Book Review: A Village in the Fields

A Village in the Fields
Patty Enrado
Eastwind Books of Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
333 pages
Hardcover, $29.95

A Village in the Fields

A Village in the Fields

Half a century after Filipino farm workers walked out of the Delano vineyards, they are finally getting the recognition they deserve for launching the California grape strike. This is due to the work of many who insisted their courageous story be told, including historian Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, filmmaker Marissa Aroy, and Assembly member Rob Bonta, as well as the Delano chapter of FAHNS that organized a 50th anniversary celebration of that pivotal event in September.

Patty Enrado’s debut novel, A Village in the Fields adds a new dimension to this important history. Enrado traces the life of the fictional Fausto Empleo, migrant farm worker, proud union member and striker, from his childhood in the barrio of San Esteban in Ilocos Sur to his final days at Agbayani Village, the United Farm Workers retirement home in Delano.

Emotional texture

By imagining the life and thoughts of one man, Enrado deepens the story of the Filipino grape strikers with an emotional texture that even the best nonfiction works cannot provide. With its vivid descriptions of the gritty, hard-scrabble migrant life, family loyalties and betrayals, and a tenacious hope for a better future despite racism, poverty, and vigilante violence, Enrado’s novel is a fitting sequel to Carlos Bulosan’s groundbreaking America Is in the Heart.

By focusing on the UFW strike in the 1960s and 70s, Enrado’s story picks up where Bulosan’s 1946 novel leaves off, filling in a much needed, long marginalized history.

Author Patty Endrado

Author Patty Endrado

Overcooked kaldereta

Though it is a tale with plenty of heroics and heartbreak, Enrado’s prose is never sentimentalized. Her language is evocative whether she is describing a dreary autumn day: “the rains came to the Valley, turning the vineyards into a sea of glossy mud stamped with dead leaves and smashed berries, which made the field smell like an open vat of musty red wine,” or providing a humorous look at the food in a labor camp: “Manong Flor overcooked the kaldereta, making the goat meat as chewy as leather. The noodles of his pansit dish stuck together. He deep-fried his lumpia too long...”

Enrado begins Fausto’s story at the end of his life, when he is frail, lonely, and losing his grip on reality. Two young men, a nurse and the son of his estranged cousin, quiz him about his past.

As a child, Fausto lives in a remote village, the son of an impoverished rice farmer. Thirsty for an education, he longs to attend the American teacher’s classes. His father won’t allow it. Fausto assumes it’s because he needs him to join him in the fields. But his grandmother reveals the real reason: “There was another war after the Spaniards were removed, but you won’t find it in American history books.” During the Philippine- American War, she tells her grandson, U.S. soldiers torched houses and rice granaries, imprisoned her family, and subjected those accused of being “insurrectos” to water torture. The American general’s order was that “Everything over ten” would not be spared. “They were things, not people, to the Americans,” his Lelang explains.

By imagining the life and thoughts of one man, Enrado deepens the story of the Filipino grape strikers with an emotional texture that even the best nonfiction works cannot provide.

Despite her warning and his father’s disapproval, Fausto and his cousin Benny decide to join their four older cousins in America. Their photos in snazzy suits with a shiny Dodge convince Fausto that he could make his fortune there.

Like Bulosan, Fausto is quickly disillusioned when he arrives in Seattle. From their very first night in America, he and Benny are met by thieves and con men, dead ends, violence and the vicious epithet “Monkeys!”

The cousins are reunited in a grimy room in Los Angeles – no shiny Dodge in sight. They join the stream of single Filipino men, traveling up and down the Valley, cutting asparagus and pruning grapes.

Together they face poverty, backbreaking work, derelict labor camps, debt, hunger and race prejudice. Some, including Fausto, find romantic love and settle down in Terra Bella (a tiny San Joaquin Valley town, where author Enrado was raised), creating a San Esteban Circle there for mutual support.

But with no labor laws to protect them, the cycle of exploitation by the growers seems unbreakable. Hope arrives with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by the hard-driving, charismatic Larry Itliong. When the 1965 AWOC strike in Coachella resulted in a wage raise, the union calls a strike in the heart of table grape country – Delano.

Schisms in the family

The strike creates painful schisms in the close-knit family. Fausto, fiercely loyal to the union, tirelessly devotes his time to organizing and the picket line. Benny also joins the union, but is torn about making the sacrifices or looking for work in other crops to support his family. An older cousin becomes a labor contractor and sides with the growers. Fausto’s wife, unable to understand his obsession with the strike while she endures a personal tragedy, leaves him and returns to the Philippines. Fausto once again joins the lonely life of the manongs.

Though Enrado conveys a sweeping view of Philippine-American history in her novel, Fausto is no one-dimensional everyman. The author plumbs the depths of his confused feelings, misplaced anger and often irrational actions to create a multi-faceted, if deeply flawed, central character.

When writing historical fiction, it is a tough call to decide when to include real personages and when to fictionalize them. For the most part, Enrado tackles this well, deftly weaving in historical details about village life in Luzon, pensionados, World War II, and the grape strike in her fast-paced novel. There were just a few moments that gave me pause.

Enrado provides a vivid description of Larry Itliong, the cigar-chomping, tough union organizer who rallied the Filipino workers to strike and to join forces with Cesar Chavez to form the United Farm Workers. But she errs on a crucial detail. When Fausto meets Larry, the AWOC leader says, “ You’re from Ilocos Sur? I’m from San Nicolas, Pangasinan in Ilocos Norte. Cigar?” Itliong, who was from Pangasinan, would never have said that because Pangasinan is not in Ilocos Norte. It is its own province, complete with its own language – known locally as Pangalatok – very, very different from Ilocano.

Enrado uses the real name of Paulo Agbayani, the manong who died on the picket line and for whom Agbayani Village is named. In contrast, she creates a pseudonym, Fahmi Sallal, for Nagi Daifullah, the Yemeni UFW striker who was killed by a blow to his skull by a Kern County Sherriff’s Deputy. Why not use Nagi Daifullah’s real identity? He was a bold, committed organizer whose name should also be remembered.

At one point, Fausto reflects on the many volunteers who come to support the union and feels grateful that so many “cared about old-timer Filipino farm workers whose faces were invisible in and out of the fields.” Thanks to Patty Enrado’s beautifully crafted novel, the faces of the manongs will be less invisible from now on.

Patty Enrado will speak at the Berkeley Public Central Library on Sunday, December 6 at 2 pm. The public is invited.

Elaine Elinson

Elaine Elinson

Elaine Elinson is the coauthor with Stan Yogi of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California and was the UFW representative for the grape boycott in Europe.