At the end of the 1960’s, at the height of the anti-war movement era, I was part of a core of radical student activists and Viet Nam vets that ran a GI coffeehouse in Seaside next to Fort Ord. When that project came to an end, a result of COINTELPRO type repression and changes in military policy, I stayed on working in Seaside. Then, from the Spring of 1971 until the winter of 1979, I worked in the fields of nearby Salinas Valley and other parts of California and Arizona. What began as a venture driven by curiosity and the need for a job turned into a decade of hard work, camaraderie, and political struggle.
I thinned and harvested broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce. I became a “lechuguero” working on a ground crew by piece rate. For some of those years I followed the ‘corrida’, the seasonal movement of crops up and down California between Salinas and the borderlands of the Imperial Valley and Yuma. I lived in the labor camps built in the bracero days and in Mexicali border hotels that housed workers during the winter crop. I was a participant of the “Division del Norte” down from Salinas that sparked the strike in Coachella in 1973 to take on the anti-union onslaught in the grapes; I was a UFW “submarine” in Gallo’s vineyard near Livingston in 1973, and in Watsonville’s apple orchards in 1974. I was in strikes, wildcats, walkouts and slowdowns waged to force growers to respect farm workers’ rights that the growers and contractors never ceased trying to undermine. I was immersed in the world of the farm workers. I was inspired their passion for justice, their hatred of oppression, and their humanity.
I saw and lived from the standpoint of the fields a union struggle that rode the crest of a powerful upsurge. I was witness and participant of a great movement that faced off against the growers, challenged the long years of oppression and shook the apartheid system of California agriculture to its core.
I was embroiled in that struggle and another one that emerged, as the decade progressed, within the union itself. I witnessed and was part of that internal struggle and became myself a target of suppression from a union leadership drifting to the right. As the tide of social upheaval ebbed and pressures built to end struggle in the fields, the top UFW leadership abandoned its progressive vision and sought a place at the table of power. What followed was the suppression of a rank and file movement that fought for a democratic voice and new direction within the union. I became familiar with how internal repression against a core of rank and file leaders lead to disillusionment, disaffection, and finally, the virtual destruction of the union itself.
I had begun to document what I’d observed in those tumultuous years in the fields some years ago. But at the urging of friends and a nephew at Fordham, and my desire to grapple more deeply with what had gone on in those years, I began to put together this more complete account. While it is my personal account, many people helped me, including many veteran farm workers and former activists who related their stories, filled gaps in my recollections and offered great encouragement.
Lettuce Wars is part memoir, part history. It is an effort to bring to life some of the workers and activists with whom I shared those years, as well as to place this struggle in the broader social and political context in which it emerged and unfolded. It is an effort to reveal the mainsprings of a movement whose influence is still present today, 40 years later. And, finally, it is an effort to reveal (in the Epilogue) some of what is going on in the fields today and what that might tell us about the limits of reform.