was 20 years old when I went to Chicago in February 1971 for a college urban studies program. During one of my first weeks one of our teachers asked for volunteers to talk to buyers at the produce docks where the trucks delivered their lettuce. I knew nothing about the UFW before then, but I volunteered.
If I had known how early I had to get up, maybe I wouldn’t have volunteered. I am genetically not a morning person. We arrived at the docks around 5:00 a.m (it may have been even earlier—to me it felt like the middle of the night.) And it was not pleasant—it was a cold, windy and bitter Chicago winter. The buyers seemed even chillier than the weather when they heard our arguments for union lettuce. So we didn’ rely just on appeals to the buyers. We also spent Saturdays—a big grocery shopping day—at Jewel Food Stores, a big chain in Chicago, passing out flyers and talking to shoppers.
Even after I left Chicago and finished college, I continued to work for the UFW, leafletting in St. Paul and Minneapolis for union lettuce, picketing against Gallo wine at liquor stores, doing mass mailings (by hand in those days!), organizing rallies. Eventually I became a speaker at educational meetings of labor and religious and social groups. I sang at rallies and dinners and fundraisers. I taught union songs in Spanish to children during childcare at events.
In large part my work for the UFW in my twenties shaped my life as an organizer. I learned to use every skill and talent to support and build a cause. I learned to overcome my discomforts and fears because I understood that my fears were tiny compared to the importance of people being able to make a living wage in safety.
Forty years later I got an unexpected gift from my work for the UFW. I was studying history in a summer program at Yale. One of my classmates was from California. At breakfast one morning he told me he never wastes or throws food away because he knows how hard laborers work to produce it. He then told me about his mom and his uncle working in the fields when he was a child.
He said their lives were very hard, but the UFW was the critical force in making sure they had adequate income and benefits and working conditions. I cannot do justice to his words or their story, but I felt honored to know that I was part of something that had really made a difference.