When a Garden Tool is the Means of Oppression

August 30, 2018Katherine RivardArtifact
— 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.


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