I first learned about the UFW at St. Maurice Catholic Church in Hollywood, Florida sometime in 1973. I was 15 years old, and attending my first church youth group meeting. Some UFW boycott staff from Miami had been invited to talk with our group of middle-class, white teens. The UFW staff who came to the meeting told us that the UFW had called for a boycott of grapes and explained a bit about the background to the boycott. They showed us a film about the strike in the grape fields. I remember learning about how the growers refused to renew contracts with farmworkers in the grape fields, the images of farmworkers on strike being beaten by thugs. I was stunned to learn that two strikers were killed just because they were seeking to be treated fairly, and outraged about the blatant injustice of the entire situation. I had never known anything about farmworkers and had always had a comfortable life with my family. When the UFW staff members asked for volunteers to picket at a grocery store the following Saturday, I signed up. Later, I remembered conversations between my older relatives about a family member who had died in the famous Triangle Factory fire in New York in 1911, and how there had been no union to fight for safe conditions in the dress factory where she worked.
On my first day of picketing, one of the organizers, it may have been Harry VandenBosche (Rev. Augie VandenBosche’s son) picked me up from my house in an old clunker of a car. Because I was a teenager, and I had not done a very good job explaining the UFW due to my own meager understanding, my parents were worried. But I knew I wanted to help, so I tried not to pay attention to their concerns and got in the car. On the way, the UFW organizer patiently answered my questions and helped me to better understand the ideas and goals behind the boycott. At the grocery store I had my first experience passing out leaflets and asking customers to boycott Red Coach lettuce, and I felt as if I had done something useful. I became a regular Saturday picketer. More than once, men with cameras would come and take our photos, and though we never knew who they were, we suspected they might be from the FBI.
After a few months, I arranged for UFW staff members to speak at my Catholic, all-girls high school. I thought that the students and teachers, who were mostly nuns, would be swept up into this incredible movement, since social justice was a fundamental pillar of my Catholic beliefs. Unfortunately, few felt as I did. One important exception was my friend and classmate Maryanne Cafiero, who later married Juan Cadena and became even more involved in UFW work. (I see that they are going to be among those contributing to this site!)
Throughout the rest of high school and later, at the University of Florida, I continued to participate in UFW support groups. By then the UFW was focusing on the boycott of Gallo wines. Our UF group would picket every Friday afternoon at a drive-through liquor store in Gainesville, and more than once, we had bottles thrown at us and curses shouted at us. But we continued, and our small group began to grow. Then the UFW decided to organize major cities in Florida, and an organizer named Larry Tramutt (that’s what we called him, it was actually Larry Tramutola) came to town in the spring of 1975, I believe. He met with a group of us, mostly students - Bob Weinstein, Richard Mancuso, Elyse Littenberg, Monica Leadon, and others whose names I can’t remember – and we signed on to work as full-time boycott organizers in Florida for at least the summer of 1975 or perhaps longer.
I remember very distinctly the training we received from Larry. We learned a method for grassroots organizing that I think he had learned from Fred Ross, and Fred Ross had learned from Saul Alinsky, of Rules for Radicals fame. Of course, it was the first time I’d heard of Saul Alinsky, but I knew that I was learning something really valuable. Larry’s training was very organized and thorough. Among many things, we learned about Cesar, the history of the UFW, the labor laws from which farmworkers were excluded, and a specific method for finding supporters who would host “house meetings.” It was the first time I’d ever done role-playing, which helped us to practice exactly how to conduct these meetings, including a spiel that encapsulated the struggle of the farmworkers and the importance of the boycott and ended with an appeal for the names of others who might agree to host a meeting, and money, a meal, an office space, or anything else folks could offer. When the training was over, I was a bit nervous, but even more, I was excited. Our training was so good that for many years after I remembered the specific words and sequence of ideas in the house meeting message we were trained to communicate.
The summer of 1975 I would turn 18 years old. My family and Richard Mancuso’s lived in South Florida, so we were assigned to Broward County – the Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale area. The other volunteers were in Miami, Tampa, Gainesville, and Jacksonville, as I recall. I was assigned to be the “director” of the Broward area. Because Richard and I were able to live with our parents, we thought of their housing and food as contributions to our UFW salaries – enabling us to live comfortably on our $5/week. Larry gave us a handful of index cards with names and numbers on them – I’m not sure where they came from but it may have been the Florida Migrant Ministry. Many cards contained phone numbers that were no longer valid, but we were able to contact a good number of folks, and hold house meetings, which led to other house meetings. We also contacted churches to ask if we could speak to their congregations. We asked people to do many things: boycott, join us to leaflet grocery stores, hold a house meeting, and lastly, if they could do none of those, donate money to the cause. I have to admit that, despite my commitment, it was not easy for me to ask people for these things. But when we would send around the yellow pad that served as our sign-up sheet, and the bucket for donations, I was always amazed at how generous and caring most people were.
Over about two-and-a-half months, we organized a small but solid support group in Broward County, one that lasted for over 20 years because of one wonderful supporter, Dr. Georgianna Lowen, a professor at Nova University who eventually became my dear friend. I still remember the first call I made to her and her enthusiastic reply to my request for a meeting: “Why don’t you come on over right now?” With Georgianna’s network and reputation on our side, we made many useful contacts, and the Unitarian Church in Fort Lauderdale, to which she belonged, even gave us office space. When we held a benefit showing of a UFW movie (it was either Fighting for Our Lives or Si Se Puede) we made over $1000. Later that summer, were thrilled to find out that all of us new Florida staff members would be going to Fresno for the 1975 UFW Convention.
When it came time to head west, the Florida staffers from all over the state convened and we boarded old, used Greyhound busses that had been purchased by the UFW. Mack and Dianna Lyons were there, and provided great leadership. They were seasoned organizers who I think were in Florida to help with the UFW contract with Minute Maid. Mack and Dianna taught us a lot over the course of that bus trip to Fresno, about the history of the union and more practical skills, like how to “shower” in a pit stop bathroom, live for days on peanut butter, bread, and apples, and maintain a positive attitude no matter what. (This was especially helpful on the way back to Florida from the convention, when our bus had an accident and we wound up waiting at a desert shelter for many hours.) We were kids, really, and we had no clue about what it was to grow up as a farmworker, but still they treated us so respectfully, and helped make the long trip out there an amazing journey.
I have so many positive memories of the convention and our time in California. I remember the energy of all the delegates in the huge room where the convention convened. I remember feeling privileged to be walking with Cesar, Arturo, and other UFW leaders in a march through Fresno. I remember being surprised at the modesty of Cesar’s home in La Paz. I remember a visceral sense of the power of intention among all the people gathered together. Almost 40 years later, I still have the badge I was given as a visitor to the convention, as well as written materials and buttons from those days.
When the summer ended, I returned to Gainesville and later transferred to a college in New York City, where I found other students who knew about the UFW. Together we began a support group at Columbia University, though we were not terribly active as I recall. At that point, I was just trying to keep up with my schoolwork.
Over the years since that time, I have continued to be a farmworker advocate in between graduate school, work, marriage, and children. I have joined with other farmworker supporters here in Tallahassee on a variety of actions over the years, once bringing a group of Catholic highschoolers, my daughter included, to lobby at the Capitol on farmworker bills. Arturo Rodriguez was there, and when I saw him it brought me full circle to my earliest days with the UFW as teenager myself.
Though my level of involvement has varied, I hold on to everything I have learned from the UFW – especially the sense that we who are privileged must first, pay attention, and then advocate loudly for fairness and justice in our world. I am very grateful for the UFW organizers who came to talk to our youth group at St. Maurice back in 1975. Even though I have played a very small role in the work of the UFW, it has had a big impact on my life over all these years.