Food, Immigration, and Inequality in the 20th Century

Endorsed by the OAH–Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians’ Collaborative Committee, the Agricultural History Society (AHS), the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: Family; Immigration and Internal Migration; Labor and Working-Class


We propose a conversation about food as produced, provisioned, prepared, and consumed by Asian and Latin American immigrants to the United States. The growing and making of immigrant foods has reinforced familial and community connections by referencing home regions, and has asserted the place of immigrants in an increasingly multicultural nation during a period of heightened U.S. interventions internationally. However, food has also been a source of division, drawing boundaries and reinscribing hierarchies. As food workers, laboring in fields, factories, plants, and restaurants, as well as consumers, immigrants have sought justice as much as a paycheck or a familiar meal.

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Matthew Garcia, Dartmouth College
Matt Garcia is Professor of History, Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies. He has worked to reveal the origins of inequality in our food labor system. My study of agriculture from “the bottom up” in A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001; Winner of the 2003 Oral History Association Book Award) and from the organizer’s perspective in From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (University of California Press, 2012; Winner of the Taft Award for the Best Book in Labor History, 2013) are my signature contributions to this subject. In both books, I combine oral history with archival research to produce new understanding of food worker exploitation. These earlier studies have led me to new questions about how capital investment and multinational corporations structure the world that farm workers find themselves in.

Panelist: Shana Bernstein, Northwestern University
Shana Bernstein (Ph.D. History, Stanford, 2003) is a historian and Clinical Associate Professor of Legal Studies and American Studies at Northwestern University. Previously she was an Associate Professor of History at Southwestern University and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Latino Studies at Northwestern. Her first book, Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (Oxford University Press, 2011), reinterprets U.S. civil rights activism by revealing its roots in the interracial efforts of Mexican, Jewish, African, and Japanese Americans in mid-century Los Angeles, and showing how the early Cold War facilitated, rather than derailed, some forms of activism. Bernstein is currently working on a project that examines the intersection of worker, consumer, and environmental activism and conceptions of health in the late-twentieth century California strawberry fields. Her academic articles have appeared in the Pacific Historical Review, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and elsewhere, and she has also written for news outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post, The Hill, American Prospect, Talking Points Memo, and Pacific Standard.

Panelist: Lori Flores, Stony Brook University, State University of New York
Lori Flores is an Associate Professor of History at Stony Brook University and teach classes in U.S. Latino, labor, immigration, and working class history, as well as U.S.-Mexico and global borderlands history. Her award-winning first book, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale University Press, 2016), analyzes the relationships between Mexican Americans, bracero guestworkers, and undocumented immigrants in their struggles for civil and labor rights in California’s Salinas Valley from the 1940s to the present. It has been named Best First Book by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS) and Best History Book by the International Latino Book Awards.

Panelist: Mark Padoongpatt, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Mark Padoongpatt received his Ph.D. in American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in 2011. His research centers on the experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the twentieth century United States. Using historical and cultural analysis, he examines the intersection of the social with the political as well as the transnational, global character of American culture and society. Dr. Padoongpatt is especially interested in the way race and ethnicity gets constructed in the textures of everyday life—in seemingly insignificant sites such as food. His goal is to better understand new populations, explore new social and cultural phenomena, and unpack the complexities and diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander America.

Panelist: Allison M. Varzally, University of California, Fullerton
Allison Varzally is a Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton interested in the histories of Immigration, Multiracial Relations, Asian Americans, and the American West. She teaches a range of courses and acts as one of the graduate advisers for the history department. Her first book, Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (University of California Press), examined the social, cultural and political interactions among diverse minorities in shared neighborhoods throughout the state that fostered multiethnic civil rights activism and the collapse of legal discrimination in education, housing, and marriage soon after World War II. In 2008, Varzally won the Immigration and Ethnic History Society's Theodore Saloutos Award for best book in immigration history. Currently, she directs an oral and archival history project that examines Southern California’s food culture and commercial restaurants and serves as book review editor for the Southern California Quarterly, a journal dedicated to the history of the Far West and its associated regions. She has published articles that contemplate patterns of intermarriage, Asian International Adoption, approaches to teaching California History, and the racial turn in immigration history. Her second book, Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) explores the lives of and stories told about Vietnamese children and their American and Vietnamese families to better understand the Vietnamese diasapora and changing ideas of U.S. citizenship in an era of heightened debate about national purpose and responsibility in the world.