Tag Archives: oral history

Chasing the Harvest: ‘If You Want to Die, Stay at the Ranch’

Gabriel Thompson | Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture | Voice of Witness / Verso Press | May 2017 | 17 minutes (4,736 words)

The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Heraclio Astete, who shared his story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.

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Heraclio Astete

Age: 62

Occupation: Former sheepherder

Born in: Junín, Peru

Interviewed in: Bakersfield, Kern County

Agricultural Region: Central Valley

 

Along with fruit and vegetable crops, California’s agriculture also includes livestock, from dairy cows and egg-laying hens to hogs and even ostriches. Then there are sheep and lambs—and the unique challenges faced by the workers who care for them. These sheepherders are predominantly temporary guest workers, often called “H-2A workers” after the type of visa they hold.

Theirs is a lonely occupation. Living out of primitive trailers that are dozens of miles from the nearest town, sheepherders can go weeks without seeing another face. It is also the poorest paid job in the country, with some sheepherders still earning around $750 a month; with their long hours of work, that amounts to about a dollar an hour. In a 2000 report by Central California Legal Services, ninety percent of sheepherders reported that they weren’t given a day off over the entire year. When asked about their best experience as a sheepherder in the United States, many responded: “None.”

Like many sheepherders, Heraclio Astete came from Peru, where he grew up caring for flocks of sheep in his hometown. And like many of the workers who responded “None” to the survey, he had a lot of complaints about workplace exploitation. When he suffered a potentially life threatening work-related illness, he decided to do something about it. Read more…

How ‘Austin Powers’ Became the First Cult Hit of the DVD Era

No movie channels pre-Millennium, “the end of history is kinda fun!” exuberance better than 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The film, which turned 20 this week, feels incredibly out of step with our dystopian present, yet the cheap gags and sophomoric puns still work. (Did you remember Carrie Fisher played the Evils’ family therapist? I didn’t).

At the Hollywood Reporter, Ryan Parker presents the cast and crew’s memories of making this unlikely cult movie — including the realization they had a DVD-fueled sleeper hit on their hands.

[Director Jay] Roach It opened internationally on the weekend Princess Diana died, and there was no one in the world in the mood for Americans mocking English people. There was some reference to Prince Charles that did end up getting cut for the U.K. release.

[Actor Seth] Green The movie came out and did fine. I think the total take after eight weeks was something like $50 million.

Roach But then DVDs kicked in — they were a new market channel, and Warner Bros. was a pioneer. Mike and I did the commentary and worked on bonus features. They asked us to do a sequel, and I figured the video numbers must have done really well. They hide the video numbers, so you never know. To this day, it’s in the red. I don’t think that movie is listed as in profit, which is hilarious to me.

[Writer and actor Mike] Myers I knew we had something when I was driving on Halloween in Los Angeles and I couldn’t get past Santa Monica Boulevard because of a parade, so I sat on the hood of the car and I saw like 15 Austin Powers go by and one of the Austin Powers spotted me and came over. I had a picture with all these Austin Powers, which was unbelievably cool.

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How the ‘Girls’ Cast Came to Be

There was always something distinctly Obama Era about Girls — the post-recession angst, the clunky conversations around race and diversity, the ability to worry about money, art, and love, rather than the looming end of constitutional democracy. So it makes sense that the sixth and final season of the show is about to start right as a new administration rolls in. Before it does, though, Lacey Rose at The Hollywood Reporter gives the show’s cast and creators (from Lena Dunham to Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner) the full oral-history treatment.

JENNIFER EUSTON, CASTING DIRECTOR It was 2010, and I’d done one or two network shows and did not have good experiences. Then Kathleen McCaffrey called and said: “I have this script. It’s Lena Dunham, and Judd’s attached.” I’d seen Tiny Furniture, and I’d worked with Judd, but I told her, “I’m not doing TV.” She kept hassling me; she had me sit down with Lena, and eventually she just wore me down.

APATOW We used a few people from Tiny Furniture. I was always a big proponent of Alex Karpovsky [the nebbishy Ray] as my personal way in, and Lena wanted to have [her childhood friend] Jemima Kirke play Jessa.

JEMIMA KIRKE (JESSA) I said no a couple of times. I was working as a painter at the time. Honestly, it was the money [that convinced me]. I was 24 and about to have a baby, so I was vulnerable, and the contract was very long. (Laughs.)

ALLISON WILLIAMS (MARNIE) I had just moved to L.A. from New York very dramatically after I graduated from college. I came in to audition, and we improvised a scene where I braided Lena’s hair, which was … dirty.

DUNHAM I called Allison before we cast her, and I asked her how she felt about nudity. She said, “I don’t want to do nudity.” I was like, “We have to get back to you. I’m gonna be naked, people are gonna be naked — that’s a big part of what this show is.” She told us she wasn’t scared of sex, she just didn’t want to show her vagina, her nipples or her butt — and she never did.

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The Moment Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ Changed Course

KAHANE CORN COOPERMAN(field producer, later co-executive producer, 1996-2015):

I produced a field piece, with Stacey Grenrock Woods as the correspondent, about a guy, Alexander P., who had been a rock star in Ukraine and came here and was now a waiter in a hotel restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This piece may well have been in the works before Jon arrived. But it airs, and after the show you have a postmortem. And Jon was not happy. He said, “Your targets are just wrong. They shouldn’t be people on the fringe. Our targets need to be the people who have a voice, and that’s politicians, and that’s the media.”

STACEY GRENROCK WOODS(correspondent, 1998-2003):

I heard Jon was very unhappy with that piece, and I don’t blame him at all. I didn’t like it, either, but it was given to me. I think it ended up being a policy-changing piece.

-From a new oral history of The Daily Show, by Chris Smith, excerpted in Vanity Fair.

Butches, Femmes, and Mobsters: The Three Lives of Malvina Schwartz

So he put me behind the bar, and I was in full drag at this point: pants, vest, shirt, tie, short hair. I worked like that for a year. Then the liquor board came in and thought I looked too young. One reached across the bar, touched my face and said, “He isn’t even a shaver!” But Ernie had all the connections. He took the men in the back, paid them off, and from then on, he said, “I’ll have you tend bar from eight to twelve. After midnight a girl cannot be behind the bar.” Because now my cover was blown: I was a girl.

At Hazlitt, read Hugh Ryan on the oral history of drag king Malvina Schwartz, a.k.a. Buddy Kent, a.k.a. Bubbles Kent.

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The Month That Killed the Sixties

Clara Bingham Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul | Random House | May 2016 | 30 minutes (8,161 words)

 
Below is an excerpt from Witness to the Revolution, an oral history of the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. In this excerpt, witnesses recall the month when everything seemed to fall apart. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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You can jail the revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution.

—FRED HAMPTON, SPEECH, 1969

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December 1969 was plagued by violence and despair. As bloodshed in Vietnam escalated, so did violence at home. The ranks of Americans who considered themselves “revolutionaries” swelled to as many as a million, and militant resistance threatened nearly all government institutions related to the war effort. Nonviolent civil disobedience of just months earlier, with the October and November Moratoriums, had evolved into violent clashes with police, rioting, arson, and bombings. In the fifteen-month period between January 1969 and April 1970, an average of fifty politically motivated bombings occurred each day.

At the vanguard of this domestic rebellion was the Black Panther Party, which, in reaction to police brutality and FBI harassment, publicly declared war against the police. Two dozen Black Panther chapters had opened across the country, and in 1969 the police killed 27 Panthers and arrested or jailed 749. J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country,” and he assigned two thousand full-time FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other New Left organizations. In a 1969 speech to Congress, Hoover declared that the New Left was a “firmly established subversive force dedicated to the complete destruction of our traditional democratic values and the principles of free government.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on. From 1961 until 1971, the U.S. military dropped more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals— defoliants or herbicides, including Agent Orange—on 4.8 million Vietnamese. In 1969, 11,780 American troops were killed, bringing the death toll to 48,736. It was not a festive Christmas for those in the peace movement. John Lennon and Yoko Ono displayed huge billboards in Los Angeles, London, and other cities that read: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” On New York City’s Fifth Avenue during the holiday shopping rush, a woman blocked the street with a sign that read, “How Many Shopping Days Until Peace?” Read more…

The ‘SNL’ Skit on Racial Profiling That Never Made It to Television

Robert Smigel, writer: It wasn’t until my last season that the network refused to air a “TV Funhouse.” It was a live-action one that was meant to be about racism and profiling, an airline-safety video with multilingual narration, and whenever you heard a different language, they would cut to people of that nationality. First, typical white Americans, then a Latino family, then a Japanese family, all being instructed about seat belts, overhead compartments, et cetera. Then it cuts to an Arab man, and the narrator says, in Arabic, “During the flight, please do not blow up the airplane. The United States is actually a humanitarian nation that is rooted in the concept of freedom,” and so on. … When the standards people freaked, Lorne fought them. Standards pushed back hard. They even got someone at NBC human resources to condemn it. … Lorne said, “I have a plan.” Obama was doing a cameo in the cold open. Lorne told me he would show my sketch to Obama. “If Obama thinks it’s OK, they won’t be able to argue it.” I thought it was a brilliant idea, except why would Obama ever give this thing his blessing? What if word got out? “Hey, everybody, that guy over there said it was cool. The one running for president of the country.” But I loved Lorne for caring this much and being willing to go that far to get this thing on TV.

Michaels: Obama said, “It’s funny, but no, I don’t think so.”

-From the newly expanded oral history of Saturday Night Live, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales.

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The Early Friendship of the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC

Horovitz: One night at the studio, me and Adam and Mike, we’re waiting outside, drinking beers, and we see Run running down the street screaming, and DMC is way behind him. They were so excited: They’d come up with the idea for our song “Paul Revere” on the way there. We loved Run DMC—and then we were on tour with them. It was like: “Wow, if we’re hanging around with these dudes, it must mean we’re all right.”

Run: They’d teach me about stupid white-boy stuff, like whippits. “What the hell is a whippit?” “Okay, you take this Reddi-wip thing, you push, you inhale it.” Stuff black people don’t do. I was like, “I don’t know the effects of this foolishness.” I don’t think I did it. With the Beasties, nothing was normal. Ad-Rock bugged me out: He was dating the actress [Molly Ringwald]. It was like, “Wow, now that I look at him, he kind of looks like a movie star.”

-From New York magazine’s 2011 oral history of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill.

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If 'The West Wing' Were Run By NBC Executives, It Would Have Become 'Schindler's List'

JOHN WELLS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: I had a deal at NBC because they wanted me to continue to be involved in ER. So we developed West Wing there, but they didn’t want to do it right away. “The American audience isn’t interested in politics” and “there’s plenty of that on Sunday morning television” were some of the things I recall hearing. But I insisted on getting it made if I was going to stay with ER.

AARON SORKIN: Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield were running NBC at the time the pilot script was delivered. Sitting in a meeting in Warren’s office with John, my sense was that the network executives were respectfully underwhelmed. Referring to one of the stories in the pilot that was about Cuban refugees fleeing to America on inner tubes and should we or should we not send the Coast Guard out to help them, one of the execs suggested that it might be better if [Bradley Whitford’s character] Josh Lyman went out and saved them himself. I tried not to make it an awkward pause before I said, “You mean actually swim?” He said, “No, that would be ridiculous. I mean he rents a boat. A motor boat, a skiff, but the boat’s too small to get all the refugees on board and he has a moment like Oskar Schindler where he’s saying, ’I could have rented a bigger boat! I could have saved that guy over there and those kids over there!” It was hard to avoid the awkward pause then because I honestly didn’t know if I was being messed with or not, and I didn’t want to insult the executive or appear to be difficult to work with (even though I badly needed the network to pass because by this point ABC had ordered 13 episodes of Sports Night) so I said, “That’s worth thinking about.”

From The Hollywood Reporter’s oral history of “The West Wing.” Read more oral histories from the Longreads Archive.

[Not single-page] An oral history of the TV show “Cheers”:

Danson: I’ll tell you about the worst day of my life. Shelley and Rhea were carrying that week’s episode, and the guys were just, ‘Let’s play hooky.’ We’d never done anything wrong before. John had a boat, so we met at Marina del Rey at 8 a.m. We all called in sick, and Jimmy caught on and was so pissed. Woody and I were already stoned, and Woody said, ‘You want to try some mushrooms?’ I’d never had them, so I’m handed this bag and I took a fistful. On our way to Catalina, we hit the tail end of a hurricane, and even people who were sober were getting sick. Woody and I thought we were going to die for three hours. I sat next to George, and every sixty seconds or so he’d poke me and go, ‘Breathe.’ [gasp] And I’d come back to life.

Harrelson: I was a little worried about him. It looked like his face was melting. I think I may have been freaking a little myself, but I had to be cool about it.

Wendt: We got into serious trouble for that. I think we thought Jimmy and Les and Glen would have more of a sense of humor about it. We did it because Ted was doing it. He’s sort of a reluctant leader. He didn’t try to flex his influence. He’s just eminently followable.

“‘The Best TV Show That’s Ever Been’.” — Brian Raftery, GQ

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