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The fight against the devil’s arm: The story behind Chicano Park’s new mural

A new mural in Chicano Park depicts the successful fight to ban the use of the short-handled hoe on California farms. KPBS reporter Katie Hyson looked into the story behind the mural.

Under the roar of traffic above Chicano Park, Maurice “Mo” Jourdane looks up at the newly painted “El Cortito” mural that climbs a freeway pillar.

Slender and white-haired, hands clasped behind his back, he stares at a younger version of himself with a halo of brown curls and a 1970s bomber-style jacket.

The mural is divided in half by a bent spinal column that mirrors the backs of the farmworkers toiling in the fields above it.


At the top, hands break el cortito — the short-handled hoe now banned as a farm tool in California — in two.

The cortito became widespread on California farms after the Gold Rush. Farmworkers called it “el brazo del diablo” — the devil’s arm. Its eight-inch handle forced them to stoop over all day as they toiled in the fields.

Jourdane was an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, which assists farmworkers and other low-income rural community members. He said Cesar Chavez encouraged him to fight against el cortito. But it was a chance encounter in a Salinas Valley pool hall in 1970 that convinced him.

There, he noticed a farmworker with a bad back. Jourdane asked him what had happened. The worker said it was just from using the cortito.

The worker went to his truck and brought back the cortito to show Jourdane, who tested it and agreed it was bad. When he bent to reach the cortito to the pool hall floor, pain shot from his legs all the way up through his back and arms. But the worker challenged him: To know how bad it is, he said, you have to really use it.


“And so after some encouragement, pressure, I went to the field to use the cortito,” Jourdane said.

He remembered driving through the Salinas Valley at dawn and spending the day bent over hoeing sugar beets.

“I realized that day it was a torture,” Jourdane said. “We had to do something to get rid of it.”

When Jourdane went to the law library, he found no laws around the cortito. Marty Glick, who would become his CRLA co-counsel on the lawsuit they would eventually file, encouraged him to gather information and press ahead.

From doctors, Jourdane learned that it was worse than just pain. Farmworkers’ backs were being destroyed.

Maurice "Mo" Jourdane holds a cortito on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. The court case he won, which banned the tool from California farms, is inscribed on the handle.
Katie Hyson / KPBS News
Maurice "Mo" Jourdane holds a cortito on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. The court case he won, which banned the tool from California farms, is inscribed on the handle.

Doctors testified that use of the cortito over a long period of time resulted in irreparable back injury and permanent disability. Stooping over degenerated the discs in workers’ spines until they ruptured. Young farmworkers developed the backs of old men.

Jourdane said to the growers, the farmworkers were being used just like the tools.

“They were just like the hoe,” he explained. “If the farmworker became disabled because of back injury, they (the growers) just went to Mexico and got another one to take their place.”

Growers claimed the short handle was needed for efficiency. But when Jourdane and Glick surveyed growers across the country, they found the same work was being done with a long-handled hoe everywhere but Arizona and California.

He has another theory: el cortito was about control.

He remembered one worker telling him: “The slave owners had whips or guns they used to keep workers working, and here they have the cortito.”

The cortito kept workers bent low at a time when Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla were trying to unionize them to stand up for their rights.

It also made them easier to supervise.

“You could have one supervisor, one foreman, supervising 50 or 60 workers ... you knew who was resting ... those who were standing up,” Jourdane said.

Farmworkers risked their livelihoods to testify during the yearslong legal battle. They met at Chicano Park to organize, the very spot the new mural depicts their eventual victory.

The Supreme Court of California banned the short-handled hoe in 1975.

Remembering the win moved Jourdane, but he put it in perspective.

“We got rid of the cortito,” he said, “but that’s just one little part of a farmworker’s life.”

Now retired, he still speaks of all the work left to do.

Farmworkers continue to die in the field of heat exhaustion. California doesn’t keep real-time data on these deaths, which occur every year and are rising with climate change. Farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illness than other workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, though the illness is preventable.

Jourdane believes a shift in mindset is needed.

“What we have to do is get beyond the belief that farmers are just tools and it doesn’t matter that something is harmful,” he said.

Mario Chacon painted the mural, assisted by local artists Ariana Arroyo and Gary Harper.

Jourdane and Glick will be among the speakers at the public unveiling of the mural this Sunday, June 25 at 1 p.m. in Chicano Park.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.