Hulu's "Promised Land" Unpacks the Reality of Chicano Farmworkers

ABC/Paul Sarkis
ABC/Paul Sarkis

Farmworkers are legendary in the Chicano community, particularly in California. César Chavez and Dolores Huerta are our civil rights leaders, and the Delano Grape Strike is one of our defining moments. So when I attempted to find movies and shows about Chicano farmworkers, I was surprised to discover that there were so few. The ones I did manage to find were mostly all documentaries or based on the true story we already know. Hulu's "Promised Land" is working to change that, tracking multiple characters — Joe, Lettie, and Billy — who immigrate from Mexico to work in California's fields. The show is split between two timelines, one in the late '80s following the recently arrived farmworkers and one in the present day, when Joe and his wife, Lettie, now own the vineyard they first labored at.

Activist Mónica Ramírez, who works both on labor rights and media representation for Latinx communities, is impressed with the show. "It certainly has happened that farmworkers have become farm owners, and when that happens, it's because of the relationships and networks the farmworkers are able to build," she tells POPSUGAR. In "Promised Land," the characters befriend the grower's daughter (who eventually becomes Bellamy Young), passing into the vineyard's great house as guests. For Ramírez, that represents a certain accuracy and serves as a call to build relationships with farmworkers who often find themselves isolated.

Another thing that rings true to Ramírez is how "Promised Land" portrays the crew boss/grower/farmworker dynamic. In the show, the white Honeycroft patriarch originally keeps his distance from those who work his fields, occasionally passing through with a show of benevolence but no real connections or desire to form any. His crew boss is the main point of contact for the farmworkers, something Ramírez says is typical and when taken to the extreme can lead to abuse, like the one in episode three where everyone has to work an hour without pay as punishment.

For those who are undocumented, the difficulties compound, as we see in "Promised Land" with our original trio fending off human traffickers, racist cops, and shame as they try to achieve their dreams. Ramírez applauds the show's timeline and how immigrant labor laws like Ronald Reagan's Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) would have missed the show's character, representing a generation of immigrants facing constant uncertainly. But more than the laws or the difficulties, Ramírez is happy that "Promised Land" shows a deeper truth about what it is to be a farmworker — that there is joy. Lettie, Joe, and Billy laugh and learn, fall in love, and get into trouble. That's rare — stories about farmworkers tend to be about "the struggle," as Ramírez puts it, with little time for anything else. Which makes it easy for others to throw up their hands and say the situation is too complex and too entrenched to solve. And it makes it hard for farmworkers to feel validated in their whole identities, recognizing their barriers to success and their power.

In the pilot for "Promised Land," one character asks Joe if he pulled "the ladder" up after him because Joe has just dismissed Daniela (played by Natalia del Riego) for not having papers. It's one of the central tensions of the show that addresses the questions: Is it different for a Latinx family to be in charge? Do they run a more just farm, and thus represent real change? Or are they simply replicating the flawed system that got them there?

The majority of the laborers are still Latinx and haven't gotten the same opportunities as the Sandovals. In episode three, Julio Macias ("On My Block") enters the show as the new general manager, Javi. We learn he grew up on the vineyard, even having a romance with one of the Sandoval children. But his prospects aren't as rosy as Joe and Lettie's kids. He's got more hard work for fewer rewards in front of him. Daniela, the woman who loses her job in the first episode, does better, forming a romance with another potential Sandoval heir and helping him strike out on his own. Her path mirrors Joe's more closely. His marriage to that Honeycroft daughter is pivotal to his success. But surely, "marrying up" can't be the only way to achieve economic security as an immigrant in the US, right? What a sad state that would be.

The thing about being a legend is that while it includes veneration, it also marks you as a thing of the past. But Ramírez wants people to understand that the farm-work struggle continues. "It's changed, it looks different. There have been wins along the way. But it's not over," she adds. "Promised Land" reminds us of that, centering farmworkers and insisting their stories — the good and the bad — are worth telling. And for that, I'll be tuning in.