So I was surprised by the farmworker presence at that first funeral march. Fewer than 200 people had shown up, but a good number of them were field workers. I ran into my old friend Roberto Fernandez (a pseudonymn): the man who taught me how to pack celery in the mid-seventies and who helped me make it on a piece-rate celery crew, where on good days we made over $15 an hour. Roberto came to California first as a bracero in the early 1960s and later as an illegal. We worked side by side for three years, and I have a lot of memories of Roberto, but my fondest is when we were on a picket line together, trying to prevent a helicopter from spraying a struck field. We were with a group of other strikers, half-jokingly using slings to throw rocks at the helicopter as it flew past. Suddenly, Roberto ran into the field, directly at the oncoming helicopter, a baseball-size rock twirling in the sling above his head, screaming a warrior's roar. The rest of us were astounded; God knows what the pilot thought as he yanked the helicopter straight up and away from the kamikaze attack.
Roberto, his 6-year-old daughter and I walked a short while on the march together, and when the other folks went into Asunción Church to pray, the three of us walked back into town. I had seen Roberto off and on since I left our celery crew after the 1979 strike, but we had avoided discussing farmworker politics. Roberto is a committed Chavista and always could be counted on to give the official U.F.W. line. He was currently working on one of the few union contracts in town--not with the U.F.W. but with a rival independent union, as the U.F.W. no longer has any celery workers under contract. I asked him what went wrong in the fields.
"The Republicans replaced the Democrats and ruined the law, and we no longer had any support in Sacramento."
"That's it? All the power we had, gone just because Deukmejian replaced Brown? '' "The people were too ignorant."
"What do you mean?"
"We got swamped by people coming from small ranchos in Mexico who didn't know anything about unions. When the companies were letting our contracts expire and bringing in the labor contractors, we would go out to the people in the fields and try to explain to them about the union. But they didn't get it. They just wanted to work."
"I don't believe that. We had people from ranchos in Mexico on our U.F.W. crews. They were strong unionists; unions are not such a hard thing to understand."
"Well, Frank, you aren't ever going to believe that the workers were at fault, but I was there and I talked to them, and you weren't."
I never could beat Roberto in an argument, and although I like to think I would have had a better chance in English, probably not. Two days later I drove to Delano with another old friend, Cruz Gomez. Cruz's father was a farmworker --a year-round employee on a good-size farm outside Santa Barbara. The family was relatively well off compared with the braceros and the other seasonals who worked on the ranch. Nevertheless, her father worked thirty-seven years without a paid vacation, his body slowly breaking down as he passed middle age. As we were driving, I asked Cruz about Chavez.
"For me, Chavez was it, that's all, just it. He was the main man. I remember when I met him. It was 1967 or '68, I was a college student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was divorced and had two small children, a kind of mother figure in the MEChA student organization. We went up to Delano as a group, and sat around and talked with him. It was very informal, but he was all there. He gave us his full attention."
When Cruz returned to U.C.S.B. she, as they say, had been organized. She soon switched majors from biology to sociology, where a few influential teachers taught her that it was her obligation to "give back to the community." In 1971 she found herself working in a local community organization. She has been doing the same kind of work ever since, moving to Watsonville in 1978, spending her days listening to the problems of migrant farmworkers.
Unlike so many others with similar backgrounds, Cruz had never gone to work in Delano or even spent much time working in a boycott organization. From her contact with farmworkers she was well aware that the U.F.W. had become pretty much a nonfactor in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, but she had no idea why. She asked me what had happened.