When a Garden Tool is the Means of Oppression

Katherine RivardArtifacts
Red roses with flags in the background at Cesar E Chavez National Monument in California
— Ruben Andrade/NPS

Agriculture has always been one of the United States’ core industries, and farm workers’ stories and the tools they use add significant layers to our understanding of our shared history. Some of these tools are preserved by the National Park Service and help share lesser-known chapters of our American history to paint a more complete story.

Known as “el brazo del diablo” (the devil’s arm) or “el cortito” (the short one), the short-handled hoe was often used in the sugar beet and lettuce fields of California in the early 20th century. The common hoe allows the gardener to stand, while the short handle of this hoe (10-12 inches) required field workers to spend the entirety of their long, sometimes 10-12 hour, shifts bent over. Chronic back pain and long-term effects on child workers, whose bodies had not fully developed, were rampant.

Despite protests, supervisors claimed that the short-handled hoes were imperative to preventing damage to plants and allowed for more precise work, though farmhands in most other states did not use this piece of equipment. Many believe that the hoe was strongly preferred because it made supervising workers easier. Anyone who stood up could easily be seen as taking a break.

Ruben Andrade/NPS

Protests against the hoe first began in the 1920s, though these protests were rendered ineffective as the Great Depression soon lowered wages and increased unemployment, leaving any job, even the most back-breaking, desirable. Fifty years later, the United Farm Workers of America, led by César E. Chávez, again fought to eliminate use of the hoe, and in January 1975, California became the first state to ban the short-handled hoe.

In a unanimous ruling, the California Supreme Court found that the tool was “unsafe” given that it “causes injury, immediate or cumulative, when used in the manner in which it was intended.” Today this victory and others are remembered at César E. Chávez National Monument in California.

Once banned, farm workers’ back injuries decreased by 34%. The successful fight against this tool paved the way for other farm workers movements and spurred later protests against other unfair working conditions, such as working in areas that exposed workers to harmful pesticides. To this day, the short-handled hoe remains a symbol of farm worker exploitation. Unfortunately, despite the ban on this inhumane and unnecessary farm tool, farm workers were still often required to weed by hand for an additional 29 years. In 2004, many forms of hand-weeding were finally banned in California.

Today, artifacts like the short-handled hoe remind us of the challenges we have overcome and the continuing efforts to create a more equitable society for all. #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque to learn more about America’s history and the incredible leaders, like César Chávez, who paved the way for a brighter future.


Let me add....."el cortito" was not a hoe that one could purchase at Home Depot or any hardware store for that matter. El cortito was a specially constructed grotesque tool bearing no resemblance to commercial gardening hoes or tools. . "El cortito" was created / manufactured by ironworkers specifically for thinning/weeding lettuce. They were heavy , awkward and required a firm hand. As a young man...high school age.......I worked thinning lettuce in Salinas Valley. I worked with many elderly men and women whose bodies were bent and tortured from years of using el cortito. Work days were 10-hours with a half-hour for lunch. There were two breaks...one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. It was grueling work....standing was not allowed. It was difficult to watch my elderly co-workers knowing they had no worker's medical insurance of any kind. You get hurt...you are out of luck. On my last day on the lettuce field , I argued with the Mexican American foreman on the use of the hoe and abuse incurred by the farmworker. Simply, that it was inhumane and unjust. Finally, in disgust and anger...... with all my strength, I threw my pinche el cortito as high as I could.....hoping someone in Heaven might catch it and destroy it. Leaving the field, I walked home. My co-workers remained silent , bent-over for fear they might lose their only source of income. I understood their fear and empathized with their predicament. Later as a college student I supported Cesar Cavez....and remain a Democrat.
I would love to share a poem but it's in Spanish. It's really awesome, written around 1930 by my grandfather, really graphic on the short handle hoe
Deaguero-San Miguel
Lola I’d love to read your grandfather’s poem about the short Joe Gracias
Good for Joe one perfect human being. People didn’t complain because they were afraid to. The people illegally using the short handle would call and leave messages about where they would be the next day. I would call in Cal osha to go and fine the employer. Not only does the back hurt but standing up would cause the inner organs to stretch back into their original place it was so painful people would cry.
My grandfather used El cortito to earn his living in Orange County California in the early 20th century. He was 4 foot 10 inches tall, half Spanish Basque, and Native American. He never complained about El cortito, nor spoke ill of employers. When there were no the fields to be worked, he used his skills in carpentry to make packing crates. He raised seven children on a farm worker and daily labor wages. His children and grandchildren follow in his footsteps of working hard and not sniveling. I used El cortito in my gardening business for 35 years. I didn't develop any spinal conditions from using it. I stayed quite fit from squatting and crouching using El cortito and other short handled gardening implements that I crafted for used in my gardening business. I used them eight to 10 hours a day to work the soil under shrubs and bushes with no problem.
This puts perspective into the hardship of field labor, never ignore the sufferings of others.
Additionally, I presume you didn't use it for 8-12 continually.
You were young, many of my elders were working the fields in their 70's. I know for a fact it was difficult for them as their age progressed. My father implemented a shelf on an axel on wheels where he laid his chest on it then pushed with his feet to accomplish his work. To imply it wasn't hard work is to deny the brutal conditions our forefathers faced in the early years when there were no laws to protect them. My father never complained about his work or employers, but it wasn't for ease of work, it was his character. He never became bitter by the harsh realities of inequity.
did that tool ever get hot and burn someone's hand
I realise that the banning of this hoe's use referred to those in employment, often under harsh conditions, but it may interest you to know that it is still available to purchase to use in one's own garden. It has various names such as a hand hoe, a winged weeder or onion hoe. We have one that is useful for weeding in restricted areas in our garden in the UK. I can only guess it was called an onion hoe because of the possible damage to onion bulbs if one used a standard long-handled hoe.
Difference is that most don’t use it 8-12 hours continuously for all their lives.

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