Parents helped improve conditions for fruit pickers
Ryan Summerlin May 26, 2014
Intro: Veronica Felix Lopez is the Lead Community Organizer for the Valley Settlement Project, “a multigenerational program that focuses on school readiness, elementary school achievement, economic stability and community engagement” for the Roaring Fork Valley’s low-income families.
Veronica was born in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of farm workers who joined with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to organize agricultural workers and establish the United Farm Workers.
Felix Lopez: My mom grew up in a poor family in Mexico. She was one of nine kids, and things got so bad that her dad had to send her and two of her sisters to the United States to live with his brother.
Gallacher: Did she ever talk about that?
Felix Lopez: She said it was hard, but when she went back to visit she said there was barely enough to eat. Sometimes the kids would only get half a tortilla for their meal.
My grandfather didn’t have any cows or any land, but his older brother was doing much better in the United States, and he offered to take the girls and help my grandfather get his papers to come to the U.S. That was in the early ’60s.
Gallacher: It was a lot easier in those days to move back and forth across the border, wasn’t it?
Felix Lopez: Oh yes, that was when my grandfather quit his job with the Mexican government and became a farm worker in the United States. He and my grandmother and the three oldest children started working in the fields of California.
Gallacher: So was your mom working?
Felix Lopez: Yes, she started working when she was 12. She went to the sixth grade and after that she had to help her family. She said there was a lot of discrimination at that time. There were no work breaks, and they had to carry their food in a bag that they tied to the belt loops of their pants.
Mom said that they were required to work even when the fields were being sprayed with pesticides. They were told to just wear a hat and something over their face.
They had to eat standing up, sitting down wasn’t allowed, and there was no water and no toilets.
Gallacher: There was no water all day?
Felix Lopez: All day, and this was in the heat of the summer. The growers weren’t focused on the workers, they were concerned about the time it was taking and the money they were making. At that time, they were making $1.25 an hour.
Gallacher: So the three older kids worked. What did the little kids do while everyone was in the fields?
Felix Lopez: They went to school in the morning and came home about 3, and that was when my grandmother would stop work and take care of them. But on weekends and during the summer the kids had to come to the fields with the family.
Gallacher: What would the little kids do in the fields?
Felix Lopez: They would help by dragging boxes to the end of the rows for pickup. I think that was one of the things that really moved my mom to get involved in organizing, because the growers didn’t care about mothers with kids. If you didn’t meet your quota of boxes you had to stay late.
Families didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t any child care, and they couldn’t leave the kids alone at home. My mom used to talk about feeling hopeless during this time. She and her brothers and sisters often wondered how much longer they could endure.
They had to work and live like that for about six years. By then my mom was 18, and that’s when she met my dad. They met working in the fields and were married a year later.
Gallacher: What’s your dad’s story?
Felix Lopez: My dad came to the United States as a Bracero*. He was born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico. In those days there was an office in my dad’s village that recruited farm workers to work in the fields of New Mexico picking chilies.
There was this one grower who would make the five-hour drive to Mexico to pick up the workers and take them to his fields. My dad and his brothers and cousins all signed up to work for him. The fields were just across the border in Deming, New Mexico. My dad and his family did that for about six seasons.
It was during the sixth season that the grower talked to my dad. He told him that he had to sell his land. He had just been diagnosed with cancer and his kids weren’t interested in taking over. “But” he told my dad, “I want to do something for you and your family. I want to help you apply for immigration status here in the United States.”
The grower took my dad and four of his relatives to the immigration office and helped them apply. My dad said immigration was very different than today. There was one sheet of paper to fill out, a picture was taken, a birth certificate was presented and the grower wrote a letter of support for them. Two weeks later, their green cards arrived at the grower’s home.
Gallacher: Totally different than today.
Felix Lopez: Very, very different. That next year my dad came to the United States and went with his uncles to work in the fields of California. It was there that he met my mom and experienced the working conditions that she and her family had to endure. My dad said he had never been treated that way.
It was about this time that they met Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and my dad decided to become a union organizer for the farm workers. I remember, as a little kid, going to Cesar’s meetings with my parents. I remember Cesar coming to our house and putting paper on the walls and planning meetings with my dad.
Mom and dad would go into the fields and talk to farm workers. My dad traveled from state to state during the grape boycott**.
Gallacher: Explain the boycott.
Felix Lopez: Cesar and Dolores decided to focus on table grapes because they were so popular and one of California’s main crops. They figured that by refusing to pick the grapes and asking consumers not to buy them they would get the attention of growers and people around the world. They used the grape boycott to call attention to the mistreatment of farm workers.
After five years, the farm workers got their first contract and started to see conditions change in the fields. I am proud of my parents for the work they did to make that change.
Gallacher: So you grew up in the midst of this movement. What did you take from that experience?
Felix Lopez: I can’t see myself doing anything else. Helping people learn how to help themselves is a part of who I am.
Gallacher: Cesar Chavez was the face of the farm workers movement, but Dolores Huerta was just as important.
Felix Lopez: I worked for Dolores and her foundation for about five years helping farm worker women. We held classes in leadership training and taught women to become more self-confident and realize their potential.
Gallacher: Talk about what you do now and what you bring from your experience in California.
Felix Lopez: I am a lead community organizer for the Valley Settlement Project and in 2011 we surveyed the valley. We visited 300 low-income households and found that one of the main concerns was lack of affordable preschool for the kids.
So what we did was develop a program that takes the preschool program into their neighborhoods. We have two buses that have been converted to preschool classrooms. Teachers drive the buses from neighborhood to neighborhood twice a week and conduct classes on the bus. We have 90 kids who are participating in this dual language program.
For the last six weeks, I have been conducting leadership-training classes for women, two in Glenwood and one in Carbondale. Women come in very shy and hesitant at first but by the third session they are engaged and actively participating.
Gallacher: What are the elements of this leadership class?
Felix Lopez: We focus on their goals and help them think about the steps they need to take to accomplish them. Some of these women want to be teachers but they have never allowed themselves to think about that possibility. I give them information about the steps they need to take to move toward that goal.
For example, the women in these classes said the reason many of them can’t take classes is because there is no affordable child care. So I asked them what they wanted to do about it, and they decided to apply for a food booth at Carbondale Mountain Fair this summer and raise the money.
For the next six weeks, I will be meeting with them as they lay out their plan for this fundraiser. Dolores always told me “never do for others what they can do for themselves.”
* The Bracero Program grew out of a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States and allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, with many individuals returning several times on different contracts, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program. braceroprogram.org/about
** The Delano Grape Strike was a strike, boycott and secondary boycott led by the United Farm Workers (UFW) against growers of table grapes in California. The strike began on Sept. 8, 1965, and lasted more than five years. The strike was a significant victory for the UFW, leading to a first contract with these growers.