I grew up in Robstown, Texas; home of the Robstown High School
Cottonpickers. My older brothers picked cotton during the season. My aunt and
uncle used to take my cousins out of school to harvest fruits and vegetables from
Texas to Michigan. Then they would return in the fall to winter in Texas then
repeat what I used to consider that “wonderful life on the road, living like gypsies,
and sleeping under the stars in the back of their pickup truck”.
In 1966 my father took my two younger brothers and me to Austin, Texas to
mark the end of La Marcha, a farmworker rally attended by 15,000 farmworker
advocates. It was my first time hearing Cesar Chavez speak about farmworkers
and it unknowingly set me on a course for my career.
When I moved from Texas to Michigan in the fall of 1972, I heard Cesar , at
MSU, tell the story of a little old woman who could not walk picket lines but
made it a point to “greet the grapes” by squeezing a handful of those grapes
we were boycotting, every time she shopped. I became active in the local
boycott efforts in East Lansing/Lansing area around Michigan State University,
picketing the A&P grocery store every Saturday and speaking to students,
families, and anyone who would listen about farmworker issues and rights; at
one point even confronting Chuckie O’Brian, son of Jimmy Hoffa. He had arrived
with a Teamster farmworker family to counter our picketing/protest; the family
disappeared into the store and refused to debate us on any level.
I officially joined the UFW staff in the summer of 1975, when I moved to Detroit
and into a staff house with Linda Chavez and Artie Rodriguez. Helen Chavez
was there, helping Artie and Linda with their first born child. Helen cooked up a
huge eggplant parmesan for us and declared “this is Cesar’s favorite dish” and it
quickly became mine. Shortly thereafter I was moved to another staff house to
make room for baby stuff and to train with other experienced boycott staff.
In August 1975 the Michigan Boycott Staff joined hundreds of others from cities
all over the United States and Canada in a caravan across the country traveling
to Sacramento for the 2nd Constitutional Convention of the UFW. The Michigan
staff was privileged to escort Leonard Woodcock, the president of the UAW,
into the conventional hall. His widow has since moved onto my mountain in
western North Carolina and we have exchanged stories of “back in the day” on
many occasions, particularly at our precinct meetings. What an epic summer
experience, staying in LaPaz, being chased by the Kern County Sheriff’s
Department, touring orchards, and watching Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino do
Later back in Michigan we enjoyed hearing of the UFW’s victories as, one by
one, growers signed with the UFW. At one point another college student and I
fasted on water only for fourteen days to draw attention to the farmworker cause.
I left the UFW staff in 1977 to continue my education and to pursue my fiancé
and marry in 1978. In 1979, after a move to North Carolina I found there was
a Migrant Health Center in Hendersonville, where we lived, that had been
operating since 1963. I used to say to my wife Victoria, “I am going to work there
one day or I’ll work organizing workers and end up dead”. In 1993 I was hired
at Blue Ridge Community Health Services and once again worked with migrant
farmworkers and their families; helping them access healthcare, providing health
education, and empowering their ability to stay healthy. I have had the privilege
and honor to work with this vulnerable population for the past nineteen years.
By coincidence Cesar passed on my birthday in 1993, maybe he was telling me
to get back to work with farmworkers at Blue Ridge Health Services, which I did
in September of “93.