10/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dreaming in the California Fields

Shafter, Calif. -- The summer harvest is a strange time to be contemplating the death of the California Dream.

I leave the state capitol, its endless budget battles, and drive 300 miles south through the gut of California -- to this small farm town where I grew up and still live. I see the dreamers everywhere. They are bent over in the fields with curved blades and buckets in hand, picking grapes and yodeling ranchera music beneath the 110 degree sun. In a month's time, like some mythical bird, they have plucked clean more than 60 million boxes worth of Crimsons and Flames and Superiors from the vineyards of the San Joaquin Valley.

At shift's end, when they finally remove their ball caps and bandanas, I see the indigenous faces of rural Mexico. These are the Triqui and others Indians who have come to California fleeing a new dust bowl. They share much with Steinbeck's Joads, as Mark Arax tells us in his book, West of the West. Only these Okies are brown. A single mother has crossed the border by foot and then raft and is now picking bell peppers outside Lamont, a town that has gone from all white to all brown in thirty years' time. Before she earns a dime, she must pay off a $1,200 debt to the coyote, the trafficker of humanity who helped smuggle her over. "Why did you come?" Arax asks her. "For the future of my children," she replies. Then she begins to cry because she has left them behind with her mother in their village in the Oaxacan highlands.

In her journey, I hear the voice of my grandmother, Stella Florez, who arrived in this valley in the summer of 1927 and didn't stop picking its grapes and cotton and potatoes and onions until 1968. I'd like to think there was something wishful in her decision to quit that year -- the year of Cesar Chavez's first hunger strike for La Causa. Soon after, the big grape farmers of Delano found themselves signing their first contracts with Chavez's United Farm Workers union. Si Se Puede ("Yes, it can be Done") became something more than a chant.

Even as my grandmother made her children follow her into the fields to learn the dignity of hard work, she understood that education was the surest way out. Back in the 1960s, for a Mexican family living in a Mexican colony in the middle of California, the dream was a high school education. Her four children all graduated from Shafter High. My father, Ray, worked 35 years of his life at a plant in Bakersfield that made Styrofoam. His older brother, Robert, after returning from the war in Vietnam, worked at a cement plant in Riverside, unearthing the gravel that became Los Angeles' sprawl.

Grandma Stella was bedridden when I earned my bachelor's degree from U.C.L.A. in 1987, the first of her grandchildren to graduate from a university. She insisted we film the ceremony in which I gave the graduation speech as the school's first Latino student body president, and she must have shown that video to every nurse on the second floor of Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield as she lay dying.

This summer, I find myself wondering what my grandmother would make of this new California: 38 million residents strong; $26 billion dollars in the hole; deep cuts to education and social service programs; the spectacle of big growers and poor farm workers, forever antagonists, marching arm in arm in a protest for more federal water, led not by a Cesar Chavez but by a comedian named Paul Rodriquez. My grandmother had a wicked sense of humor and could smell a rat from a mile away. As a young woman who had worked side by side with the cotton picking machine until it became good enough to replace her, she knew that no job in the fields was forever. She had seen enough booms and busts in the Golden State to know, too, that neither one lasted. In high and low times, frugality was a bottom line that should never be trifled with.

Here in the big valley, the ceaseless reinvention that is California continues. On the east side, farmers are pulling out ten thousand of acres of nectarines, peaches and plums -- not because of drought or federal water going to fish but because there is simply too much stone fruit to make a buck. On the west side, the big farmers have planted so many acres of almonds, pistachios and pomegranates -- heart healthy snacking, anti-oxidant drinking -- that a new glut surely is in the making. One thing hasn't changed. Over the next few weeks, the Mexican farm hands will walk into the fields at sunrise, pick two million-plus tons of Thompson seedless grapes and lay them down in the vineyard rows to bake into raisins. We remain the raisin capital of the world.

Dean Florez, D-Shafter, is the majority leader of the California State Senate.