I wrote this story with my 15 year old perspective when I was in my late 30’s. A bit silly, I hope it still stands..
In 1972 at Sacred Heart High School, you knew your priorities. To be cool, you had to sit at the popular table, have a cute boyfriend who had a car, and be somewhat aware of the current political drama brewing. After all, our generation endured puberty through headlines and TV scenes of burning draft cards, equality for women, political assassinations and the Black Panthers. It was a time when people cared.
Sister Mary Rose taught History, English Literature and monitored Study Hall. She was one of those rare, talented nuns who made subjects come alive. One day, she challenged us with the opportunity to be part of history. Cesar Chavez and the Farm workers had labored long and hard to fight an initiative on the State ballot threatening their Union status. We were asked to carry picket signs in different parts of the city. I, and a few others jumped at the chance. Not only would we be active for La Causa, but legitimately ditch a school day, be liberated from our school uniforms and just maybe come out on the local news!
My mother packed a larger than usual lunch for me. She had worked on the production line which produced parts for the Polaris Missile throughout my grade school years, and had finally quit to spend time enjoying my adolescence. Always politically aware and liberal minded, she was equally excited for my adventure. My sandwiches were the envy of most of my classmates. Real wheat bread instead of white, it was Sunday’s leftover dinner that lasted all lunch week long. She’d always peel my orange and carefully wrap it in aluminum foil so the juice wouldn’t escape. I’d open my bag, peer into the shiny foil square and sigh, “Roast beef and cheese again?” “I’ll trade you, I’ll trade you!” the girls would clamor. And I’d happily exchange for a peanut butter & jelly or bologna sandwich on white bread. Today she packed an extra piece of fruit and even a bag of corn chips. No junk food here.
My father was still working his sheet metal trade at one of the newest emerging highrises downtown, The Broadway Plaza, now Macy’s Plaza. He drove me and my best friend Diane Acosta to Lincoln Park and teased us, yelling out, “¡Huelga! ¡Huelga!”
After dropping us off, we headed towards the Auditorium. I had never seen the place so filled. There were people mostly in their 20’s, young cholo-looking guys with sarapes and beanies passing out fliers of solidarity. The teenage girls from the campesinos seemed older somehow, clean, yet plainly dressed, none of them wore make-up. I felt overdressed in my trendy sweater and new clean bell-bottomed Levi’s. An older white woman stood in front of a microphone and gave out strategic directions. Even Sister Mary Rose had removed her habit and veil, and wore jeans with a plaid Pendleton type jacket! We ended up with Maria, a young pretty farm-worker who hardly spoke English, and her handsome white husband Peter. She cradled their infant in her arms and whispered lovingly to him.
Peter drove up in an old blue Volkswagon van we piled into. An older woman named Concha joined us in the back seat. The back trunk area was filled with picket signs we were to carry. “All aboard for Santa Fe Springs!”, he happily called out.
“Hey Tess,” Diane muttered under her breath, not wanting to appear ignorant, “where’s that?”
“Hell if I know!”, I mumbled back, “but it sounds back!”
Peter had met Maria the year before while doing Peace Corp work in the San Joaquin Valley. He said he was from the Heartland of America, Kansas, but it could have been the moon for all we knew. His parents had been farmers, and he had been inspired to join the Corps after college.
“Well, I ended up in the same campo with Maria, and we just kind of fell in love.” Maria looked down and blushed prettily.
“We hope to drive cross-country after Carter wins the election and maybe my parents will finally see their newest grandson. Enough about me, I have to tell you girls, I was really surprised meeting you all.”
“Why was that?” Diane and I asked together.
“All the girls I knew who could afford to go to private schools were rich, white and spoiled. There wasn’t a Latina in the bunch. Hey, maybe I should pull over and we can eat lunch now?”
We readily agreed. I had always felt so ordinary, living in my El Sereno barrio, going to the same schools as my friends did. It was a constant sea of brown faces from grade school to high school. I never thought I was in a different , privileged working-class structure. My schooling made my parents’ dream a reality. It was a sacrifice they endured so I could benefit somehow. Peter’s words made me feel special. I was someone special, with a dream shared by my people. Now I was ready to face any criticism the drivers might hurl at us. Peter pulled into a park and took out a blanket Mexicana de pura lana for us to sit on over the grass.
I was proud to be sitting with them all that cold day in November. As I pulled out my sandwich and unwrapped it, I told them my parents too, as teenagers had picked fruit during the Depression. I wasn’t spoiled, going to private school. Why I caught 3 buses just to get there, I knew what it was to sacrifice. We really had something in common, something bigger than us, La Causa.
Maria sat down and started to nurse her baby. I lifted the sandwich to my lips, ready to bite, when she pointed at me accusingly, her eyes wide and cried out, “¡Lechuga!” Lettuce! A generous chunk of iceberg betrayed me! The baby felt her jolt and immediately let out a wailing cry. I felt like a trapped criminal. I couldn’t believe it! My feelings of unity ended in complete embarrassment. Would they believe it was the black union brand label? How could my mother do such a thing? I was humiliated! Between the baby’s cries, I ended up gagging on the sandwich while Peter slapped my back aiding my digestion. Diane choked back her giggles while Maria and Concha eyed us now suspiciously. We finished our lunches and headed for the main streets where traffic would be busiest at the polls. I stood with my picket sign reading “No on 116!”, still blushing and realizing that sometimes the best intentions are just not good enough.