I was a fresh psychology graduate from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in June 1970. I had camped across country with two friends who left me in San Francisco where I went about seeking a job “working with people.” While looking, I waitressed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill and later worked as a finance assistant at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at University of California San Francisco (UCSF). The UFW was boycotting the Safeway on California Street where I shopped. To make what will be a long story not quite so long, I started going to UFW community meetings to learn more about the boycott. Eventually, my new boyfriend, who was working in a UCSF lab doing conscientious objector service, and I went on several weekend “caravans” to Delano. While in Delano, we slept in sleeping bags in Filipino Hall at Forty Acres with scores of other caravaners. We met farm workers and their families. We walked the picket lines. We ate food prepared by the Filipino Brothers. We shared stories, we talked, we sang, we prayed. Back in San Francisco, I joined the boycott and did a lot of Safeway sidewalks.
On one caravan to Filipino Hall, I met the Rev. Gordon Williamson and his wife Felicia and children Libby and Luke. Gordon ran the Huelga School in Delano, an afterschool program for children of farm workers who were having a difficult time in the Delano public schools. He said a teacher had just left, and he needed an additional staff person. Ceasar Chavez was in town that weekend. He spoke to us at Filipino Hall. What can I say. That was it for me. I went back to San Francisco, and Monday morning I gave two weeks’ notice at my UCSF job. About two weeks later I was sleeping on a single mattress in the Huelga School which would be my home for a while (mattress up against the wall during the day when classes were in session). The school was located on a cross street of Asti Street. The Williamson family lived at 105 Asti Street, and they quickly became true and fast mentors and friends. Gordon and Felicia were in their early 30’s. I was 23. Libby and Luke were the cutest and best kids. Larry Lava was on staff a Huelga School, too. Larry played the guitar and spoke Spanish. We ate our meals together at 105 Asti. Probably a lot of rice and beans – yum. And Larry would make his famous Chinese dinner from time to time which was fabulous. I can taste it even now. I accompanied Felicia to visit other women who were here to be a part of the movement. I remember well one woman whose husband was a lawyer with the California Rural Legal Association, great advocates for farm worker justice.
Our employer was the National Farm Worker Ministry headed up by the Rev. Chris Hartmire. What a great person he was! As a single volunteer, I think I recall that I got an small allowance for food, health insurance, car and gas reimbursement (we transported the kids to activities and picket lines), nominal expenses related to the Huelga School, and five dollars a week for my personal use. I used to say this simplistic story, true or not, I think true: the United Farm Worker Ministry, as part of the National Council of Churches, used to be an agency that distributed hams at Easter and turkeys at Christmas to farm workers. When Ceasar Chavez and the UFW challenged the growers , the Ministry puts its money and efforts into helping the UFW succeed. Social justice …. And to think that over 40 years later, we are still struggling for it.
Gordon brought me up to speed in no time. The kids were great. There was an early elementary group that we helped with English and math and all sorts of field activities and recreation. For the older age elementary group who knew English, we focused on Spanish so they would like speaking to their Spanish speaking parents in Spanish. I have a box in the attic that has the pictures and stories the kids shared and wrote. Gordon was really into Cuisenaire rods to help the kids understand math relationships. He was also into Jean Piaget and modeled our teaching to this theory of child learning. The Huelga School was not just some “nice” program. It was a serious academic/experiential school with specific goals.
On off days, we worked the fields with farm worker families. I remember raisin harvest. If I recall, and please remember that this was 42 years ago, we laid out sheets of off white paper, about 3 feet by 3 feet, on the ground by the grape vines. We cut the grapes from the vines and put them to dry in the sun (I forget for how long). Then, there was a really neat move where, if I recall, you took the opposite corners of the paper and the whole sheet of grapes would turn over so they could dry on the other side on their way to becoming raisins. I also remember the orange harvest. Picking oranges, lovely orange but coated in white? (do I remember this correctly?) I recall at the end of the day being covered in something like white dust. We were told this was a pesticide.
After the field work, the families welcomed me and whoever else was along (oh my How I Forget) and fed me from their huge pots of rice and beans. Delicious! I can picture the families and hope that my box in the attic would have their names. They were very patient with my efforts at speaking Spanish.
I was in a social and personal heaven. The feeling of camaraderie in the quest for social justice was exquisitely intense and satisfying. I had never felt such a sense of community in my life. I was beside myself to be a small part of it. Whether we were with the Huelga School kids on the picket line, or I were with the families doing farm work in the fields, or we were dressed in our best for special Fiestas, or I was just riding around in my Ford Maverick seeing my San Joaquin environs, or we hanging out with the gringos who were there to help the cause, or we were at family events with Delano Mexican American friends, each day made my heart sing. I remember the very good friends of Gordon and Felicia who embraced me as well. Alice and Nacho. I am re-running the video of Alice and Nacho in my head, and I see their lovely home and backyard in Delano, and I see us preparing for a very special party. What was that occasion, Alice? Please help my memory. At the time I thought I would spend my life here in Delano , doing just this.
Gordon sent me “abroad” to Parlier (30 to 40 minutes away?) to start a “satellite” Huelga School. We found a house in a farm worker neighborhood that would suit. With Gordon’s supervision, and Larry Lava’s help, I made my lesson plans and took my Maverick to pick up the kids for the afternoon program. My visceral memories of those days are deep and satisfying. The nice large Living Room was the school room. There was a back room for my mattress. And a kitchen. The time frame challenges me, but sometime in, a faulty wiring arrangement caused a fire in the house, and we could no longer do Huelga School there. I think I recall that I found a local church to hold the classes and I found a place to stay in Pilar’s home in Selma. Pilar and I shared the home very amicably communicating only in Spanish. She had lost her son in a motorcycle accident, and his motorcycle was like a shrine in his bedroom. I had never seen anything like that before. Pilar and I developed a great affection for each other.
There were California propositions put up to defeat the UFW for once and for all. The growers had so much power. After a year or so with the Huelga School, we were told, as I recall, that there would be no Huelga School if there were no Farmworkers’ Union. So, Huelga School staff were called to the boycott and the fight against the propositions back in the San Francisco Bay Area. I went a bit reluctantly because I loved the Huelga School and the children. Of course, the UFW had to survive. Another experience awaited.
I found a place to live in San Anselmo, California, with the UCSF old boyfriend (also a huge UFW supporter), and threw my efforts into the Marin County UFW effort. I replaced a young man named Joel as UFW organizer in the area. There was a great location that served as our headquarters with a wonderful 40’s something woman. Cecilia whose last name I cannot remember. She was spearheading social justice and green issues of all sorts in the area and so she embraced us UFW folk. Mariposa comes to mind. It was a little store front, and I made countless organizing phone calls for the UFW from here.
Little did I know that I would be trained by one of the most famous community organizers of our time, Fred Ross who trained under Saul Alinsky. I am just writing and telling you my experience as I recall. Fred trained us in how to hold house meetings where we would bring people together to learn about the farm workers and the UFW. My little notebook from that time has church contacts, union contacts, community contacts, prison contacts. I can picture him in the training sessions. Tall, gray hair, slim. INTENSE. This house meeting model is still what is being used in the social justice and green issues we are dealing with today. I worked a seven day week for the farm workers and the UFW. I worked morning, noon, and night. I got exhausted. I asked Fred Ross for a week or two (I forget what) off to re-charge. He said no! Nobody leaves during this proposition fight. I knew I could not continue at the pace Fred expected. I was beyond my physical and mental capabilities (OK I have to confess that the boyfriend not working out and its trauma in my young 23 year old life played a part). I regret my youthful inabilities to deal with romantic relationships.
And so, with sadness, I resigned my position with the National Council of Churches, United Farm Workers Union. I needed to do that after years of working non-stop. Made plans to study for a master’s degree in social work. Now, it was 1973, and I headed back to PA to enter the MSW program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work in Philadelphia that took me in on scholarship.
I did my master’s thesis on bilingual education at an elementary school in Philadelphia. Inspired by my farm worker experience - a life changing experience. I have been working for social justice ever since.