would expect the girls to be in school, growing and developing in ways that, hopefully, would allow them to better their lives.

In the 1920s, however, the children in Latino families, agricultural workers or not, were almost always in segregated schools.  In Puente, for example, while white children attended Hudson School, in a handsome, modern building, Latino children went to Central School, a plain, wood-frame structure.

Years ago when I was giving a tour, an elderly man who had quietly followed along through the visit suddenly stopped me towards the end and gently told me he had lived at the Homestead when he was a boy.  After the tour, we sat and talked.  He was Gabino Delgado, whose father and grandfather died at near the same time in Guanajuato state in Mexico.  So, his grandmother, Guadalupe Garcia and his mother Eulalia Delgado came to the San Gabriel Valley with Gabino and his two siblings and wound up at the Homestead doing household and field work for Walter Temple.

158 Walnuts Shelling And Picking Walnuts By Hand El Monte Calif
A closeup view of the photo showing a little girl, the oldest woman (maybe her grandmother) and sacks, containers and loose walnuts.

More of his remarkable story will be told in a future post here, but, though he was thankful that Mr. Temple provided them decent housing and treated the family well, he related a powerful memory that stood out for him some seventy years later.

When it was time to go to school, Mr. Temple instructed the family chauffeur to take the Delgado children to Hudson School.  But, when they arrived, the principal told the driver that the kids had to go to the “Mexican school,” that is, Central.  When they arrived, Gabino told me that he was painfully embarrassed to see kids run from the playground to the fence, staring in disbelief ad he and his siblings dismounted from the car.  The reason why?  Because they were driven in a big Cadillac owned by the Temples.

This anecdote is one I often tell people when I mention the Delgado family’s experiences at the Homestead, which ended in 1928 when Walter Temple’s fortunes were ebbing and he let them go.  It illustrates a personal element to the broader social issues involved in immigration, labor and segregation.  Gabino Delgado lived nearly a century, however, and saw his children and grandchildren do things he could not likely have envisioned in the 1920s.

158 Walnuts Shelling And Picking Walnuts By Hand El Monte Calif
A haunting detail of what might be a mother and daughter looking down while laboring.  Note how dirty the work of shelling was.

Looking at this photograph, I wonder what became of the four subjects, especially the two young girls who were likely to have long lives ahead of them.  It is easy to wonder what became of them and whether there are descendants around in the area today.

A final word about the photographer.  Philip Brigandi (1873-1945) had a long, successful career as a photographer and took many stereographic images as a contractor for the Keystone View Company, the dominant firm in the industry based in Pennsylvania. Brigandi, however, kept the rights to his images and published under his own name, as in the case of the image highlighted here, one of nine in the museum’s collection.

Brigandi’s namesake grandson is a historian based in Orange County and has spoken on various topics at the Homestead over the years, so it’s great to be able to have a connection to two Philip Brigandis!

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