A handsome blond, Leon Patterson looked like a picture of the California dream; more than a few of us yearned to be him. He was, however, the product of the California reality: poverty, toil, and grit. His family had struggled west from Arkansas searching for opportunities in the shadow of the Great Depression. The Pattersons were part of the larger, second wave of “Okies, Arkies, and Texies” who migrated during the 1940s. The Great Central Valley, at 15,000,000 acres about the size of Egypt, held the promise of at least seasonal work, even for unskilled laborers—especially at its larger southern end, called the San Joaquin Valley by locals. By World War II, the Valley had become one of the state’s economic engines, sustained by agribusiness, oil, and abundant cheap labor.

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