Jessie de la Cruz (née Lopez) grew up in a migrant farmer family that followed the seasonal crops of California. They would travel around in a truck and they slept outside. More often than not they were hungry, cold, had no money, and were totally reliant on whatever work was available.
Moving the Mountain describes the condition of many migrant farmers:
The average farmworker lived 49 years—compared to 70 years for the white majority in the United States. A migrant worker’s baby was twice as likely to die as babies of other people. Farmworkers were three times as likely as other people to get tuberculosis, three times as likely to get hurt on the job, and were the lowest-paid workers in the country.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which made “oppressive child labor” illegal specifically excluded children that worked in agriculture, to the detriment of the Mexican-American farming population. Migrant farmer children were not required to go to school nor were they protected under the law. But Jessie’s family made her attend school anyway, where she made a point to learn English even though her classmates ostracized her.
She married Arnold de la Cruz in 1938 and began her own family, continuing to follow the crops, and continuing the harsh environment as a migrant worker and a mother, which meant working in the fields and at home. Her husband began attending union meetings in the ’60s, but it wasn’t until César Chavez came to their house that de la Cruz began going to meetings herself. She joined the union in 1965 and became an organizer two years later. She was the first woman farmworker to organize for the UFW in the Fresno area. She organized house meetings, registered farmers for the union and for the vote.
One of her first successes was protesting against the short-handle hoe, which required workers to bend over at the waist for the entire day, causing bad backaches later in life. She also ran a union hiring hall, picketed, boycotted Safeway and the Border Patrol, continued to work in the fields, and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972.
De la Cruz’s efforts for labor, race, and gender rights addressed what it meant to be an American citizen but not be treated as one, to be a woman working next to men in the fields, and to be a mother, activist, and farmer. She once said, “I’d been trained as a child that the woman just walked behind the husband and kept quiet, no matter what the husband does. But in work I’ve been equal to men since i was a child, working alongside men, doing the same hard work and earning the same wages.”
Jessie de la Cruz continued to be an activist until her death in 1993. She served on the boards of California Rural Assistance and volunteered at health charities. She fought against Proposition 187, the California referendum that ended social services for illegal immigrants. It still passed, a reminder that the issues de la Cruz has fought for the past few decades (along with bilingual education and farming reform) are very much issues we still face today.
Fellow Fresno-native Gary Soto has written a highly-acclaimed biography of Jessie de la Cruz. But if you’d like to hear Jessie tell her story through her own words, you can find her in these books:
- Rocking the Boat: Union Women’s Voices, 1915-1975 by Brigid O’Farrell and Joyce L. Kornbluh
- Moving the Mountain: Women working for social change by Ellen Cantarow
- American Dreams Lost and Found by Studs Terkel
or in this short film on Youtube:
In December 1964, Arnoldo and I rode to the west side of Fresno to a hall called the Rainbow where a meeting was taking place. The meeting was led by a man named César Chavez. The purpose of the meeting was to organize farm labor workers with an association called the National Farm Workers Association. During one of the first meetings, César asked Arnoldo where I was and Arnoldo responded saying that I was in the kitchen. César said she belongs here she needs to know what will happen. I was now part of la causa a movement that would not only provide laborers better wages and better working conditions but also the respect which we deserved. I knew the farmworkers I met were scared and I was too. We all desperately needed to work but unless we did something to demand improved working conditions things simply would not change.
Note: This post was originally published on the Bitch blogs on November 30, 2009. De la Cruz’s story is still just as inspiring, so we’re re-posting it today for those who didn’t see it the first time around.