United Farm Workers / Philip & Carol Traynor
By Philip Traynor
It started with a phone call from Cesar Chavez at the United Farm Workers Headquarters in La Paz. The UFW was developing a health system for union members. They had established a clinic on the Mexican side of the border in Mexicali. They needed a fulltime volunteer nurse supervisor. In return for services they would provide housing, daycare and a stipend of $15.00 a week. In addition they needed a clinic manager. Same terms.
The next thing we knew my wife Carol, my son Sean, and I were heading to Calexico pulling a trailer behind with all our belongings. We headed to the UFW office and met the field staff. After brief introductions we were escorted to our apartment. Carol’s first task was to settle down and mine was to learn more about farmworkers.
The first morning I was up before dawn and out in the lettuce fields by sunrise. I was assigned to work cutting lettuce with a field crew. We each got a large gunnysack and a knife and were assigned to a row. About ten men advanced on the field cutting lettuce and pitching each head in the gunny sack we carried. As it filled we went back to a tractor that was following us pulling a large trailer where we dumped the lettuce and women packed them in boxes which in turn were loaded on a truck that followed. It wasn’t long before I was slowing down the whole crew and ended up on the trailer doing “women’s work”. In any event, it took me a short morning to gain a new respect for manual labor.
The next day we took Sean to a family for daycare and headed across the border to the Mexicali clinic in Colonia Baja California. Upon arriving we were warmly welcomed by the staff and quickly learned how linguistically handicapped we were. Neither of us spoke any Spanish. So we spent the days working in the clinic and evenings studying Spanish. Whenever I had a chance I would go out with the “guys” to their favorite cantina and have a beer just to practice my Spanish. It wasn’t long before I knew enough to be able to function in the clinic. Carol had a harder time because while I was working with paper she was working with people. Nevertheless we survived.
The clinic was funded by the UFW. When contracts were signed with the growers it included a health benefit for the farmworkers. Those funds were in turn used to cover health services at the clinic. Most of the staff were volunteers. That included doctors, nurses, and management. We were given a small stipend and modest living expenses were covered. Carol and I were on Food Stamps for most of the time.
Customs and traditions were something we had to learn. Like the aid who wouldn’t come to work on windy days because of a mal vento – evil wind. One lesson I learned was about newborns. We had a section of the clinic where women came to give birth. After the birth I would customarily visit the mother and child before they left and congratulate the family. After a while it seemed that they would slip out the rear door as soon as they were able in an effort to avoid me. Once I realized what was happening I screwed up the courage to ask one of the staff what was going on and I learned about mal ojo. I have blue eyes and they are rare in México and can have mysterious powers. Parents have to protect their children from what can be mal ojo because by staring in a child’s eyes you can capture their souls unless you touch them before you leave, which releases your power and returns their soul. The opposite is also true if a person with brown eyes stares at a child with blue eyes. Live and learn. It also explained why all the people in the supermarket would trip over each other to touch blue eyed Sean as we wheeled him around in the basket while shopping.
Sean seemed to adjust well to his new home. During the day he stayed with a Mexican family and had other kids to play with. In addition he was just learning how to talk and, as it turned out, his first language was Spanish. I remember one evening we put Sean to bed while we had some friends over. Suddenly Sean jumps out of bed and starts crying and complaining about the “tutui”. Carol and I had no idea what he was talking about but knew that he had previously been complaining about the “tutui”. One of our guests was an aide from the clinic so we asked her to help us figure out what was bothering him. It was the “cucui” – the bogyman. Apparently he learned about the “cucui” at the babysitter’s house and something frightened him in his bedroom.
I also remember the first time Sean and Cesar met. It was during some rough times with the UFW. Apparently there was a contract out on Cesar’s life so he had to be careful. One evening after a union meeting during which Cesar laid out strategies for the workers he pulled me aside and asked if he could stay with us that night because he thought it might be safer for him than staying with the union organizers. Later on that evening he showed up at the house that evening and after a brief discussion about the clinic he turned in. Next morning we were having breakfast and Sean wandered in. Cesar looked at him and said “Good morning – what would you like for breakfast”. Sean looked at him and then at Carol and me and asked, “Quién es ése”. Cesar looked at us and said, “A bilingual kid, who would believe it?” I responded that he wasn’t bilingual yet because we still need to teach him English.
Back at the clinic I was learning basics about personnel management. Once I had a nurse come in and ask for a week off because of a death in the family. I told her there would be no problem and we would find a way to cover for her. When I asked her who it was that died it turned out to be the cousin of her father-in-laws uncle’s compadre. I said in light of who the person was I thought it would be enough to give her time off to attend the funeral. She looked at me in disbelief and said, “That’s the trouble with you Americans” “No tenen familia”.
My guide at the clinic was a UFW supporter, Anarvo. He seemed to know everyone in Mexicali. He would take me around the city and introduce me to resources that we could call on. We were once driving in a rural area and got pulled over by military police. Anarvo told me, “Don’t worry. I’ll handle it. They just saw the U.S. plates on the car and want to hit us up for a “mordida..” He hops out of the car and the officer starts giving him a hard time. Anarvo tells the guy to get out of his way because he doesn’t have time for his bullshit and wants to talk to his commanding officer. Next thing I know we’re being escorted into the commanding officer’s quarters. I got the feeling that we would be getting off easy if we just had to pay the “mordida” or bribe. The commanding officer takes a look at us and the next thing I know he is hugging Anarvo – his “compradre”.
My first run in with Cesar Chavez had to do with budget problems. About once a month I would drive to the UFW headquarters in La Paz and meet with my supervisor LeRoy Chatfield after which we would meet with Cesar to report on how things were going. One day Cesar, Dolores Huerta, LeRoy and I were sitting around the kitchen table at Cesar’s house reviewing progress at the health centers. When we got to the budget Cesar saw that I was over budget by about 20% and he wanted to know why and how I was going to correct things. I explained that there was a significant increase of the number of births in the clinic that had not been anticipated when the budget was developed. We projected 40% less newborns than what occurred. Cesar wanted to know what steps I would take to remedy the situation. I recommended that we should design the budget so that it reflects the volume. He said that sounds like increasing the budget to make up for poor management. At that point Dolores Huerta stepped in and said, “Cesar, I think I know Phil and his wife well enough to assure you that he has nothing to do with the increase in pregnancies”. Cesar laughed and said it has been a long day. He instructed LeRoy and me to develop a budget reflecting services rendered that we could work off of.
I wasn’t at the Mexicali clinic long when I ran into conflicts with the “Padron” that owned the building we were working out of. He kept increasing fees he was charging us for everything from rent to utilities. After discussing the problem with one of the Doctors on staff with us, Dr. Escobedo, we both decided to confront the Padron. We had a lease and if he wanted to change it he had to wait until it expired and if he keeps hassling us we would leave. He told us to go to hell and he would show us who is in charge. It wasn’t long after that when I was busted at the clinic. I was cleaning up the clinic when they arrested me and asked if I had papers to work in México. I told them I was not working “Just visiting”. I ended up in jail as an “illegal alien” working as a janitor.
Anarvo showed up shortly after with authorization from the UFW to get me out of jail and pay a mordida if necessary. He got nowhere with them. They said I was a flight risk and that they would schedule a hearing within a week. Eventually word got to Cesar who was negotiating a contract with a large agricultural company – InterHarvest. Cesar shared the information with the InterHarvest team during a break and they said that they would try to intervene. InterHarvest is a subsidiary of United Fruit and it happened that United Fruit was unable to unload a shipment of bananas in Los Angeles because the dockworkers were on strike so they had to send the ship to Ensenada in México to be unloaded. The ship was about to dock in México when the captain received a call from United Fruit not to unload until Traynor get outs of jail in Mexicali. Next thing I knew I was being escorted out of jail and told it all was a terrible mistake. Apparently the arrest was arranged by the Padron at the clinic and once the authorities at Ensenada realized that they would be losing money if the ship returned to the U.S. they took action. So now I’m indebted to United Fruit – go figure.
While working in Mexicali I learned a number of things about Mexican traditions and culture. I remember once when one of the nurses announced that she was getting married. She was a very popular employee and everyone, including myself, often turned to her for help which she generously provided. One day she and her fiancé came to talk to me and Carol about wedding plans. They surprised us when they asked if we would be a “comprade and commadre” at their wedding.. We agreed without hesitation. When I asked what that would involve I was thinking along the lines of “Bestman” or something like that. They said that we would have to meet with all the other “compadres and commadres” and all that would be worked out. When we met I found out that the group was basically responsible for organizing and financing the wedding ceremony and reception. As Americans the assumption was that we had “deep pockets” but with an income of $15.00 a week the reality was quite different. We ended up being responsible for the alcohol at the reception. Luckily when I left the Servites I had some money which I saved “for a rainy day”. I guess that day had come.
Eventually circumstances required that we close down the health clinic in Mexicali and open one in Calexico on the U.S. side of the border. First of all, the political environment in Mexicali was difficult to control. Carol and I were unable to get papers to work there, the local authorities preferred to hit us up periodically for a “mordida’. Medicine was much more available and less expensive in the U.S., and U.S. Doctors were available as volunteers. So I started checking out options in Calexico. The first thing I did was visit the local Mayor at the garage where he worked and he in turn brought me over to the local hospital that was collaborating with the city to build a health center in the hopes of attracting doctors. Things were looking positive. The UFW had recruited Doctor Ken Tittle initially and eventually two other doctors. The clinic was opened in the early 1970s.
The next problem was patients. Most of the farmworkers were men who followed the harvest from the border up into Washington and back. Their families lived in Mexicali. We had to work with the Immigration to get the families back and forth across the border. It was a hassle. The patients would make appointments with us. We would verify with the border control that the appointment was authentic and they would get limited authorization to cross the “linea”. One of the benefits of the system was that we were able to admit pregnant women into the local hospital to deliver their children which in turn would automatically make the child an American citizen.
When medical emergencies occurred it was anyone’s guess what would happen. On one occasion a woman went into early labor and was refused passage by the border control despite our efforts to assist her. In desperation, she went back home in search for care and was unable to arrange it in time. As a consequence the baby died. This resulted in picket lines on both sides of the border and an urgent appeal to Senator Kennedy by Cesar. As a result I met with the Chief of Immigration and was authorized to issue papers to our patients so that they could cross the border.
As thing were moving forward in Calexico, Carol and I were called to a meeting with Cesar in La Paz. He asked us if we would like to transfer to Fresno County and set up a health clinic there. Next thing I knew, we packed our belongings into the car and headed to Sanger. I started out working out of the UFW Field Office in Selma and cruising the County looking for a likely location. Carol was settling in with Sean in Sanger where we found a two bedroom rental.
It wasn’t long before we rented a building in Sanger that once was a doctor’s office. In the meantime the UFW recruited a Doctor who was a retired pediatrician from the East Coast, John Radabaugh, our Medical Director. Next came a physician from the Philippines who was not licensed to work in the U.S. – Francisco Tenega, a community educator. I worked closely with Francisco, Carol with John. Francisco’s passion was working with women and training them to be “promotores” so that they could work as health aids in the community. I didn’t get along well with John and left Carol and him run the clinic while I worked in the “field”.
At that time the Union was organizing strikes throughout the area and Francisco and I had to be available if things got out of hand. We had volunteers coming in from all over to join the picket lines. Among others was Daniel Ellsberg, the author of the Pentagon Papers and Dorothy Day from the Catholic Worker. The opposition were growers, strike breakers and the teamsters union. I remember one early morning picking up Dorothy Day and others who came to join us. It was about 5:00 am when I arrived and the group I was assigned to was having breakfast – Dorothy along with a couple young women and some Jesuits from L.A. As I quietly sat down to wait for them to finish, I felt privileged to be at the same table with Dorothy Day who I admired since I was a teenager. She was served a piece of toast with a fried egg on top and when she realized I wasn’t going to be served, she cut her portion in two and gave me half with a smile.
In no time we were driving out to the picket line. I laid out the dos and donts and soon after the group was engaged in conversation about the UFW and other social justice issues. Dorothy was up front with me and when the conversation slowed down she said, “Don’t you think we should say a prayer?” She turned to one of the Jesuits and asked him to lead us in prayer. He quickly launched into a prayer linking us to the prophets of the Old Testament and to Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple. After he paused there was brief silence and Dorothy quietly asked if she might lead us in prayer with a couple “Hail Marys”. After our theology lesson, we arrived at the picket line and joined the farmworkers in the “huelga”. I’ll never forget Dorothy’s picture the next morning in the Fresno Bee – an old gray haired lady sitting on a stool in the field with two burley cops on either side of her. One wielding a club and the other a rifle.
One afternoon I ended up getting arrested. I don’t remember the details but I was in the fields i.e., on “private property” with a small group of huelgistas – strikers, and before we knew it we were confined in a kind of barracks at the fair grounds. To be honest it was a break after being up every morning about 4 am and then spending the day in steaming hot fields – over 100 degrees. The next morning I was released. I went home and learned that my son Sean was all upset when he heard that I spent the night in “el bote”. I had to explain to him that “el bote”, which means garbage can in Spanish, was jail and not really “el bote”. When I told him that the policia put me there, he was further confused because he was taught that the policia were there to protect us. So I had to describe the difference between the “policia della gente” from the “policia del los teamsteres”.
When Sean was 5 we enrolled him in Pre-school in Sanger. At the time his primary language was Spanish so we knew that this would be opportunity to be bilingual. As might be expected he associated more with the Latino kids than he did with the Caucasian kids because his language of comfort was Spanish. Nevertheless he was progressing in English. One day he came home from school and announced that he was never going to speak Spanish again – only English. I tried to convince him that it’s good to know both languages because then he could have friends that spoke Spanish and others that spoke English. He was adamant “No more Spanish”. Finally he told me why. He said, in broken English, that the teacher told him that if he keeps speaking Spanish he will have no friends and do bad in school. He made up his mind. I was furious. I spoke with the teacher – to no avail. Eventually Sean stopped speaking Spanish and became monolingual like most Americans. It’s unbelievable – you send a kid to school to be educated and they are made more ignorant.
As time progressed I became less and less a Clinic Director and more and more in limbo. It turned out that I was being phased out by the Medical Director. In truth neither Carol nor I got along with him. He had this elitist “better than thou” attitude. Once Carol politely pointed out to him that the treatment he was giving a man with VD had been discontinued years ago because it was no longer viable. He told her to remember that he is a Doctor and she is only a nurse and should stay in her place. She said she would stay in her place and her place was with the patient and his wife and if the “Doctor” doesn’t correct the error she would report him for malpractice. With that she gave him a medical report on the proper treatment of VD and went on to see the next patient.
I was upset with the way things were going and decided to discuss things with Cesar and if we could not resolve issues I would move on rather than risk the loss of a doctor. I told Cesar that I had a hard time dealing with the Doctor’s elitist attitude but I could understand that Doctors are hard to come by and I would have graciously bowed out. I remember driving back from La Paz and crying. It wasn’t long after that meeting that I decided to move on quietly. Eventually the Doctor created conflict with other staff and union organizers so he left in protest and went on to bad mouth the UFW publicly.