Column: Here’s a worthy ethnic studies requirement: Make students pick grapes to graduate

Consuelo Nuño picks grape at a Delano, Calif. vineyard in July 2005.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

It’s high school graduation season, which means seniors are making big plans, like what their great Instagram hashtags will be and how they’ll sneak in vape puffs during the commencement ceremony. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Sacramento are debating Assembly Bill 2772, which would mandate that all high schoolers complete at least one course in ethnic studies in order to graduate.

The bill was written by Riverside-area Democrat Jose Medina, who you will be unsurprised to learn is a former ethnic studies teacher. He’s quoted in an Appropriations committee analysis as saying, “Studies have proven that attendance and the grade-point average of at-risk high school students have improved when culturally relevant pedagogy is added to the curriculum.”

Yes, that sounds like academic gobbledygook, but I get it: Kids need to see themselves represented in California history. But the bill doesn’t goes far enough. If Medina and AB 2772’s supporters want to make teens absorb the lessons of ethnic studies, here’s what they should require before graduation: a week working on a farm.

Farm Week — the crazy thought hit me as I drove up and down Highway 99 this past weekend. It’s cherry season right now in the northern Central Valley. The southern portion is getting ready for the summer grape and almond harvest. Across the region, hundreds of thousands of workers, overwhelmingly Latino and undocumented, prepare to pick these crops and others as they invisibly contribute to California’s $46-billion agricultural economy.

Historically speaking, farming is the most important cog of the California machine. Agriculture has influenced development, water policy, labor activism, civil rights and much more. It’s also a cog that urban and suburban Californians are far removed from. This disconnect from the land robs youngsters of knowing where their food originates — geographically, culturally and economically. (It’s not from an Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, kids).


Our young need to not only read about how the other half lives, but experience it.

At work in the broiling heat of the Imperial and Coachella valleys, students could consider why previous generations thought it was a good idea to divert water from the Colorado River to grow gardens in the desert. Those assigned to the Salad Bowl, the fecund lettuce rows around Monterey and Salinas, can focus on literature — not just John Steinbeck, but Carey McWilliams, William Saroyan and others who captured the beauty and outrage that grew in farms and the communities around them.

Some seniors can travel up to Napa and Sonoma counties to see our globalized wine industry in action. Others can go down to Delano to learn about the United Farm Workers — not just Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, but also Filipinos like Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz whose contributions were, for decades, left out of even the ethnic studies version of California labor history.

Get the stoners up to the Emerald Triangle to participate in the state’s latest boom crop. In Anaheim, students can even visit one of the last orange groves left in Orange County, just up the street from Disneyland. Here, county officials brutally suppressed a strike by citrus pickers, setting an anti-Mexican template that plenty of O.C. politicians follow to this day.

In their travels, Generation Z can meet Armenian raisin kings, Punjabi peach barons, Okie cotton dynasties, and Portuguese -American politician-dairymen like Rep. Devin Nunes. The students can also sleep in the same quarters as our campesinos, to remind them that this is how the people at the bottom rung of our food chain rest every night.

Critics will immediately cry exploitation; I say, “And…?” Empathy is not something anyone learns in the abstract. Our young need to not only read about how the other half lives, but experience it. Maybe they will even begin to question why our agricultural economy continues to depend on cheap labor. And I think everyone can agree that getting teens away from social media even for a day is a victory for all.

Farm Week shouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Let the farmers fund this. They’ve thrived on government subsidies for over a century. The least they can do is host our best and brightest and youngest across the state and challenge them to get involved in bettering such an important industry. Better than losing them to Silicon Valley — or, worse, Texas.

Farm Week can become a statewide tradition, during which teens from Redding mingle with those from Rialto, the debutantes of Coto de Caza get their nails dirty alongside quinceañera queens from Kingsburg. California is so huge, so sprawling, so diverse that our collective identity is increasingly fractured. But throwing hundreds of thousands of seniors together on farms can become a state-shared experience that unites the next generation of Californians. Everyone will return home with a better appreciation for their state, and meet peers they otherwise would’ve probably never have encountered.

So how about it, Assemblyman Medina? Put Farm Week into AB 2772 and watch GOP colleagues vote alongside their leftist peers for the first time in, well, ever.

Oh, and as for the thousands of high schoolers for whom working the fields are a part of daily life? They can stay in the beachside cottages in Crystal Cove. They deserve it. And stick Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren with that bill.

Twitter: @GustavoArellano