In his song “Strawberry Fields” (1967), John Lennon immortalizes the name of a Salvation Army children’s home located near his childhood home in Liverpool. He remembers happy family gatherings, and the local band playing on holidays. Lennon sings, too, about his insecurity as he wonders about his music’s connectivity to a broad public. His memories of that time are a sweet recollection of happy family events, which he recalls with the fondness of retrospection years later.
In his novel Strawberry Fields (2009), Jesus Ramirez weaves a series of social and cultural vignettes about a Chicano migrant family’s life into a compelling story that provides a psychological and historical study of Joaquín, the protagonist whose personal history mirrors in some ways Ramirez’s own childhood as a migrant farmworker. In the narrative, Joaquín, who has become a successful and respected attorney, initially glosses over his past and idealizes it or blocks out its most painful aspects; his memory of harvest time in the strawberry fields of Michigan is more nostalgic than accurate. Periodically, however, he is brought back to reality by the contrasting memories of his brother, Bennie, who serves as something of a Sancho to Joaquín’s Quixote. Throughout the novel, present and past are juxtaposed when current events in Joaquín’s life are interrupted by flashes of memories past, framed as flashbacks.
As the story unfolds, the reader is reminded of the racism, poor working conditions, and economic exploitation that migrant workers endure—not only by the agriculturalists who pay their workers and provide substandard living quarters, but also by members of their own ethnic community who serve as labor contractors. The overall and most severe economic oppression suffered by migrant Chicano workers and their families while they harvested the crops was committed by members of the dominant Euro-American culture, who refused to acknowledge the migrants’ role in providing needed food and a livelihood for these Anglo farm owners and their families, and nutritional sustenance for the broader community. Ramirez paints a picture of migrant life that is shaded and shadowed by an ever-present consciousness of powerlessness, ethnic identity loss, poverty, and…hope, courage, and a sense of cultural integrity and endurance despite all of this.
Lennon was able to romanticize his past when he wrote his “Strawberry Fields”: he had gained notoriety as a writer, singer, and leader in the Beatles band, and had acquired substantial economic security. Joaquín (and Chuy Ramirez) had no such luxury: decades after the events portrayed in the novel, Joaquín is still haunted by an unsolved and unresolved mystery about the fields, and victimized by the ideologies not only of a past era but also of the present moment. Even as a successful attorney, he experiences, and advocates for clients who experience, similar events and attitudes.
In New York City, just past the West 72nd Street entrance to Central Park, along the crosstown road that weaves through the park across from the Dakota apartment where Lennon was gunned down in 1980, a path winds through a stretch of greenery that serves as a meditation area. It is labeled “Strawberry Fields” to honor John Lennon while it recalls one of his most notable songs. I discovered this peaceful place during a visit to New York shortly after finishing Ramirez’s novel. I did not know Lennon, but certainly know his music. By contrast, I do know Jesus Ramirez, now a successful attorney who has overcome to a great extent the kinds of prejudices and problems described in his novel—but who still, like his protagonist, does pro bono work for poor Chicanos who would otherwise have no good legal representation when they suffer from injustice in society or experience racism and classism in the judicial system. The novel provides, perhaps, a certain cathartic moment for its author, but not to the extent of finally setting a bad memory to rest: rather, it continues to stimulate dedication to preventing or overcoming the actuality or potentiality of similar moments in the present and future. While Lennon and his music are part of the fond cultural memory of people in the U.S. and abroad, and appropriately celebrated as such, the injustices suffered by Chicanos decades ago, and enduring even today, continue to be ignored and unresolved. This “strawberry fields” provides insights into cultural fortitude and resilience in the face of such prejudices and practices, and calls for a better life in this life on Earth (not just a better life in a believed in and hoped for heavenly home) that is, for many, yet to come.
Both works of literature, the sung poetry and the image-laden novel, provide insights into lives defined, to some extent, by strawberry fields. The comparison, to a certain extent, ends there; the contrasts remain. The poem expresses nostalgia for a bucolic life in Liverpool, England. The novel evidences the sometimes brutal memories of migrants on the road from the Texas-Mexico border to distant Michigan. The song is briefly tinged with sorrow as Lennon laments the loss of his joyful past and experiences insecurity as he considers the possibility of acceptance of his words and music. The novel’s subsurface sorrow is broken by its serenity: remembrance of trying family relationships and ethnic injustice are interspersed with joyful memories of friendship, and family love and bonds. Lennon wants his strawberry fields to be “forever” as a lingering moment of childhood innocence, joy, and peace. Ramirez wants his strawberry fields to help overcome the lingering uneasiness of harmful events—past but still present—that await social and personal resolution.
Jesus Ramirez’s novel, then, not only reminds us of past injustices. It reminds us, too, that racial discrimination and economic oppression continue today, even when unnoticed by the media; and, that the poor, particularly migrant workers, cry for liberation. Strawberry Fields is a reflective reminiscence of Chicano life, providing a glimpse into Mexican-American—and Mexican—migrants interacting at home, in the fields, and along the roads that link them. This well-written novel, with its realistic portrayal of life in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond, stimulates us to be aware of ongoing human rights issues in the U.S. It strives successfully to address these issues with passion, compassion, and a sense of justice, rather than just relegate them to a cold case file of unresolved and apparently unresolvable historical events.
Strawberry Fields is a beautifully written, well-told tale of remembrance, reflection, and renewal. Strawberry Fields is a very important book for its insightful portrayal of Chicano culture, values, and hardships, of lingering impacts of racism and economic deprivation, and of continuing efforts by Chicanos to be accorded respect and dignity in the twenty-first century…and beyond.