Fields of Fear and Hope
Summer, 1966. The grape fields of California are aflame with conflict and tension. Cesar Chavez and his fledgling United Farm Workers are seeking collective bargaining elections with the DiGiorgio Corporation, the largest table grape grower in the nation.
We gather at 5:30 in the morning by the side of the road at the entrance to the DiGiorgio labor camps. The farm labor camps, with row on row of cinder-block housing, are located on company property—private property, with gray metal watchtowers overlooking the camps––silent reminders of earlier days when Japanese-Americans were interned in these same gray cinder block camps during World War II. There are no longer guards in the watchtowers, but there are guards at the gates.
Many of the new workers who have arrived at the labor camp are frightened, already indentured to the DiGiorgio Corporation which paid their way up from Mexico. They now live in the DiGiorgio camps with little recourse. They support their brothers and sisters in the United Farm Workers who are seeking a better life, but they have children to feed and no passage home.
We stand quietly in the cool, dark dawn, awaiting the trucks as they leave the camp. Later the blazing heat will bear down, making it hard to breathe.
We rush the trucks as they leave the camp, trying to pass our leaflets through the open wooden slats to the workers crowded onto the old metal benches that are bolted down across the middle. Those who haven’t gotten a seat, like in a weird game of musical chairs, are forced to stand more toward the outside, hanging on to the sides of the truck.
“Salgan con nosotros, hermanos! (Come out on strike with us, brothers!) Viva la Huelga! (Long live the strike!) Viva Cesar Chavez! (Long live Cesar Chavez!) Juntense con sus hermanos! Nosotros venceremos!” (Join your brothers! We will triumph in the end!).
Our cars follow the trucks to that day’s grape field where the workers get down and fan out to begin their work—women in red bandanas, men in dusty overalls, children carrying the empty boxes next to their parents—helping where they can.
Blue suited police arrive, with potbellies hanging over their wide belts and with badges shining, with nightsticks and guns cocked in their holsters, sporting an air of quiet menace. One comes up to me, a 22- year-old Anglo volunteer with pale skin now burnt by the desert sun. “Let’s see your papers young lady—right now! What do you mean you’re an American? You’re out here screaming in Spanish, just like the rest of these goddamned wetbacks. Your mother should be ashamed of you!”
Just as I’m trying to think about how to respond, the picket captain yells out, “Aquí viene el tanque con las pesticidas. Mujeres en frente, ponganse de rodillas a rezar. Hombres atrás.” (“Here comes the pesticide truck. Women in front! Kneel down! Begin to pray! Men, you kneel down behind the women.”)
The pesticide truck comes closer. The police stand over us—watching—waiting.
Now many vehicles arrive at the scene. The pesticide truck rolls closer, menacing with its promise of poison. The DiGiorgio crew supervisors roll out of the fields in their white pickups with their gun racks loaded “to protect the pesticide truck from vandals,” they say. More police cars with red lights flashing roll nearer, revving their engines. Police stream from their cars, clubs raised, “to protect the peace,” they say.
Suddenly, several cars of ministers arrive—collars flashing, crosses blazing, accompanied by a light gray van carrying a TV crew. The ministers get out of their cars, kneel beside us, and begin to pray. The workers and their children stop picking grapes in the field, watching quietly. The TV crew films the whole scene. Later the ministers say to the police as they slowly begin to retreat. “We, too, came here to protect the peace.” The TV cameras keep rolling.
As the police cruisers and grower trucks slowly move away, we breathe a sigh of relief born in the sweat of that late morning sun. The workers in the fields have borne witness to the entire scene from beginning to end. We know we have made friends—fearful friends, but friends nonetheless.
We report the confrontation and its resolution at the Friday night meeting where workers and their allies from all across the San Joaquin Valley and as far as San Francisco gather to hear stories of the strike and to see El Teatro Campesino, the Farmworkers Theater, the most exciting moment of the week’s hard work.
The first workers from the DiGiorgio camp come, in spite of their fear, to join us at the meeting at Filipino Hall. They have now seen, with their own eyes and hearts wide open, their own plight and their own power, demonstrated vividly as they bore witness to the shocking scene a few days earlier, as they picked the grapes of wrath—row by row.
Memories and Microphones
From my personal journal, Fall 2018
I dreamt last night about Luis and Danny Valdez, founders of the Teatro Campesino, the Farmworkers Theater, after seeing their film, La Bamba.
My heart fills with tender tears and memories that surprise me, even now, half a century after our time together with Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement.
As I write to you this day, those fields of fear and hope remain vivid, as do you, dear Luis and Danny. May you know, even now, after so many years, the profound influence you have had on my life and work.
Queridos Luis, Danny and Felipe……
The threads of our past…the picket lines…the flat-bed trucks you used as a stage during the marches…the Friday night meetings…the Actos…El Plan de Delano (The Delano Manifesto)—all come rushing back as I see you, Danny, in the latter day allegory of La Bamba, pouring drinks at Richie Valens' dance hall debut, and as I see you, Felipe, spinning philosophy and the stuff of dreams to two Chicano brothers in search of their souls.
The memories flood back…of the Pink House serving as strike central…of Jerry and me, newly wedded, sleeping on a damp mattress on the floor at the Guajardos house…up five times a night to hose down the straw in the “air conditioner” to keep us from sweating to death…of the marches and rallies with thousands, tens of thousands, of workers and their allies…of the food caravans and donated clothes…of soggy burritos and tee shirts sticking like glue to hot bodies sweltering on picket lines…of police lines and pesticide trucks…of quiet house meetings in ramshackle kitchens with beans and tortillas as the main dish…of farmworker women standing up and speaking out, most for the first time in their lives.
And of the famous Friday night meetings at Filipino Hall, with me translating my heart out, trying to give the solemn words of the Anglo labor leaders coming to offer support some sense of drama and dynamism and heart.
Hot nights…sweating, packed crowds…children crying. Three generations of strikers…grandparents, parents, kids…all waiting for the weekly “reports” and for Cesar to come…Cesar, always in pain from his back, working fast with me behind the scenes to keep all the pieces of the meeting together—and Fred Ross, our organizing guru, always in the back corner, standing with Mack Lyons, the tall, dark stranger quietly watching…surveying for unusual signs of danger.
And people wanting the reports to be over because EL TEATRO CAMPESINO, The Farmworkers Theater, was going to be here tonight! El Ranchero, (the grower), El Contratista (the labor contractor) Los Huelgistas,(the strikers) La Policia, (the police)—archetypes, each and all, in the eternal struggle for justice.
You crazy theater guys—never quite “fitting in” and yet expressing the soul and the spirit—the very essence of that struggle. The people watched with rapt attention as a new Mito, a new myth, was being created from old wounds—as a New Story was being born.
Felipe the comedic foil—the Cantinflas of the strike Carolina the Shrew that tamed the forces of evil Danny the Bard and the balladeer of the heart Luis the Symbolist who articulated the pattern, the broader significance of the spiritual and political quest
Masks, small placards, a pair of sunglasses, a crude picket sign, a red bandana—and lifetimes of living the real-life drama—the ongoing story of oppression.
This was not improvisational theater. This was real life. The improvisation lay in the creation, on the spot, with the audience, of a new Mito—a new story for people to tell their grandchildren—of the days when the old story ended and a new story was being born—a story which they were living, but which you guys in El Teatro reflected back and amplified and enriched, like a mirror with microphones, so that folks could see themselves at least as large as life—and sometimes larger than life.
When I first saw you act, Felipe…already an older man…I wept. The sense of fine-tuned humor, the timing, the heart, the wry sense of laughing at yourself and at the absurdity of the predicament…that farm workers, or anyone for that matter, should even have to be struggling for basic things like the right to toilets in the fields—what a joke! And yet deadly serious. And you, Felipe, with your wry humor helped people live with that paradox and not go mad with rage and despair.
Danny, you helped people give voice to the anger and to channel their song—to sing from the inside out—De Colores—Desde Delano vamos, hasta Sacramento, mis derechos a pelear. (We march from Delano to Sacramento to fight for our rights.)
And the people listened and they responded…to you and to their own yearning for a better life.
Danny, I always sensed in you a sensitive soul…wanting so desperately to be seen and heard, and yet crusted over with layers of bravado and Orale Ese!...Dale Carnal!...and getting high and getting angry and not showing up… Hijo de la Chingada!! And caring deeply…caring like hell and in the end always coming back to sing yourself and us back to our own Spirits. By finding your own voice you helped us find ours.
Danny, you were not only the bard, you were the poet, the one who helped folks see that it was possible to use shit as fertilizer for the soul’s journey to freedom. I thank you for that gift.
Luis, you— the maverick Director. Always in fights with Cesar. “Why don’t the Teatro guys get up at 5 AM for the picket lines like everyone else?” Drinking…and smoking pot…and all-nighters...and women. The Anglo volunteers were such pushovers for your Latino charms—Hijole!
But Luis, you somehow mediated and kept all the pieces together…and all the while you kept creating…El Plan de Delano (The Delano Manifesto), Actos, (short scenes), the puppet shows for the kids, and for the grown-ups…sharpening your sensibilities and skills as a director—finding talent, in the workers, and in all of us who witnessed the power of The Farmworkers Theater.
You demonstrated the power of images to transform Spirit into form…to mobilize vision into action. The Di Giorgio farm worker strike. Do you remember how the economic impact of the international grape boycott won farmworkers the right to vote in the first election in the history of agriculture? That victory…the ecstasy of that moment and El Teatro reflecting back that YES, A NEW STORY IS BEING BORN HERE!!
Luis, you and Danny, and Augie Lira and Felipe and Carolina and all the others in El Teatro were symbolic midwives to that birth.
No matter what has happened in these ensuing decades, I want you to know that for people like me and for many others, the lessons you guys and El Teatro shared by living your own truth have enriched our lives. You taught me the poignancy and power of story and song, of theatre and symbol, of poetry and art in reaching for the source of the healing power that can transform our lives.
From time to time our paths have crossed since then—with Danny at the 20th year farmworker “reunion” and again at Danny’s concert in San Francisco a decade later. Then seeing your provocative plays, Zoot Suit, and Corridos. And in Mexico City many years later, where El Teatro was part of that Interamerican Theater Competition.
And now witnessing your film, La Bamba. Not too long ago, some Anglo friends of mine were telling a small group about this “fabulous” movie they had seen recently. A movie I had not seen, but had heard about over the years. A movie about Richie Valens—and how moved they were by it—how real and sensitive it was. These people knew nothing about my background with Cesar Chavez, with the farmworkers movement, or with you guys.
As they continued to talk about their impressions of the film and how touched they had been and how they understood something of what it must be like for Chicanos I found myself weeping again—as I did more than fifty years ago when I first saw Felipe Cantú crazily weaving across the “stage” at Filipino Hall with his Huelgista striker sign hanging from a string on his chest.
And then I finally saw the film, La Bamba, and I understood why I wept. Luis, somehow you and Danny managed to communicate, through La Bamba…as an allegory…as a “fairy tale,” (you see, I believe fairies and magic are real)…the essence and the spirit of a universal experience to these Anglo folks, just as you did with the workers and their families and us volunteers more than fifty years ago.
So, you see…you haven’t “sold out” to commercial success. You’ve “broadened out” to continue to touch the spirit of folks all across the globe.
I wish you guys well. I feel great when I see your names popping up in the press. One day soon our paths may cross again.
Que les vaya bien queridos amigos. May you go in peace, dear friends,
Con un gran abrazote—with a big hug, Juanita