Farmworker Movement Documentation Project - Presented by the UC San Diego Library

Memoir

Janis Peterson

UFW Volunteer / 1968 – 1990

Lamont, 1968

The dust rose up in puffs and swirls in the dry, hot sun. Policemen and men with ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots mingled in between Mexicanos waving colorful red and black flags.  Police cars and pick-up trucks were scattered everywhere. Squinting through the dust and the confusion, I leaned out of the passenger side of my father’s car, trying to figure out how to find Jim Drake. Jim had told me to come to Lamont, where the Union would be holding a certification election. 

We were so out of place.  My father, with his engineer suit and tie, briefcase and hat, looked more like the FBI-looking people who were snapping photographs of my father and me, his car, and the license plates.  I wore a dress and low-heeled leather pumps.  We had just driven three hours through the heat from Long Beach to get here.

“¿Sabes dónde está Jim Drake?”  My Spanish wasn’t very good.

Jim Drake was in the meeting, someone told me, pointing to a small building.   A long folding table, full of papers and pencils, was placed in front of the door. 

“Can I go inside? ” I asked the people sitting there,  “I’m looking for Jim Drake.”

“You have to vote first,” they said. 

“I can’t vote; I don’t work here.”

“Then you can’t go inside; no one goes inside unless they vote.”

Nothing would persuade them.  Desperate, I decided to go around to the back of the building, to see if I could get in through the back door. There, in the very back, belting out Solidaridad, was Jim Drake.

It was July of 1968.  I was 19.  I had signed up to work for the UFW that summer, but I had no idea then that stepping down out of my father’s car and into this swirling mass of people would last for over twenty years.

I had just completed my first year of college at UC Irvine.  In 1967, UCI consisted of ten sterile buildings—an ugly brand new—that huddled together between acres of dusty, barren land. The campus looked more like a NASA experiment for colonizing the moon than a three-year old university in the middle of Orange County.  The only visible signs of life, other than the students and faculty, were a plethora of wild rabbits, that unchecked, had the run of the land.  Not for long.  The campus police used them for target practice.

If the landscape was barren, the politics were not.  Orange County in the late 1960’s was a hotbed of the extreme political right, bent on turning the state, and the country, in a whole different direction. If young professors had assumed that this new campus would be innovative or political, they were dead wrong:  by the time that I got there, most of the radical professors had already been fired, and IBM was recruiting students on campus as much as ROTC.  There were a grand total of five members in SDS. Our student body president, a former paratrooper, had come out against the Vietnam War, and was promptly voted out of office by the students themselves.

I had spent the last two years of high school going to anti-war actions with a Quaker family that had moved in down the street from my home.  We went door to door in all kinds of neighborhoods to educate people about the Vietnam War, asking for donations to purchase medical supplies for the North Vietnamese civilians who were being bombed.  For the first time in my life, I knew people who were passionate and cared deeply about the world they lived in, and were determined to do something about it. But at UC Irvine, there was no such kind of movement, and my involvement dwindled down to nothing, besides school and work.

What changed my life happened in the dish-room of the student cafeteria.  Every Saturday, for four hours, our supervisor, a devout evangelical, locked the dining room hall where we worked and made the student workers listen to her preach about how we were all going to hell. I didn’t need any rabid descriptions of hell.   I’d had plenty of that at home for the last four years that my parents had spent fighting over money while I tried to take care of my younger brothers.  They hadn’t planned to let me go away to school, finally agreeing to let me attend UC Irvine because I got a job working in the cafeteria, which paid for my room and board. It was bad enough having to go to school in Orange County, but listening to the supervisor every Saturday was more than I could take. I don’t remember exactly how many Saturdays it took, but I trotted over to the head manager, and complained, which put me in the dish-room. For him, it was simpler than firing me.  I would work there for one week more, the manager assumed, and then I would quit. 

It was dirty, hard work, and Mexicans—all men—from Mexico did that labor.  All of a sudden, instead of politely serving food to the students, I was in a steaming hot dish-room, facing the conveyor belt that brought the students’ trays, piled high with cups and plates and glasses, silverware, food, and napkins. 

I spoke no Spanish; these men spoke no English.  I had studied French throughout high school, and I had intended to major in French in college.  Since middle school, my heart had been in the French culture.  But there, in the dish room, standing by the conveyor belt next to Antonio, who was close to my father’s age, and who, I am certain, deeply missed his own children, my lessons in Spanish began, with Antonio carefully teaching me, word by word, the names for the dishes and trays flooding in on the conveyor belt.

Antonio slowed down his speech so that I would understand; he loved to sing, and he taught me old Mexican ballads.  He spoke about the natural beauty of Southern Mexico; about the countryside, and the wonderful food. Antonio loved his language, and he loved his culture.  While it was Spanish that I learned, I learned too, more importantly, what it means to love your country and your people, with a deep, profound pride.  I also learned from Antonio—something that has stayed with me for the rest of my life—what it means to teach what you love. 

This was at a time when we were full of angst about who we were as a culture and as a society; we were students entering into an adult world that was breaking apart over a murderous war.  In the early morning hours of every weekday, from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., the dish-room became my haven. 

I am certain it was the last thing that the supervisor would have expected:  that I would continue to work in the dish-room and actually enjoy it.  He finally assigned another student—a young man, a Spanish major—to join me about four months later.  Those first four months, though, I was alone with these men who joked and laughed and fought about how to teach me best.  We became the best of friends.

In the spring of 1968, a student on campus, Beth Abrahams, began to talk about organizing a group of students to collect food for the grape strikers.  It was something I knew nothing about, but anything that involved taking action was good enough for me.  We went to Corona del Mar: each of us was given a big box to fill with food.  I was used to going door to door, so I was looking forward to this activity. I didn’t go as I had expected. When I mentioned the word ‘strike,’ one man came back with a gun and ordered me off of his property:  another threatened me with a hammer.  I was getting worried:  would I be the only one with no cans of food in my box?  This word ‘strike’ seemed to really get people upset, I reasoned:  what if I just didn’t mention it?  I began asking for food for poor people, and my box filled with cans. 

Beth invited a farm worker striker down to the UCI campus to pick up the food and talk to us about their movement.  I had intended to go to Mexico that summer, but this young man mentioned a summer program where volunteers could come and help.  I was intrigued.  I wrote two letters to Delano, but I never got a response.  When school finished, I called up Delano, asking if they had received my application. Someone transferred the phone to Jim Drake, whose booming voice filled the room: 

“Come on up tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow?”  I asked, rather stunned. “ What about Tuesday? I need a day to get ready.”

“Sure, “he laughed, “then come on Tuesday.”

 My father had agreed to take off a day from work and drive me up from Long Beach. I had assumed that I would be spending the summer in Delano: I never got there. I had joined when the Union was planning the International Grape Boycott, and I had no idea, when we all gathered in Santa Barbara at the Santa Barbara Mission, that they were making plans to send teams of people all over the country to boycott grapes.  It was on the last day, when Cesar began writing down the names of the cities on the chalkboard in the front of the room, that I looked up at the cities scrawled on the board, and understood that something fundamental was changing in my life.  I would go wherever they sent me, and try to do the best I could.   I had understood so little about what was being said in the meeting: I repeated, like a mantra, the four components of organizing:  the churches, the unions, the students, and the housewives.  These were the people we were to organize on the boycott.  I practiced memorizing the groups out loud, like I was in college, studying for my ancient Greek class.

I ended up being assigned to the Vancouver boycott with Tony Mendez—the same UFW representative who had come to UC Irvine to speak.  His wife, Cora, their two small children; a couple from Boston; and a young college student from New York completed our little group.  We had one hundred dollars for the entire trip.  By the time that we got to Vancouver we were out of money, and the babies were crying because there wasn’t any milk.  We had one person’s name, James Smith: there were thousands in the phone book.  Tony went to one of the Union locals and spoke to the Union president, who stared at our little group of wanderers in disbelief. 

“My God,” he said.  “Please get some food for the children.”

He opened up his wallet and gave us a hundred dollars for food:  our organizing had begun. 

The Canadian Labor Council representative arranged for us to have weekly lessons with a local labor historian, because none of us had any knowledge of labor history.  I loved the lessons.  We sat there, in the back room of the Labor Council, on old folding chairs and a bent table, getting labor lessons from people who had spent their lives in struggle. The historian encouraged us to read “Labor’s Untold Story,” and I read chapter after chapter, late each night after work.  I became fascinated with the story of the labor movement.

We had a film, “Delano,” that we used in our meetings.  We shared the film with the Seattle Boycott, which meant that it had to be shipped back and forth across the border.  Canadian immigration had wanted to charge us by the inch for the film as an import tax, for a lot of money, so we had to smuggle the film into Canada, instead. 

We worked out arrangements with the Seattle Boycott for our covert shipment arrangement. When the Vancouver boycott needed the film, the Seattle Boycott shipped it to the Blaine, Washington Greyhound Bus depot, the closest American depot to the Canadian border.  We would cross over to the American side, pick up the film from the Greyhound Bus Station, stick it under the seat, and smuggle it back across the Canadian border.

We would reverse the process when we had to return it to the Seattle boycott, driving down to Blaine, where we put it on the Greyhound Bus to Seattle.  It was working fine, until it was my turn to drive down to Blaine.  Without thinking about the consequences, I took along an American draft-dodger, who had been helping out on the boycott; we were both 19.  The film was hidden under the rear seat. 

As we approached the border crossing, I was nervous.  I hadn’t done something like this before. I don’t know if it was my obvious nervousness or the scruffy beard and long hair of the draft dodger, but the border official took one look at us, and said sternly,

“Step out of the car, please.” 

I tried to push down my rising panic: the draft dodger was bad enough:  what was going to happen when they found the film?

The guard began searching the front seat, first my purse, and then, the glove compartment of the car.  He pulled something out of the glove compartment, and then turned to face us, his face mottled in rage.

“What are you doing with these?” he rasped.

“What are they?”  I squinted to see.

“They’re from Cuba,” the word curdling on his lips.  “It’s illegal in the United States to trade with Cuba.  These are illegal.”

When we had arrived in Vancouver, one of the first things that Tony Mendez had gone was to go to a tobacco shop to purchase Havana cigars.  He was delighted with the fact that Canada traded with Cuba:  in the U.S., Havana cigars were expensive and hard to come by. Tony had smoked the cigars, apparently, and had left the empty tubes in the glove compartment of the car.

Oh,” I replied.  It seemed a simple matter. “That’s what another person bought, the one who owns this car.  He smokes cigars, and I guess he bought those in Vancouver.” 

The guard was furious. 

“You can’t bring these into the United States,” he fumed.  “Trade with Cuba is illegal. These are illegal.  This is contraband.”

“But they’re empty,” I said.  “The cigars have already been smoked, and we’re not bringing in any cigars.”

I just couldn’t understand how anyone could get upset about something that was empty, and I was confused, and really worried. What was he going to do to us?  What would happen when he found out about the film?  He was obviously already really angry.

The border guard was so upset about the empty cigar tubes, he forgot to check the rest of the car.  Finally, he let us go.  We went on our way, shaken but with our secret film securely under the back seat.

The labor lessons went well, but the organizing went poorly.  Tony got frustrated and angry with what he perceived as a lack of response. He stopped making a plan for our organizing effort.  I was unable to learn much about organizing from him. Eventually, he left the Vancouver boycott, returning to Delano, where he went to work for the growers.  When I found out, it didn’t surprise me.

By that time I had returned to San Francisco, where my mother had relocated after her divorce.  I had applied to UC Berkeley as a transfer student from UC Irvine for the winter quarter and had been accepted. I was supposed to start UC Berkeley in January.  It was my dream come true:  UC Irvine had been such a wasteland of political activity!  I could finally get involved with political action in a campus like UC Berkeley. I opened up the admissions package at my mother’s house, and reading through the papers, I took them and threw them in the trash.  I didn’t want to go to school.  Whatever this organizing was, I wasn’t done with it yet.  I wanted to know more, to do more.  I reached for the phone book, looking for the phone number of the UFW office in San Francisco; I would call, to see if they needed any volunteers. 

Salinas, 1970

From King City in the South to Salinas in the North, Highway 101 slices through the Salinas Valley like a kitchen knife opening up a ripe piece of fruit.  Big stretches of land fan out on either side, in precision rows that stretch to the Santa Lucia Mountains on one side; to the Gabilan on the other.  Then the highway shifts, meandering up through Prunedale, and over to San Juan Bautista. But between Salinas and King City, it’s that straight shot at transportation that was such a lifeline in the summer of 1970 during the great Salinas Strike.  The 101, of course, hadn’t been designed for the UFW, but for the growers:  huge semis would haul out the ‘green gold’ of the Salinas Valley on thundering trucks that they loaded from the cooler docks, filled with lettuce, celery, or broccoli, tomatoes, artichokes, or strawberries.

In 1970, we raced down the highway like locos, chasing scabs—following them in their cars, or in the lumbering school buses the growers used to transport them, or in the company vans.  We were either following the growers, or the scabs, or each other following one of the other two. It was full out war.   It wasn’t safe to be out there alone:  we caravanned together, for protection.  

Anyone alone on 101 would be subject to whomever could catch them and what they could get away with, usually early in the morning, or late in the afternoon.  I remember coming back from Greenfield with a Bud Antle striker in his Mustang:  we had been sent by the Salinas office to check out a field to see if a crew was working at Grower’s Exchange, a lettuce company in the southern part of the valley. It was late in the afternoon. There were just the two of us in the car heading back towards the office on John Street in Salinas. Out of nowhere they appeared.  A big long snake of growers caravanning together, seeing us tooling along alone on the road. 

“¿Que vas hacer?” (“What are you going to do?”) I asked the striker, a young man.  It was his car, and he was driving.

“No me van a correr del camino,” (I’m not going to let them run me off the road”) he said, placing both hands firmly on the wheel. I glanced over at him. He was pretty young, maybe 17 or 18 years old, I was guessing.  How experienced was he driving in a situation like this?  I reached for my cigarettes.

For a couple of intense miles, there were two cars in the far left lane:  ours, and the grower’s, going down the 101 at over 100 mph.  We lost, ending up in the middle of the ice plants in the middle of the freeway.  The grower caravan raced on.  

We got out to see how stuck we were.  Pretty stuck.  Pulling the huelga flags out of the trunk of the striker’s car, we flagged down strikers driving home from the picket line. It took about twenty grown men to lift the car out of the ice plants and put it back on the freeway, but they did, and we went on our way. Another day in the strike.

**************

People were tired and hungry, but the day wasn’t over.  We were picketing a field where a crew of scabs had been thinning; the scabs had climbed back into the red school bus that had brought them to the field that morning. The grower and the foremen were in a quandary.  How were they going to leave the field? We were waiting there, patiently, our car motors running, our doors open.  The minute that bus left the field, we were going to follow it until we found out where the scabs were staying.

The bus wasn’t moving.  Strikers were watching the bus and the foremen through their binoculars.  What was their plan?  We knew that the cops, the bus driver, the foremen, and the grower, were trying to figure out how to get the scabs out of the field without us being able to follow.  The tension mounted:  other strikers had finished picketing their own ranches, and seeing us parked and waiting, began to gather.  The picket line swelled from fifty strikers to two hundred.  Suddenly, the growers began to drive their trucks from one end of the field to the other; the bus of scabs followed behind. The picket line swayed back and forth, like a dance choreography.   In a final burst of speed, the bus sped out of the field with a flurry of grower trucks and cars behind it.  The strikers leaped into their cars: the chase was on.

At the end of the street was a stop sign where the road dead-ended into the highway, going right and left.  The foremen’s cars had piled up, blocking the stop sign.  We couldn’t go forward, and no one could see where the bus had gone.  The strikers were furious, honking their horns, trying to get around the stalled cars that wouldn’t move.  After a few minutes, the foremen dashed off to the right, and a slew of cars followed them.  

I had jumped into the car of one of the strike leaders from West Coast Farms, Jorge Ochoa, a celery striker, because he had a better, faster car.  We always picked the worker with the fastest car. Instead of following the cars that went right, Jorge went left.  We were flying down the highway when a car dashed in front of us and went down the side road, but Jorge didn’t follow it. Climbing the mountain road to San Juan Bautista, we became discouraged, ready to turn back.  But going around one more curve, directly in front of us, all alone, was the scab bus, heading to the camp.  Jorge pulled up to within one inch of the bus. 

“Why are you getting so close?” I asked him. “There’s no one else around besides us and the bus.”

“There will be soon, verras,” he said. 

Within minutes, a foreman’s car pulled up behind us. Now we were three.  We went around a curve, and as the road opened up, the foreman’s car pulled up along side of us, trying to force us off the road at every curve.  Then, he would fall back, and start hitting us from behind.  Jorge stayed within one inch of the bus, rounding every curve, holding onto the road, no matter how many times the car came at him, from the side, from behind.  We followed the bus of scabs until it drove right to the police station in Hollister.  The other strikers were there: they had figured out where the bus was, and they jumped out of their cars, shouting to the cops about how the growers had blocked the road…the foremen were shouting, too. Everyone was shouting.

The scabs were sitting, all alone, quietly, in the bus. 

***************

Bud Antle was putting the scab crews to work so far away from the road that we couldn’t see them, or even talk to them.  They were being escorted into the field by a whole fleet of trucks, and police cars and grower cars:  it looked like a military escort. We didn’t know which field they were going to work in: it took awhile in the early morning for the workers to scout around and find the crew. Armed guards were posted at the camps, and we couldn’t speak to the scabs there, either. I was getting frustrated, and I wanted to find to just get a chance to talk to the workers.

So I talked to the strikers, who told me the best solution was to follow the foreman’s truck from the packing shed; he would be heading out to set up the field where the crew would be working.  We followed him, early the next morning, right to the ranch where they would be working.  My plan was to block the entrance with my car when the bus of scabs drove in, just to give me enough time to pass out leaflets to the scabs on the bus. They had been brought in from far away, and I just wanted them to understand why we were striking.    

We sat up when the saw the bus turning into the entrance.  It had just occurred to me, my foot shaking on the brakes, that the bus driver could just run over us, or push us off of the road.  Fortunately, he didn’t:  as he stopped and put on the brakes, we jumped out, passing out leaflets to all of the workers, who opened their windows to get the leaflets.  It just took a minute, and then we jumped back into the car to tell the strikers where we would be picketing that morning.

The workers got to the field, read the leaflets, and refused to work.  We knew none of this, as we scrambled to assemble the picket line.  One of the strikers had binoculars, and could see the workers were not working and that three men we walking down the road towards our picket line.  I jumped into the car, to see if the workers were trying to leave the field from the back.  It was a mistake to leave.  Seeing that the scabs weren’t going to cooperate, the growers had other plans.  They made the scabs get back on the bus, and then, at the edge of the field, in front of them, they had the entire picket line arrested. The workers who had walked to our picket line were arrested, too.  Driving back from the levee, as I approached the picket line, I was dumfounded.  What had happened to my picket line?  I realized the entire picket line was in police vans: the bus full of scabs was parked, at the edge of the road.  Straining to see, I drove slowly. The cops started shouting at me, “Stop!”  I couldn’t remember if it was in the movies, or in real life, that cops would start shooting after the third “Stop!”  I decided it was better not to take a chance.  I stopped.  They pulled me out of the car.

“Viva La Huelga!” I shouted, and lifted up my arm.  I wasn’t going to let these scabs think I was intimidated by all these police and growers. 

“That will be an extra $500 fine!” the police told me.

“Viva La Causa!” my arm went up again.

 “That will be an extra $1,000,” he shouted at me.

“Viva Cesar Chavez!” my third cry. 

“A $2,000 fine!” he cried.

*****************************

I wasn’t looking forward to going with Fred Ross to check my picket lines.  Cesar had called Fred up, to ask him to come and help us on the Salinas strike, and I knew what a good thing that was:  already the strike was getting more organized.  But Fred had a way of peppering you relentlessly with questions when his razor sharp intuition told him that something wasn’t quite right.  And something always wasn’t quite right, and you knew it even before he started. He had eagle eyes, too, and nothing escaped him.

We were going to check on my picket lines. As I got into the passenger side of his car, I was already starting to cringe.

We started heading south on the 101, towards Chular, when unexpectedly, Fred swiveled around in his seat, almost bringing the car to a dead halt. 

“Would you look at that?” he cried out, pointing to the other side of the freeway.  “That’s awful!  That’s dangerous!  We’ve got to go over there and stop that immediately!  I wonder whose picket line that is!  I’ve never seen anything like it!”

I glanced over to where he was pointing, and sighed: my picket line, of course.

There, in the middle of the freeway, heading north on the 101, were about 30 farmworker women, Bud Antle strikers. They were pushing up against an enormous tractor trailer full of scab lettuce, that was trying to leave the field.  The women, who had been picketing at the entrance of the field, had decided to block the entrance with their bodies, and pushing back against the truck, to not let it leave the field.  Scab lettuce was as bad as scabs. 

The truck driver was having a tug of war with them by very slowly releasing his brakes, one inch at a time, to ease out onto the freeway.  He had pushed the women out onto the freeway by doing this, assuming that once he had gotten the front of the cab onto the freeway, they would abandon the tractor trailer, and let him go.

He didn’t know farmworker women very well, I guess.

Fred was clearly upset:  appalled might be a better word.  I, personally, was thrilled.

I have kept that image of those women in my mind all of these years.  All they had was their bodies; their strength; their conviction; their determination.  There was no stopping them.  I can see them, still.

 

 

 


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Primary source accounts: photographs, oral histories, videos, essays and historical documents from the United Farm Worker Delano Grape Strikers and the UFW Volunteers who worked with Cesar Chavez to build his farmworker movement.

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