For many years, women had played supporting roles within movements for nonviolence. They cared for the children and supported their men as they worked on the front lines and garnered the headlines, making public waves. They photocopied and typed behind closed doors, allowing their contributions to remain hidden and, sometimes, allowing men to take credit for their work.
The farm worker movement is a notable exception to this paradigm.
The late activist Cesar Chavez recognized the power of women in action when a group of them set up a prayer service and vigil at a ranch a vigil that lasted two months. The workers had been sanctioned by a judge against picketing at a farm. The prayer service began with eight women at noon; it grew to 50 by nightfall.
Every day, the women maintained a nonviolent presence at the gates to the farm, singing spirituals, praying and signing authorization cards.
A strong contingent of women activists thrives at Ventura’s PictSweet mushroom farm. They play key roles in policy and decision-making. They are organized, and they are proud. And their stories shape the future of the movement as their co-workers and children see the essential importance of their input in a shared victory.
Within the first week of leaving her native town in Jalisco, Mexico in 1978, Lilia Orozco began her career at PictSweet. She sacrificed from the start, leaving her two children, ages 3 and 5, in the care of her mother while she joined her husband in Ventura.
The history behind her strength runs deep.
“In my town in Jalisco,” she said, ”the women wanted on president and the men wanted another. And the strength of the women won. We got our president elected.”
When she and her husband separated, her single motherhood dictated her involvement in the movement. Whereas other women might have taken a quieter role in the struggle, Lilia stood at the forefront. When her sons joined her in the United States in 1980, she started taking them to the picket lines.
“I made the struggle fit into my life,” she said. “You have to play so many roles mother, father, cook, doctor an dkeep up with their education, the housework, everything.”
For Lilia, there was no question as to whether motherhood or work was more important. They were, and are, equal in her eyes.
“We have to defend ourselves and our jobs,” she said. “If we give up, other scabs would have taken our jobs.”
As the sole provider for her children, Lilia realized that if they were to survive in the United States, she had to continue to fight.
When Lilia began working, the PictSweet farm was owned by West Foods. In 1981, just a few years after beginning her commitment to mushroom agriculture, the workers went on strike to renew their contract with West. The strike served to maintain a comprehensive benefits package that provided for the families’ medical needs.
Lilia tells a story of better times at PictSweet, when dental and vision insurance were part of the benefits package, and when the medical plan included $5 prescription costs.
For the past 23 years, Lilia has been working in the “bubble” department, cleaning the mushroom beds after they have been picked. It took her only two months on the job to find her place in the United Farm Workers union, and she has been a vocal supporter of labor representation ever since. This struggle helped her to find her voice and to stand up not only for her rights but also for the rights of others.
“When a woman is by herself,” she said, “everyone wants to take advantage of her. You have to stand up for yourself. If I know that I’m right, I have to fight back.” Her conclusion: No one can do it for you.
Lilia’s message to the union’s Farm Worker Committee “gets desperate” when she feels she has important information for them. Her sentiments are similar to those of a female Georgetown law student, who said, “Women want answers more quickly because we’re more often the victims, anda victims don’t want to wait for solutions.”
She capitalizes on the value of women in the movement by talking to everyone at the mushroom plant. “More people will talk to women than men,” she says. “And when the men at work are talking badly about women, I remind them that their wives and mothers are women. When they talk badly about the union, I press the issue and ask what they really mean…what is behind their fear.”
“At this time,” she said, “the struggle is more balanced. Women are playing more equal roles and are stronger, making more of a difference this time around.” She referred to the most recent struggle to gain a contract with PictSweet the movement was invigorated in 2000 with a massive boycott strategy.
Alicia Torres’ experience is similar to Lilia’s: She came here from Mexico to be with her husband, bringing one child with her and leaving three behind with her family in Michoacan. For the past 15 years, she has been the breadwinner in her family because a brain disease has left her husband incapacitated and unable to work.
In 1989, Alicia immigrated to the United States as a migrant worker, first picking strawberries and grapes in Lodi, then packing vegetables for Boscotich Farms. She lost her job there when she asked for some time off to raise her kids.
“I signed papers with the forewoman for an arrangement that she would hire me back during the onion season,” Alicia sighed. “She said she’d call me for a job.” As onion season began in 2000, Alicia watched as many other women were hired back. She eventually was told she would not get her job as a packer back. After this disappointing incident, she found work at PictSweet.
Alicia works in the brown mushrooms department, picking portabellas. Union organizing and contract efforts had begun by the time she arrived, and she decided to support the union because of her previous experience.
As the union representative for the brown mushroom department, she says she has no fear: “How can we improve our conditions if not together?” she said. “The Union gives women many opportunities to succeed. God made women strong. Even when we’re sick, we work and struggle. Women work through the hard times!”
She advises her daughters to be strong women as well, to “get a good education, to prepare themselves and stand up for themselves.”
She also stresses cooperation: “Women could not run this campaign alone,” she explained. “We give the men courage. We are decisive when they say ‘it will happen later,’ we say ‘it will happen now!”
The daughters of Jesus Torres, notable in the United Farm Workers campaign to win a contract with PictSweet, know the ropes of organizing already. Just 8 and 9 years old, they attend regular meetings with their father at the United Farm Workers office, often until late at night.
“We come here,” they said, “because we want to hear more about the union. We have marched in Sacramento and Los Angeles because we want a contract for the workers,” the girls exclaim. “…and when we miss school because of the struggle, we bring souvenirs to our teachers, like pins and buttons.”
These girls see for themselves how they want to contribute in society. Judit wants to be a teacher because “it’s fun telling kids how to learn.” At a young age, she is realizing that education also takes place outside the classroom.
Lourdes wants to be an artist: “I want to draw the sea, sun, grass, sky…people.”
The girls nod their heads enthusedly when asked if they’re proud of their dad.
“It helps him for us to be here,” they said with a giggle. “He has his family supporting him.”
Perhaps one day, the Torres girls will have children of their own supporting their place at the forefront of the struggle for workers’ rights.
*Leah C. Wells serves as the Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.