Reviewed by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977-80)
It would be a mistake, on first impression, to fault or dismiss this unique and remarkable book for focusing narrowly on twenty-three individuals in one small city in central California. To someone (like me) living, say, in a small town in northern New Jersey, it would be easy to read the cover and simply conclude, “So, what does this have to do with me?” You would be wrong, of course, as I usually am when making a snap judgment before actually learning about something new. In one sense, the stories in Neighbors are a kind of microcosm; you might be tempted, if considering only the individual stories (the trees, if you will), to miss the a broader, more holistic picture (the forest) that the stories come to represent. Collectively, these stories, as you discover in reading them, are greater than the sum of their individual parts. They contain multitudes.
“There are all kinds of history books,” Lawrence Lihosit begins his Introduction to Neighbors. “This book is based on testimony.” As the subtitle states, this is oral history, based on interviews Lihosit conducted and later assembled (“like remixing a recorded song in a studio”), and which the participants edited for clarity, factual errors and/or omissions prior to publication. In addition to the interviewees, Lihosit drew upon the staff of local agencies and institutions, including a local newspaper, the City of Madera Engineering Department, the Madera County Library, and the Madera Unified School District, to create maps, illustrations, and appendices—making Neighbors a truly collaborative project. As icing on the collective cake, the cover photos are courtesy of a local photographer.
Lihosit makes clear what Neighbors is not in order to set the context for what it is. His book is not scientific. “My intent,” he writes, “was never to measure but to listen and share.” Further, “this is not a random sample survey to be used for a poll. These are true stories from my neighbors.” He points out that the book “is not an exposé. There are no villains for one simple reason: we are all neighbors just listening to each other so we might work together better.” How refreshing to hear this view expressed so clearly and directly, given our currently polarized political climate.
The oral histories in Neighbors describe life in Madera during the latter part of the twentieth Century and the beginning of the twenty-first. As Lihosit notes, “the participants, representing all rungs of the economic ladder, describe how they grew up and survived.” Of the twenty-three participants, four were born and raised in Madera; one of these was a child of Mexican immigrants. Seven interviewees were immigrants, from countries as diverse as the Philippines, Honduras, Mexico, and Switzerland. Several others were born in the United States to Mexican immigrant parents before settling in Madera. The other participants migrated to Madera from elsewhere in California, and from the states of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Washington, and Wyoming.
Lihosit points out that “The largest historical employers in Madera have been farming and food processing,” adding that this work “involves such long hours and so completely physically destroys people that men and women seek other types of work at the first opportunity. People do all kinds of work to survive.” The participant’s individual stories clearly bear this out. While many participants went on to college and worked their way to stable careers (as contractors, builders, teachers, police and corrections officers, interpreters—and, in a few cases, county commissioner, school superintendent, civil engineer, city councilman), most began by juggling various physically-punishing, low-paying, dead-end jobs. Others spent most of their lives doing farm labor, factory work, and/or a combination of odd jobs to survive. Often, they had to overcome extreme poverty, exploitation, dangerous working conditions, and racism.
“How do you measure bravery, loyalty, patience persistence? How do you measure what boxers call heart—the sheer will to get back up?” Lawrence Lihosit poses these rhetorical questions in the Introduction. In reading the individual oral histories, answers begin to emerge and accrue. The following excerpts are instructive.
Take the story of Marcella Andrews, who describes picking cotton and almonds:
The cotton plant has little hard points like carpet tacks on the boll when it opens. They pierce your fingers like needles but you couldn’t wear gloves because the cotton would stick to them and you would waste time shaking the cotton off. You wanted a quick pick and a quick drop into the bag. I also harvested grapes, tomatoes, almonds, and potatoes. Back then, the almond farmers did not have the belts to shake the trees but used a huge rubber mallet. You hit the tree trunk with the mallet. The trouble was the mallet vibrated and you felt it in your upper body later.
Or Gloria Vander Laan’s description of picking grapes:
We picked Thompson grapes, the sweetest, which are used for raisins. We had to pick 2,000 trays a day. There were nine of us . . . My mom and older brother carried a hooked knife to cut the bunches of grapes. On your knees, you spread the leaves and bugs flew in your face, sometimes bees or spiders. If they got in your mouth, you just spit them out.
There is Leonardo Pedraza’s story of the dangers working in a fiberglass factory:
I worked for them for almost ten years . . . For the first six months I could hardly move because the fiberglass was everywhere and I was not used to it. It itched. They gave us masks but just try to wear a mask ten hours a day in the heat. You would die of that. We just stopped using masks. We smoked then on breaks. You could see the fiberglass in the air. We were stupid . . . During the summer it was really hot and in the winter it was terrible cold. I couldn’t work with gloves. The job was about the feeling. To clean the paint off, I used a lot of acetone. My hands cracked from the acetone and the water. Every day you sanded. In the winter they got really bad. Sometimes, my hands would bleed. I put Vaseline on them for about three or four years and after that, I got used to it.
And Darlene Wright’s account of shiftwork at the glass factory:
We worked rotating shifts. I did this for thirty-one years. We worked seven days of swing shift before forty-eight hours off. Then we worked seven days of graveyard shift and we had four days off. This was called the long change. The way it rotated, we had one weekend a month off. That was your life. It was so hard, especially if you had babies. Teenagers were just as hard. Once I retired, it took an entire year to return to a normal sleep schedule. I woke up in the middle of the night, sat up, thinking, “I’m late for work!”
Some stories include anecdotes that reveal surprising cultural insights, as when Irma Hernandez describes how her parents had eloped in Mexico:
In Mexico, when you elope, you take the girl straight to the church where you deposit her until marital arrangements are made. The men cannot visit during this time. So, my mom stayed at the church for a month until all the arrangements were made and they got married.
Later in her story, Hernandez describes the obstacles and intense pressure she encountered in order to attend college:
My parents believed that a girl does not leave the house unless she’s about to get married . . . I was determined to go to college. I filled out applications and requests for financial aid in secret, forging my parents’ signatures on everything. The day before I was to go to summer-bridge for college training, [my high school principal] came to my house to talk to my dad . . . and told him that . . . if he wanted me to work in the fields the rest of my life, knowing how tiring it is and what it paid, fine. But if he hoped that I might have an opportunity to better myself, I needed an education. After three hours, [my dad] agreed. The deal was that if I did not get straight A’s the first semester, I was coming home.
In another telling perspective, teacher Audrey Igler, herself a child of Mexican immigrants, reflects on her challenges teaching migrant students:
Our students often do not have help at home. The parents are working in the fields until dark and they next day, they report back to the fields when it’s dark. The parents take their children to a babysitter at four in the morning and the babysitter brings them to school. The parents are not there to help them . . . The field worker parents often follow the harvests from state to state which means their children are attending multiple schools. Many parents make an annual trip to Mexico during which time their children might not attend school for months.
On a very different note, Richard D. Wyatt talks about giving back through service in his retirement:
Years ago, my dad joined the Rotary Club . . . so ,the idea of service above self was not new to me. I joined our local Madera branch in 1993 and have mainly focused on Rotary partnerships with our southern cousins in Latin America . . . I have helped with wheelchair distribution projects in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. We’ve helped with some big rainwater cistern projects in Guatemala. This past year I was down in Nicaragua, trying to set up another . . . We put in wells to serve three rural communities with about twelve hundred residents total.
There are also ominous aspects to the city’s story. While Madera has grown and evolved, and currently enjoys a fairly balanced economy, Lihosit calls out the ongoing and alarming depletion of underground aquifers upon which the town depends for potable water. Moreover, wells are increasingly abandoned due to toxic pollutants. Pistachio farmer Rudolf Walker also raises these issues in his personal story. In the Appendix, Lihosit includes a chronology of the town history and lists environmental books documenting the water crisis. “When discussing problems,” he writes, “the easiest answer is to throw up one’s hands and respond, “We didn’t know.” Well, we did know. Everyone has known for more than one half century that w have not been custodians of this land and its treasures.” Neighbors is also wake-up call: a call for immediate action to save the environment from irreparable damage.
Neighbors is not about immigrants per se, certainly not immigration policy; nonetheless, it is difficult not to see, in the sheer grit and resourcefulness of many storytellers—in the lives they have made against the odds, and their many obvious contributions to this country—a clear refutation of those who would demean immigrants as invaders, criminals, or undesirables.
“In order to create this book, I had to be a good listener,” Lihosit concludes. That he is a good listener is clear from these stories. Of the twenty-three storytellers—and, by extension, all Americans—Lohisit writes, “Everyone is an expert about their own lives. Each person has carefully stitched their own unique panel into our American quilt.” Lawrence Lihosit has lived in Madera since 1995. He and his wife raised two sons there. They are part of that unique panel of American quilt. So, as Neighbors ultimately suggests, are we all.
Bill Preston was a community organizer in a VISTA project in Yonkers, New York, and later taught at-risk students at an alternative school there. In the Peace Corps, he taught English and trained Thai teachers of English; subsequently, he interviewed Lao and Khmer refugees seeking asylum in the Unites States. At Galang refugee camp, he trained Indonesian teachers, who taught English to Vietnamese refugees. For many years he edited English Language Teaching materials for several educational publishers. His multicultural anthology, A Sense of Wonder: Reading and Writing through Literature, was published by Pearson Education (2003). His poetry collection, Strange Beauty of the World, was published in August 2019 by Peace Corps Writers.