|Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Vicki Ruiz|
Copyright 1994 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.The experience of labor and labor relations has played a major role in the development of American culture and identity. In Cannery Women, Cannery Lives, Vicki Ruiz explores these relations in the context of a distinctly Californian environment. The importance of the canneries to the local, state, and national economies has traditionally been great, giving weight to the value of the study, both on the particular level -- as a model industry for an examination of development -- and on the broader level -- dealing with the industry as a functioning element of the economy. The breadth of the industry allows for the book to focus on the elements of unity and disunity in a community that is shaped along many dividing lines.
The most central element in defining community in Ruiz's book is labor experience. Her emphasis is on the distinct work experience of the cannery industry, which stands as a sort of middle ground between the traditional agricultural community of California and the modern, technologically-oriented industries of the past century. In this way, labor is uniquely defined, separated from other groups to some extent, yet more closely related to those groups than the more strictly First Wave or Second Wave types of work. The importance of the nature of work grows when the rural backgrounds of many of the workers gives way to the largely urban phenomenon of labor organization. A need to provide stability becomes a central issue for the cannery workers, allowing them to more clearly define their needs, though the multiplicity of agendas leaves the workers in a more chaotic state than would be perceived in an examination of the labor front.
Ruiz, in addition to her concerns dealing with labor, looks closely at issues of ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, the impact of geography on ethnicity. California's ethnic experience, including a multiplicity of ethnic groups, has traditionally been witness to a great deal of racial tension. As a historically Hispanic area, California, in large part, defined the typical (or perhaps stereotypical) work experience of the Latina/o, a group that culturally differs strongly from other groups occupying the region. In this sense, the questions of labor organization become both geographically and ethnically oriented, dealing with the needs of the particular time and place, as well as the cultural values and beliefs integral to the contemporary climate.
A major strength of Cannery Women, Cannery Lives is its restraint. In contrast to many other works in the field, Ruiz's book is not a single-mindedly paradigmatic work. It functions more as an lower-level, Thompsonian inquiry into the nature of labor issues and their social implications, avoiding the bombast of sweeping proclamations and polemics. While is clearly is intended to be somewhat representative, its flexibility affords it a greater authenticity on a local level, providing a sense of illumination despite the complexity of the issue. As a result, the examples of life provided by Ruiz seem applicable in a larger sense, given an accommodation for environmental differences.
Yet the book is not without an agenda of its own. Attention is clearly focused on the issues of labor, issues that have traditionally been of paramount importance to the Hispanic population. The relationship of these types of communities to the groups people define as primary is an evident focus of the book, tying economics together with racial and cultural issues. The agenda of the book, then, appears to be far more slanted to a political orientation than one of academics.
Despite this, the book does not ever become completely involving. Perhaps because of its limited scope of inquiry, the book does not reach out on a personal level as strongly as other works. The book seems encapsulated in its environment, failing to move beyond interesting historical narration. Providing a valuable look into important socio-historical issues, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives, succeeds as a convincing argument and a call for an examination of the political implications of ethnicity and labor relations, but falls short as a work that is fully involving on an intellectual level.