When I was in high school my best friend and her boyfriend introduced me to the people in Boston who were working on the Grape Boycott. We lived in Brookline and farm workers were living and organizing in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. With the union, they ran picket lines and god know what all else but the thing that stuck with me after all these years was when they came to people’s houses to tell people in person what was at stake for them. They told us what harvesting grapes did to their families and their lives.
I convinced my mother to hold a “coffee"as I think it was called. A young man when a group came to our house with literature and some very quiet but intensely focused farm workers to meet with a few of our neighbors. I remember the young man vividly because he was so dignified and well spoken and just a year older than me. He spoke about his younger sister who was about my age. She was dying of leukemia. The growers sprayed the workers with pesticides while the farm families toiled in the fields below. He talked about freezing and burning in the sun and being thirsty. He was calm and serious when he spoke and his powerful witness to injustice and suffering blew my 15 year-old, white middle class mind. I could not sleep that night and the next. Back then, I could not understand how, a country I had been taught to love and believe in could allow these kinds of things to happen. It was the start of my political awakening.
Some years later I was arrested in the offices of the AP in downtown Boston. The arresting officer was an unabashed racist. A big and very red faced Irishman he blew hot and cold - often way nicer to me than to the farm workers that I was arrested with and then so derogatory about my association with people who were “not my kind” and “getting me into trouble”. He said, “With friends like these xxxxxxx - who needs enemies?”. Indeed. Another eye-opener.
I owe much to the clear thinking and great strategies of Cesar Chavez. As a very minor but attentive part of La Huelga, his work helped me develop an understanding of the real world that spurred me from compassion into action.