In Search of the ‘Tomato King’

Finding a Mexican Migrant Politician, Rooted in California Soil

Ethnic studies scholar Adrián Félix traces the life of Andrés Bermúdez, a larger-than-life figure who was a farmer in California and a politician in Mexico. Illustration by Be Boggs.

There is only one person more obsessed than I when it comes to the memory of Don Andrés Bermúdez: his son, Andrés Junior. Junior lives with his family in the place where he came of age, a spacious ranch home his father acquired in 1993, on the outskirts of Winters, California, in the western Sacramento Valley.

In a nod to his Catholic upbringing, Junior crosses himself when he passes the town cemetery, where his father is buried. He bought the burial plot adjacent to his father’s, so that he can be as close to him as possible.

It’s easy to understand the devotion. Bermúdez, the “Tomato King,” who died of cancer in 2009 at just 58, willed himself from undocumented field worker and ranch hand to naturalized U.S. citizen; from successful farmer and labor contractor in California to pathbreaking congressman and migrant politician in Mexico.

In 2001, he made history by being elected mayor of his hometown of Jerez, in the state of Zacatecas, which has sent over half a million people to the U.S. over the last half century. Bérmudez is believed to be the first U.S. immigrant to win a mayoral election in Mexico. His first victory was overturned—because his primary residence was in the U.S.—but he won again in 2004 after his binational residency was established, then left that post to run for federal congress in Mexico City two years later. There, Bermúdez championed migrant causes, including allocating greater federal resources for the repatriation of paisanos who died in the U.S.

I am writing a biography of Bermúdez, and I am drawn equally to this complex and contradictory figure by his larger-than-life character—in his signature all-black cowboy ensemble—and by the unprecedented transnational movement he ignited. Bermúdez gave migrants a voice in the politics of their homeland. He also reproduced the strongman tendencies and political bossism he fought against, not to mention machismo.

He is both rule and exception: so much like millions of fellow Mexican migrants who anonymously toil in this country, but also remarkable for transcending strictures of citizenship and borders. Tracing his California path through rural swaths of the state is a reminder of how Bermúdez, and others, have made it their home while maintaining lifelong ties to their ancestral motherlands.

I am drawn equally to this complex and contradictory figure by his larger-than-life character—in his signature all-black cowboy ensemble—and by the unprecedented transnational movement he ignited.

And so I take the 99 Highway to Porterville, where the Bermúdez clan’s U.S. trailblazers first arrived in the mid-20th century as part of the Bracero program, which brought hundreds of thousands of guest workers from Mexico to the fields of California. Fiddling with the radio dial, I’m as likely to hear conservative Christian propaganda as I am to stumble over country music or a Mexican station with Mixteco programming.

In Porterville, I meet a group of Bermúdez’s first cousins and contemporaries. Their aging bodies and visible ailments—strained backs, aching knees—are a testament to lifetimes of physically taxing work in the fields.

We sit in their back patio under a light drizzle and talk. Like any good transnational testimonio, the assembled elders start by honoring their elders, the patriarchs who first came to the U.S. They left rough upbringings in the scattered ranchos of the Zacatecas mountains, where they migrated seasonally between their native El Cargadero and Cueva Grande, tending drought-stricken land and famished dairy cows.

After stints in construction jobs in L.A., these pioneers eventually landed in the Central Valley. They worked the crop circuit up and down rural California, picking grapes, peaches, apricots, plums, strawberries, cherries, oranges, and olives. Labor contractors murdered workers for their paychecks. The migra launched raids that sent them scattering through orchards “like deer.”

When Bermúdez followed these forbears, arriving in town in his late teens in 1969, he did what the rest of the single migrants did, his cousins tell me: worked, drank, smoked, dated. You couldn’t tell, in Porterville, that his trajectory would be any different.

And so I head to Winters, a small town of just over 7,000, the place where Bermúdez’s path diverged from other young undocumented migrants’ stories. After his stint in Porterville, Bermúdez briefly returned to Mexico to marry and start a family. He then moved them to the U.S., choosing Winters for yearlong agricultural work—more appealing for a new father than following the crop circuit. A local white rancher named Tufts saw in Bermúdez a swift English learner and a hard worker, consistently the fastest picker on his crew. He invited Bermúdez and his young family out of the subsidized housing they lived in on the other side of town and into a trailer home on the ranch property.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the flow of migrant workers into California was plentiful, and Bermúdez, now bilingual, struck out on his own and began recruiting laborers for the U.S. Forest Service. By the 1990s, he returned to Winters a wealthy man and ventured into tomato growing—this time, as his own boss. He got involved in every stage of production, from sowing to transplanting, even innovating a technique that would earn him the “Tomato King” moniker, adapting agricultural machinery for a greater yield. He supplied Ragu, Morning Star, Del Monte, and Campbell’s.

In Winters, memories of the man in his “Tomato King” prime abound. Driving through the quaint town with Junior, he’s quick to point out McArthur Street, where his father bought his first property. Where he leased land to grow tomatoes. The exact spot where he got pulled over for driving under the influence, or where he broke out into a brawl. The Buckhorn, his favorite bar to rub elbows with the region’s white farmers. Rotary Park and the Winters Community Center where he hosted the Fiesta Mexicana and delivered impromptu speeches. The place where he threw epic parties for hundreds of his workers, many from his hometown of Jerez.

Most dream of a return. But Bermúdez actually managed to go back—and to take an unlikely and unprecedented leap into the Machiavellian world of Mexican politics. His critics will insist that Bermúdez was drawn by the allure of power; still, as a mayor and congress member, he battled the establishment by giving migrants a voice. “I am here to represent my people,” he once told me. He always told elite politicians that “to do away with migration, they need to have been migrants themselves. Nobody can do away with that which they have not felt.”

Death brought Bermúdez back, again, to the U.S. In the five years that I’ve been researching my book, I’ve grown close with the Bermúdez family; on another recent trip to Winters, I attended a rosary for Andrés Junior’s maternal grandmother, who died last year; Bermúdez jokingly called her his favorite suegra (mother-in-law) in an unabashed reference to his infidelity and cheating ways.

The family buried her just a few yards away from Bermúdez, where the entire nuclear family has plots. To paraphrase the migration scholar Osman Balkan, the interred bodies serve as anchors, investing the soil with political meaning for their relatives and survivors.

In death, as in life, Bermúdez has imbued this corner of California with his legacy—one that stretches to Zacatecas, and beyond.


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