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Mar 292015
 

by Jody A. Forrester

 

         On August 15, 1970, in Salinas, California, seven thousand lettuce pickers went out on strike against the Teamsters and growers who refused to recognize their newly formed union. Before the sun rose that morning, Maria Dolores Sanchez, a United Farm Workers organizer, phoned me seeking reinforcements for the picket lines. We first met at an anti-war demonstration in San Francisco, and exchanged telephone numbers for just this sort of call. Within an hour of activating the San Jose activist phone tree, five cars, all filled, gathered in front of my eastside apartment. Most held steaming cups of coffee and donuts from the Winchell’s around the corner.

            I sat in the driver’s seat of my roommate’s Volkswagen, Pamela and Maggie in back, Mike next to me. As I ground into first gear, pumping the sticky clutch, he fumbled with the glove compartment latch. I stopped short when he put a Beretta handgun, wrapped in a white t-shirt, under a stack of maps and box of Kleenex.

            “Are you kidding? Get that out of here!” I looked back at the two women in the backseat, expecting them to be as shocked as I was, but for reasons I never fathomed, they said nothing. The other cars were idling, waiting for me to take the lead. A horn honked.

            “Jesus Christ, Mike! We’re going to support the farmers, not start the revolution!”

            Another horn honked. Our student caucus leader, Charles, came to my window.

            “What’s the problem?” he asked, drumming his fingers on the roof.
            “Mike’s bringing a gun!” I said.

            “Not a bad idea. C’mon, let’s get going, we’ll be late.” He went back to his car, another VW bug.

            “Don’t worry, Jody. You always worry.” Mike’s smile was both endearing and arrogant. He quoted Mao Tse Tung: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

            I pulled out, stripping the gears again as I shifted into first.

            Mike laughed. “Want me to drive?”

*

In 1969, nothing was more important to me than stopping the Vietnam War. A few weeks into my first semester at San Jose State College, I attended an anti-war rally, hoping to connect with like-minded students.

            There were several speakers at the gathering, but the one who held my interest was a boy named Jack. With his short hair, clean white tee shirt, Levi blue jeans, and work boots, he was a novelty compared to the other longhaired and bearded bell-bottomed speakers. Jack was eloquent as he laid the blame for the war–indeed, for all the world’s evil–squarely at the door of American corporations. It was their relentless drive for profit, he said, that was bombing the innocent in Vietnam that sent our soldiers off to die in a country that didn’t want us.

            He emphasized over and over again that there were not multiple enemies too many to take on, but only the twinned swords of capitalism and imperialism. I was elated, believing that the devil that could be named could be defeated.

            I approached Jack after the rally to ask what I could do to help, not knowing that I was taking the fateful first step toward what would become more than three and a half years of my life immersed in the ideology of Mao Tse Tung. Jack was a member of the Revolutionary Union, a regional communist organization self-appointed to lead the working class in armed struggle against the ruling class. The party’s infrastructure was made up of collectives of students, community organizers, and factory workers, many of whom operated undercover within the more established unions and student anti-war groups. They were at the core of all protests in San Jose, both on campus and on the streets.

*

            Maria Dolores was waiting for us in a dirt lot already filled with road-worn trucks and cars. I waited in the VW long enough to make sure that Mike left the gun behind. Maria Delores asked me to accompany her to the farm across the road, while my friends were directed to a bus that would take them to more distant fields. She didn’t know of our membership in the RU; at that point, I saw no reason to tell her.

            She and I linked into a tangled chain of migrant and local farm workers who were blocking access to the largest corporate-owned lettuce field in Salinas. Red flags, silk-screened with the stylized black eagle of Cesar Chavez’s union, hung limp from hand-held poles in the oppressive heat. Maria Delores was dressed comfortably in the campesino garb of white cotton pants, a hand-embroidered huichol blouse, and leather huaraches. Overheated already, I wished I’d brought a hat.

            We circled the several truckloads of scabs rounded up by the growers’ foremen. Coffee-colored men and women stood corralled on the railed flat beds, either sullen or staring at their feet or tall and belligerent. They too were hungry. The truck drivers kept their engines on, exhaling choking exhaust that shimmied in the heat.

            I walked holding hands with Maria Dolores and a grandfather wearing much-laundered cotton pajama pants without a shirt. Angry divots, thick with scar tissue, pocked his back and shoulders.

            An old man hanging off the truck rails gave the grandfather the finger and yelled, “Mario! Chinga tu madre!” They may once have been friends; now it was scab vs. striker.

            I heard a raspy intake of breath, and ducked just as the grandfather hawked a gob of phlegm, his arms flailing sinews of muscle in loose bags of skin. Before the fight could escalate, a half dozen black and white vans raced up, barely braking before dozens of cops, wearing riot gear with rifles drawn, leapt out and surrounded us.

            The strikers’ chants intensified, fists punched the air. Huelga! Huelga! Huelga! Strike! Strike! Strike!

            A police commander, squat and thickly muscled, racked and fired his shotgun over our heads. He announced through a bullhorn that the strikers would be arrested if we didn’t disperse. A few left – those with children and some of the elderly. The grandfather was led away, loudly protesting, by a girl I supposed to be his granddaughter. I considered my roommate’s car keys in my pocket, and Mike’s gun in the glove compartment, but then Maria Delores gripped my hand and pulled me to the ground beside her. I sat down, thinking it would be worse as a representative of the Revolutionary Union to abandon them now. Instead, I sat crossed-legged in the dirt amid a babble of Spanish too fast for me to translate in my head.

            The commander ordered the strikers again to leave, and when we didn’t, he gave orders to arrest us, en masse. Right away, Maria Dolores was plucked from our circle, handcuffed and carried to the backseat of the commander’s car. I stood up to protest, but was pulled back down by the women on either side of me. That was when I realized that they had a plan I wasn’t privy to.  

            The rank-and-file policemen were locals. Many had grown up among the strikers, and their authority was undermined by taunts and chides. They pulled up one person, and then another, their jaws clenched below narrowed eyes. Most of the strikers had to be dragged or carried.

            “Her?” The men asked their commander, pointing at me, the only white girl there. His incoherent response became clear when I was hoisted into the air by three of his men, each at least five inches shorter than my six feet. 

            “Tan grande!” said the one holding my right thigh. “Muy fuerte!”

Their sweaty hands let me slip several times, just to grab a breast or grip between my legs. I writhed and kicked, but they held on until we reached a paddy wagon where they tossed me in with no more regard than they would have for a sack of turnips. The women already there helped me up, clucking with dismay.

            When the van was full, a Chicana officer not much older than my nineteen years crowded in and slammed the door. She cradled a rifle on her lap, but then rolled and slipped with the rest of us as we sped away from the field. Slit windows provided little light, and the air was dank. I get carsick, and within blocks, spit thickened in the back of my throat. I kept swallowing, hoping desperately that I wouldn’t throw up.

I was lucky – it was only ten minutes later that we stopped in front of the Salinas jail and courthouse. The van’s back doors opened without warning, sending us tumbling out like dice onto the blacktop parking lot. While we pulled each other up to standing, more paddy wagons came in. I could see that everybody inside was from the same field as myself. I knew then that the cars belonging to the strikers from further fields would be gone by nightfall, leaving the blue Volkswagen exposed. Mike’s gun was a knot in my stomach and my throat. I shook my head to push away the thought. Nothing could be done.

            The young guard led us to the processing office, to a harried-looking woman whose jaw dropped when faced with the work ahead of her. I parked myself on the floor between a desk and a filing cabinet, under a poster of President Nixon. Without Maria Delores, I felt shy with the women chattering in Spanish, who likely had no idea how I came to be there with them.

            Still, I saw the arrest as providential, an opportunity to earn my stripes with the Revolutionary Union. I was about to be locked up with women from the bottom of the food chain, oppressed by their bosses, by the machismo in their culture, and most significantly, by the greedy capitalists who exploited their labors for profit. I reveled in a fantasy of my triumphant return home, only wishing that I’d brought a Spanish-language Red Book of Mao’s quotations.

             When Maria Delores finally emerged from a back room, her eyes winced in the fluorescent brightness. She spoke to a few of the women still waiting, and then slid down the wall to sit beside me.

            “Are you okay?” I whispered. “What happened?”

            “Nothing really, just fright tactics. I’m okay, just very tired, mi amiga, very tired. I think I could sleep for a week.” She closed her eyes and rested her head on her knees.

 

            Once I was processed, I was permitted to make a phone call. Ever mindful of security, I phoned a friend outside, but close, to the organization.

            “Craig, it’s Jody,” I said, when he answered on the third ring.

            “Hey, I thought you were in Salinas.” His voice, so normal and matter-of-fact, was a marked contrast to my agitation.

            “Yeah, well, the line got busted. I’m calling from jail.” I reached in my pocket for a cigarette before remembering that they had been confiscated, along with my keys and wallet.

            “You’re okay?” he asked.

            “Okay enough. It’s just that nobody knows where I am, so I need you to get in touch with Charles when he gets back. Especially remind him about the car. It’s parked with the others, he’ll know.” There was nothing more I dared say. I hung up quickly–his sympathetic tone aroused self-pity and tears, neither of which would be useful in the hours ahead.

            The same fifteen women that I was brought in with were already packed into a cell with only two metal bunks, and less than three feet of floor between them. There was a barred window high on the wall, and a metal toilet seat over a dark hole; hand-woven shawls were already lying beside it so we could drape ourselves for privacy.

            My cellmates were fieldworkers, many of whom were recruited into the UFW by Maria Dolores. The mood lifted when she joined us. Right off, she had them laughing so hard that tears flowed down their sunbaked faces. She spoke too quickly for me to follow, but I gathered from her gestures that she was telling them about an officer whose genitals peeked out of his shorts throughout her interrogation. I laughed with them, their gaiety my best assurance that everything would turn out all right. They had anticipated the arrests, Maria Delores told me, and most of the women were happy to have a night away from the kitchen and their children.

            One of the women, Theresa, who held her infant, asked if I had children. Maria Delores translating.
            “No, not yet.” I wondered if they knew how young I was, or if it would matter.

            Once Theresa broke the formalities, other women rained questions on me. Where did I live? Did I have a sweetheart? Where were my parents? They were scandalized that I didn’t live at home, even when I told them I had left to go to college. I was astounded to hear that neither their daughters nor their sons would leave the family home until they married.

*

            When I was in the third grade, I wanted to be Mexican. I added an “a” to my name, thinking Jodia sounded Spanish, and insisted my family call me that. (They didn’t.) We lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles, two blocks away from a playground. Every weekend, I’d sit on the swing that I always claimed as my own, smitten with the multi-generations of Mexican families that made themselves at home as though in their own backyard. Grandparents settled under staked umbrellas in chairs they had brought themselves. The men barbequed in the park’s concrete pits while the women spread out blankets and unloaded boxes and ice-chests of food. Amid a riot of screams, the children were let loose, and I watched with envy. The older boys and girls lifted their younger sisters and brothers onto the jungle gym, slides and seesaw, making sure they were okay, all the while teasing and making them laugh in ways that I had never seen white kids do. I imagined their lives to be an endless picnic. More than the 1950s blonde-blue-eyed stereotypes in Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show, these people epitomized to me the perfect family.

*

            The rancid odor of a grease fire soon reached our cell, and in a short while, a guard came to say that we would have to do without dinner. Maria Delores told her about Ana, who was diabetic, and Theresa, who needed to eat so she could nourish her infant. They were allowed to leave, but then returned an hour later with baskets of food prepared by the family members of those arrested. Still-warm tortillas, roasted chicken, and ears of corn were dispersed among the cells, and for a while, all that could be heard were the sounds of grateful women crunching and swallowing.  

I was well aware that it was up to me to bring what the Revolutionary Union called Mao Tse-Tung Thought to the arrested fieldworkers. Expectations were very clear – nothing was more important than educating the masses that proletariat rule was the only solution and armed uprising the only strategy. But the schism between the strikers’ needs and our dogma troubled me. I couldn’t see them picking up arms against their bosses, let alone the reigning government. What would be their motivation? Many had left Mexico in pursuit of a better living, and wanted only to return to work protected by their union. How could I, a nineteen-year old college student, make them see that they would be better off under the dictatorship of the proletariat? I had no idea.

            In the small cell, our bodies were the only pillows to rest upon. I squeezed onto a bunk next to Maria Delores, and laid my head on her lap while she rested hers on my back.      

            Lulled by the afternoon heat and cradled by soft murmurs and quiet laughter, my eyes soon shut, but I couldn’t relax. The RU’s voice continued to haunt me, insisting on the leadership role that I should be assuming. My pulse galloped. Fear that Mike’s gun would be discovered was compounded by worry for my roommate, as the owner of the car, and myself, as the driver.

            Only a low-wattage bulb over the toilet and the dimmed tubes in the hallway allayed the darkness as the light outside faded. The hands on the schoolhouse clock mounted on the wall opposite us ticked by so slowly that at times I wondered if it had stopped. It was past nine, then ten, then eleven. Most of my cellmates were asleep, snoring lightly and twitching in their dreams. My eyes closed again and this time I let myself succumb to sleep. Indecipherable dreams shifted and flowed, and then merged into guitars strumming and men singing so insistently that I jolted awake, sliding Maria Delores off my back.

            I squirmed off the bed and stood at the window on tiptoes, looking down at a swarm of sombrero crowns and wide brims. Men, illuminated by the candles they held, were singing banderos, love songs, to their wives, mothers, and daughters, singing from their hearts, from the heart of the community. In twos and threes, the women awoke, some comprehending more quickly than others what was happening. Several of the larger women and I boosted one, and then another, so they could see out of the window. They clapped their hands and cried, and I, too, began to cry, caught up in the threads of sentimentality woven by the music.          

Frankincense wafted in, sweetening the stale air. The musicians quieted to allow a priest to lead the Catholic Mass. Inside, heads bent over hands pressed together. Rosary beads clicked. I felt privileged to be a silent witness to their rituals, even though they were in direct opposition to my godless ideology. I couldn’t help myself–it was so beautiful.

            After the men left, I lie down on the floor and fell again into a deep sleep. Light was just beginning to filter in through the window when a guard called my name. My eyes, crusty with sleep, fluttered open.

            “Jody Forrester!” He pointed at me, assured of his choice. “Come with me.”

             Maria Delores kissed me and whispered “Ser fuerte. Be strong. I hugged each woman whose name I had come to know, as well as the names of their children and hometowns.             

            “A lawyer is here for you,” he said. “Follow me.”

            A man was waiting in the downstairs lobby. In his three-piece suit and silk tie, he looked like he had taken the wrong exit off the freeway. He didn’t introduce himself, only saying that he was an attorney sent by a San Jose colleague to post a five hundred dollar bail bond. Despite my fears about the VW, I strenuously objected. In only a couple of hours we would be arraigned, and it was wrong that I be singled out for privileged treatment. Especially when everybody wanted to go home. But he said he was following orders, and again, I didn’t have a choice.

The sergeant at the front desk handed me my things. I lit a cigarette that the lawyer, in his new Cadillac, asked me to put out.

            The sunlight diffused in the dusty haze that was ever-present in the Salinas valley. I asked questions. Who sent him? Did he have a message for me? He had few answers, only that he had received a call from another lawyer to whom he owed a favor. The attorney drove me to the parking field. I could see immediately that the VW was gone, although I desperately continued to scan the few cars and trucks that were still there.

            A station wagon drove up behind us, honking its horn. The driver leaned out the window and waved me over.

            “That’s it for me,” the attorney said, when I got out. I had barely closed the door when he floored the car, spraying dirt and rocks that stung my shins.

            I counted five children in the back seat, all staring as I walked towards the car. A girl, maybe four, with pink and purple ribbons wound through her long braid, stared then ducked when I waved a finger. The passenger door swung open and I slipped in, trying not to cry in front of these people I didn’t yet know.

            In a jumble of Spanish and English, the driver introduced himself as Manuel, Maria Delores’s husband. He had the strong arms of a laborer, and a reassuring sweetness to his voice.

            “I left my car here yesterday, but it’s gone.” I was still struggling to hold back rimming tears.

            Manuel began driving, one hand on the wheel, the other stretched across the back of my seat.

            “Si, I know. I have it, now it’s at my house. The smile on his sun-polished face showed the great pleasure he took in my surprise and relief.

            “How did you know, how did you do it?” I asked. The tears spilled over. I no longer cared.

            “It was easy, a few pokes with a screwdriver, move some wires, vamanos.” Another wave of relief and gratitude surged when he laughed. “Your friend, the one with the thick glasses, he found me last night and explained the problem.” Manuel didn’t remember his name, but I knew it was Charles, and sent a silent thank-you to Craig for the message he must have passed on.

            The children were giggling and curious. Little fingers were in my hair, trying to unravel the coiled curls. It felt good, and I leaned back to make it easier for them.

            “Maria called just a little while ago. She said the arraignment will be at nine and it’s almost that now. I have to take you.”

            “Does she know I’m with you?”

            “No senorita. Your friend called again, just now, just as I was leaving for the station. He said that somebody would bail you out and I should find you here.”

            When we reached the courthouse, Manuel let me out in front. After a few wrong turns, I found my cellmates already lined up in front of the judge’s bench awaiting his entrance. The other women arrested with us were sitting in wooden seats behind them. Maria Dolores turned and waved me over with frantic hand gestures.         

            “Amiga, que pasa? Your name, it was just called. Are you all right? Where did you go?” The bailiff frowned–the judge was coming in. I could only squeeze her hand.

            In less than ten minutes, a trial date was set and my new friends released on their own recognizance. Again I was embarrassed by my early release, especially when I could have been freed without bail only an hour later. I lost track of Maria Delores and wasn’t sure what to do next when Manuel, with his eye-crinkling smile, appeared out of the crowd to tell me that I should come home with them for breakfast.

            “Then you can take your car,” he said.

            Maria Delores was already in the front seat, twin toddlers on her lap. I crowded into the back with their three others who were pushing and shoving to sit next to me. Their mother settled the quarrel with one stern look. We drove by deserted fields, the lettuce strike evidently still on. UFW representatives held up picket signs when we passed; Manuel honked the horn, I waved and the children cheered.

            He soon pulled onto a bricked driveway leading to a low-slung ranch house, its cedar siding whitewashed below the roof’s gray-brown shingles. Manuel shooed away several mongrels, all barking madly in greeting. Purple morning glory and pink bougainvillea straggled up the front of the house, anchored on nails set into the wood.  

            The living room was festive, as though dressed up for a party. Paper flowers with floppy petals made of pink and blue tissue paper lay gathered in bunches behind the furniture and in every corner. Manny, their eldest, told me that they made them to sell. Finger paintings on school-issued newsprint were taped on burnt umber walls. A zoo of pinatas dangled from cross beams next to multi-colored Gods-eyes and flaccid balloons. Maria Delores sighed when she saw the children’s toys left scattered on the floor.          

Spicy aromas soon filled the house. Manuel was cooking huevos rancheros, sausage and breakfast potatoes, all smothered in his own tongue-bruising salsa. When he offered me a cup of coffee, I was so greedy for the hot caffeine that it was an effort not to just open my mouth and pour it in.

            Maria Delores joined us, fresh from the shower, the mess of toys on the floor already cleaned up. The beribboned girl, who whispered to me that her name was Monica, stood leaning against my chair until I set her on my lap. Finally I was in the home of a Mexican family, the parents and children just like the ones I used to watch and envy. This was the family life that I had craved; sitting at their table felt like coming home until Manuel spoke.

            “So, your friend said there was a gun in your car?” He looked more amused than angry. “Yours?”

            “Oh my god, no!”

            “Then who?” He was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Bits of tobacco stuck in his front teeth. His tongue curled to find them.

            “Just some stupid guy who thinks that every demonstration is a potential call for the revolution!” The words escaped my mouth; I wished I could take them back. RU members were expected to show a united front, our criticisms of each other aired only in meetings, but per usual, my mouth opened of its own volition.

            “The revolucion, I see.” Manuel flicked his tongue out again to gather the stray flakes of tobacco. His lips still turned up, but whether it was a smirk or a smile, I wasn’t sure. “And what revolucion is that?”

            Heat crept up my neck. Here was my opening, but I didn’t know where to start. Monica clasped my hand, as though she knew I needed reassuring. My mouth opened but now that I had their attention, the words that I hoped to say wouldn’t come out.

            “Basta, Manuel.” Maria Delores said. “Enough! This is a day to celebrate, not to talk politics!”

            He laughed, and the children laughed with him, eager to move the conversation back to themselves. I hated the relief that I felt, knowing that when I returned home, I would be expected to judge my performance, and then be judged. What would be most important to my comrades was what I had failed at: I had not aligned the lettuce pickers’ struggle with the proletariat revolution; had not educated them about Mao Tse Tung; had made no contacts to follow up on. It would matter little that the women liked me, and that I liked them. I would be criticized for making myself more important than the Party line. But I was certain that the farm-workers would have thought me ridiculous to think that I knew better what was best for them.

            Two hours later, sated with food and family love, Manuel led me to the VW that he had parked behind their house. He stood back while I opened the glove compartment. The gun was there, still wrapped in the shirt, oblivious of the worry that it had caused me. Manuel moved forward, took it out, and popped open the chamber. A bullet was housed there; Mike had left the safety latch off. Manuel ejected it and then pulled out the 8-bullet clip and put it in his pocket. I hoped he would take the gun too, but didn’t stop him when he returned it to the glove compartment.

            I drove to the front of the house to find the older children holding armfuls of the paper flowers. “For you,” Monica whispered.

            They spread the floppy flowers on the back seat, the pinks and blues filling the car a vibrant testimony to my value in their world. Hugs and kisses, with promises to return, buoyed me as I started the car to drive north on the road that I had taken south only the day before. Soon enough I was on the highway, with the windows open until the stink of rotting lettuce got to be too much. Still, I honked the horn each time I passed the strikers who still stood sentinel in front of the miles and miles of empty fields.

My thoughts spun forward. I still felt badly that I had failed to make any attempt to make the women see that their struggle was part of a larger fight for workers’ rights, although I really wasn’t sure that any of my comrades could have done better. Why would the farmworkers disavow their struggles for a living wage to join a theoretical armed revolution against the ruling class? For the women I had spent the night with, for their comrades walking the picket line, change was motivated by need, not dogma.

To my relief, once home, I found my collective so angry with Mike for bringing the gun and with Charles for not taking it from him, that my short answers to their questions about the night before satisfied them. Contact was made, they said – good for you!

I remained an active member of the Revolutionary Union for two more years, until I came to realize that I believed more in the ideals of civil rights, freedom against oppression, and the even distribution of wealth than I did in the Communist ideal of armed revolution. Still, it was very hard to leave these people who had become family to me. I felt so lost. But looking back, I question whether any of us, all mostly under thirty, comprehended what it meant to overthrow the ruling class in imitation of the Chinese peasants’ revolution. It sounds so absurd now, so ludicrous.

            The charges against us were dropped; I never found out why. The grassroots United Farmworkers Union now represents all field workers, not only in the Central Valley, but north into Oregon and southeast into Texas. I still cherish that night–if it is true that every person counts, then I am proud to be counted as an intimate participant in the UFW’s earliest days.

*

Recently, my daughter texted me a picture she took while visiting San Jose State University. It is of a memorial made to honor Cesar Chavez, as well as his partner, Delores Huerta, and his mentors and models, Mahatma Gandhi and Robert Kennedy. The arched memorial makes a portal to the campus, its intent to inspire all who walk through to live a life bolstered by empathy for those in need and to never forget our freedom fighters. It is perfect to me that it should be housed at the site that launched me to join his picket line so many years ago.

Cesar Chavez is quoted in mosaic tiles:

                             There is no such thing as defeat in non-violence.