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Object of the Week: Short-Handled Hoe

Associate Curator of History Erendina Delgadillo reflects on a short-handled hoe as an example of how undervalued workers organized to advocate for equity and justice.


Every week, OMCA staff—from curators to gallery guides—reflect on an object from the Museum’s extensive collections that shares insights and inspiration for our present moment. 

From Erendina Delgadillo, Associate Curator of History

Today, I would like to share the story of this short-handled hoe in our collection, also in Spanish as el cortito. This object tells one story of undervalued workers forced to work in unhealthy conditions and how people organized to make lasting change. This type of tool was used in California sugar beet and lettuce fields in the early 20th century. While farm owners claimed other tools would harm the delicate produce and their bottom line, workers using el cortito experienced chronic back pain and long-term ill effects because the short-handle forced them to stoop throughout their 10 to 12 hour shifts. In 1975, after decades of protests by workers, labor organizers, and the United Farm Workers of America, the tool was ruled “unsafe” by the California Supreme Court and was banned in this state. As a result, farm worker back injuries decreased by 34 percent.

Today, in the Bay Area and across the state frontline workers—positions occupied primarily by Black and Latinx people—are testing positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than any other groups. As this pandemic continues to highlight existing economic and social inequities, the story of el cortito reminds us that the health and well-being of workers has long been ignored for the sake of profit—and, most importantly, that change is possible when we work together to advocate for equity and justice.