By Jose Gaspar
Seventy-three years can make a world of difference in a place that once burned and banned the classic novel "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. The book was banned from libraries and schools. It depicts the plight of the Okies to California in their struggle to survive toiling in the fields at the hands of unscrupulous growers. Much of the novel is set in Kern County. And it was the Kern County Board of Supervisors that banned the book in 1939 and burned it in Bakersfield. It remained forbidden fruit until 1941.
Where once Kern County school children were barred from learning about the harsh realities of farm workers, students today have the chance to learn more and write about it. "Legacy of the Farm Worker in the San Joaquin Valley from 1800 to Present" is a countywide writing and art competition for students in middle school and high school (sixth through twelfth grades). This most worthy and innovative project has several aims.
"Part of the goal is to get students to express themselves in good writing and artwork," said contest promoter Ray Gonzales. "The ability to write correctly and express oneself is crucial in life."
Here! Here! Amen to that. One needs to look no further than the latest SAT. National reading scores on the college-entrance exam have sunk to their lowest point in 40 years. Also declining were "critical reading" and writing scores of high school students. Our middle and high school students in Kern County are also faring poorly.
The 2012 Standardized Testing and Reporting test results reveal that just 32 percent of seventh grade students in Kern County are "proficient" in English-language arts, which includes reading and writing. Not faring any better are students in grades 8, 9, 10 and 11, which scored even lower. Worse still, 15 percent of Kern County's eleventh grade students are performing at "far below basic" level.
Among other things, the farm worker writing and art competition project envisions that students will develop research skills (no cut and paste from the Internet), interview skills by talking to elder family members and friends to share their life experiences, critical thinking and style and voice for a compelling narrative. Student entries will consist of essays, short stories, poetry and artwork including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, music and mixed media. The subject matter is rich in history. The Central Valley was built on farm worker labor and continues to thrive because of it.
"We made a concerted effort to not just focus on the Mexican and Filipino farm worker story," Gonzales said. "We have encouraged all groups to tell their story."
Among them are poor whites from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and other places who played a significant role in agriculture. So did Japanese, Chinese, East Indians and Armenians, Punjabis, Basque and a host of others. While the United Farm Workers Union co-founded by the late Cesar Chavez was born right here in Kern County in the 1960s, the history of farm labor strife in the Central Valley dates way before. It is not a pretty picture.
What is so cool about this project is it lends itself to a variety of artistic expression in which students can explore areas other than just labor strife including social mobility, working conditions, water and water projects. Just speaking with elder family members can release a personal wealth of information young people may not know about their heritage and how it has impacted their young lives. Disturbingly, the legacy of the farm worker has been largely ignored or forgotten. If there's any place it should be appredicated and recognized, it's in the Central Valley.
Perhaps it is fitting that today, President Barack Obama is in the mountain community of Keene in Kern County designating the burial site of Cesar Chavez as a National Monument. After serving in the Navy, Chavez continued a fight of a different kind -- a fight for social justice for America's farm workers.
Gonzales credits Kern County Superior Court Judge Robert Tafoya for getting the idea of the content rolling. Others came on board to develop the project including artists and teachers as well as Christine Frazier, superintendent of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office.
Many schools have already expressed interest in having students participate. But prize money needs to be raised. As of the end of September, the group raised $3,000. Anyone wishing to donate can write a check and send it to: KCSOS Ed Services Foundation, and on the memo section of the check indicate "Writing and Art Competition." Mail it to KCSOS, 1300 17th St., Bakersfield, CA, 93301 Attn: Steve Sanders. It is a tax-deductible donation.
For students and or schools that want to participate, better start moving. All entries are to be submitted to judges for rating by Oct. 28. Winners will be selected Nov. 28. For further information contact Ray Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Steinbeck would be proud of this work produced by young writers.
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at email@example.com.