I moved to the Rio Grande Valley over 30 years ago and was drawn into the United Farm Workers struggles in San Juan, Texas, by Sr. Carol Ann Messina, the administrator at the time. There was a big march for wages from San Juan to Brownsville. My job was to provide water at the rest stops. At one of the rest stops, Carol Ann, Cesar, and I were conversing about “philosophical” issues. I asked Cesar, “Well, why do you do what you do?” His response was clear and poignant, “What else would I do with my life?”
I never forgot that answer. After Carol Ann died I was asked to be the administrator at the San Juan, Texas, UFW office and joined the National Farm Worker Ministry. With the leadership of Rebecca Flores (Harrington) and Jim Harrington, Juanita Valdez-Cox and other staff and volunteers we worked on field sanitation, pesticide regulations, workers’compensation, an end to the short-handled hoe, minimum wages, and of course, the grape boycott.
One weekend when my high school daughter was packing up the cooler with her friends to go to the beach, I heard her say, “Don’t let my mom see that!” Of course, I figured the day had come that she was taking beer to the beach, and she was a minor. “Don’t let your mom see what?” I asked. “It’s nothing, Mom, don’t worry about it,“she replied. “I want to see what’s in that cooler!” I screamed. “Ok, look!” my daughter opened the cooler and there on top were bunches of grapes. I have to admit I was relieved it was not beer, but I reminded these teens why we were boycotting grapes, and how they had let the cause down by buying them, how farm workers were suffering from cancers because of the deadly pesticides being used. As I walked back into the house I heard one of the girls ask my daughter, “Why does your Mom do what she does?” Without blinking an eye my daughter responded, “Oh, what else would she do with her life?”
Now, as I am nearing retirement age, I feel so privileged to be back on this property in San Juan working with Proyecto Azteca, a self-help housing program inspired by Cesar. We continue to work for justice in the work place, in the fields, in the colonias where people live. We work as advocates in education, health, immigration, employment, and housing. We work to engage families in civic participation, not to be the voice of the voiceless, but to give the voiceless their own voice. What a privilege to do this work. And at the end of the day I cannot even imagine what else I would be doing. Cesar was right. ¡Viva las causa! ¡Si se puede!
Ann Williams Cass
San Juan, TX 78589