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Pickets supporting the Gallo boycott, circa 1971 ()

Memories Of A Former Migrant Worker

Oct 8, 2010

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In May 2010, Cinco Puntos Press published a book of photos depicting the life and work of labor leader Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez: A Photographic Essay (forward by Ilan Stavans).

To accompany an excerpted group of photos from that book, NPR producer Felix Contreras conducted an interview with his father, Luis Contreras, about the elder Contreras' early life as a member of a migrant farm worker family. Luis Contreras fell exactly in the middle between four older brothers and four younger sisters.

Felix Contreras: You were raised in a migrant farm worker environment. Can you describe what that was like?

Luis Contreras:
First of all, we didn't have a permanent residence. We traveled in a truck and we lived mostly in a tent on the road between California and Kansas.

Because we were migrants, our schooling was incomplete. We would arrive in a town after school started and leave before the school year was over. We didn't always have the basic necessities of life, like being able to take a bath regularly.

Because we often had to set up our tent in the country, we ate a lot of what we found growing in the wild — fruits, some vegetables. If we were in one place long enough we could plant a garden and eat what we grew. Later, after we stopped moving and settled down in Sacramento (California) my mother would sometimes complain that our diet was better in the country with access to fresh food.

We also worked very long hours, often from sun up until sun down. The entire family, children included. As a child you think it's just normal life, nothing out of the ordinary. We didn't think we were working especially hard. It was just a normal life for us.

So things like child labor laws didn't exist back then?

There were child labor laws, but here's how migrant families worked it: When we were out in the fields you could see a child labor officer driving up along those dirt roads from at least a mile away. Plus they were usually driving a government car, so it was easy to spot them. The kids would leave the fields, gather around the family truck, then go back to work after the child labor office left the area.

Looking back, I think it was in the interests of the ag. industry to not have the child labor laws enforced because we did a lot of work as children. It was a different time. It was a different way of thinking among people who did agriculture work — meaning, there wasn't much of an interest in the welfare of the field worker.

Flash forward 40 years or so. How did you first hear of Cesar Chavez's efforts to organize farm workers?

I read about in newspapers and also reports on television. News of the UFW [United Farm Workers] march from Salinas to Sacramento in 1966 was carried in the paper and on TV. (Editor's note: The 340 mile march started in Salinas, Calif. and ended on the steps of the state capitol building in Sacramento.)

I thought, "Finally someone is doing something!" I thought it was a very good thing, especially regarding child labor. What he was doing was right. It was about time someone was doing something about that. Before Chavez and the UFW, they didn't show any of that, you know, how migrants lived and worked. I never saw that on TV or in the newspaper.

What did you think about the UFW's tactic of establishing picket lines at supermarkets in urban areas to raise the awareness of their fight?

I think those publicity tactics brought out a lot of popular support from people who experienced that kind of life. And even among those who thought it was just wrong.

Did you feel any emotional connection to their work to organize farm workers?

Yes, of course, I felt a very strong emotional connection to that organizing. I felt they were doing a good job. They were right.

How would your family's life have been different had there been a Cesar Chavez and the UFW when you were a kid?

I don't know. My father was a person that — I don't know if he cared if we were educated. My mother, on the other hand, had strong feelings about education. She was illiterate and she didn't know how to guide us in that direction, so we went to school no matter what — when we could.

After my father died in 1941 in Sacramento, we stopped moving, settling there. After that, we worked only in the summer and started the next school year on time for the first time. My younger sisters and I had a lot of catching up to do because we missed so much school by working.

I think that if my father had been the kind of person who thought we needed an education we could have done well in school. We were not dumb; we could learn things. My younger sisters all graduated from high school. For field workers, graduating from high school was an accomplishment. In my age group you very seldom saw Mexicans graduation from high school.

For example, in my high school graduating class of 1948 there were 300 students and there were only 5 Mexican boys. So maybe things would have been much different had someone organized farm workers back in the 1930s and '40s.

In the 1970's, Chavez and the union became identified with a younger generation of Mexican Americans who started calling themselves Chicanos. Did any of that resonate with you?

I think that happened because they saw what the older generation, their parents or grandparents, went through. I think they thought, "Why, my parents went through this. There has to be a change!"

Do you think the youngest generation, your grandchildren for example, have any appreciation for what Cesar Chavez tried to do?

I don't think the grandkids are too much aware of what Cesar Chavez was doing. It would be up to my children, you and your brothers, to tell their kids about Cesar Chavez.

I don't think most of the offspring of the generation that lived that life — I think they knew about that plight, they knew what was happening, but they didn't take any interest, because we made efforts to avoid having our children live that life. I think most parents didn't tell them unless they were asked. Or it was presented in school as part of history or social studies.

Any final thoughts or feelings I haven't asked you about?

I want to add that after reading this some people may say: The parents, my parents, should have been more attentive to the kids to get ahead. I try to tell people who ask about it: Don't put that kind of blame on them. You have to put things into historical and social context.

We, my brothers and sisters and I, were never taken to an orphanage, or foster home and left there. My parents, and so many other migrant families, stuck it out and kept the family unit together. Now that I'm older I can see that that was the only way they could survive those kinds of living conditions.

It was survival, plain-ass survival, they taught their kids how to survive and they did a damn good job. My siblings and I did not become drug addicts, alcoholics, people who cheat and steal, those kinds of things that some poor people often fall victim to. My mother and father put us on straight and narrow and we stayed that way.

And besides, I'm 81 years old and I'm still in fairly good physical shape. Maybe all that hard work did some good after all.

Thanks, Pop.

You're welcome, Mijo.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, NPR Producer Felix Contreras has been curating a short series featuring Latino themes. Contreras is also the co-host of NPR's new program, Alt.Latino. More from the mini series: Photographing Rock En Espanol and The Best Unknown Music Photographer.

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