The Strikers of Coachella: Read the Intro

The following is an excerpt of The Strikers of Coachella: A Rank-and-File History of the UFW Movement by Christian O. Paiz, available wherever books are sold.

In a Small Place

In the summer of 1969, the United Farm Workers (UFW) newspaper, El Malcriado, published an eight-photo spread titled “The Strikers of Coachella”: two of Mexican women, two of Filipino men, and four of other farmworkers and children. Some captured earnest moments, like a young mother gazing blankly out of a car window while her bothered toddler looked at the camera, rubbing his eye. Another framed a sitting man with elbows on knees and clasped hands, leaning forward expectantly, listening to a speech amidst others. A third angled upwards to a striker with microphone in hand and eyes near closed, exhorting an out-of-view audience. The photos also showed laughing, smiling faces—of older men and women, of children, in light-hearted and quotidian moments, comforting even, without the attrition inherent to most rebellious acts, like joining a farmworker strike.

The photos appeared at the end of the UFW’s 1969 Grape Strike in the Coachella Valley, a small desert near California’s U.S.–Mexico border. There, Filipino and Mexican farmworkers harvested the country’s earliest table grapes and, there, the UFW sought an early victory to press the larger San Joaquin Valley grape ranchers into signing contracts. By then, the UFW counted four years since its 1965 Delano Grape Strike, when Filipino and Mexican grape workers, demanding higher wages and a union contract, led one of the largest interracial farmworker strikes in California’s history. For Delano strikers, the next four years brought social ruptures, interracial solidarities, leadership opportunities, and unexpected, often far-removed allies. To overcome their strike’s limited visibility in rural California, the UFW deployed creative tactics, like a Pilgrimage to Sacramento in 1966 and a twenty-five day fast by the UFW leader, Cesar Chavez, in 1968. As it gained national prominence, the UFW extended its Delano Grape Strike to the Coachella Valley in 1968–69, and mounted an extraordinarily successful National Consumer Grape Boycott, which pressured California’s table grape ranchers into UFW contracts in 1970. In these efforts, El Malcriado served as a cultural–political bridge connecting white, middle-class consumer allies to the UFW and its membership. To these readers, the newspaper offered the 1969 photospread as a testament of their shared fight for farmworker justice, inviting them to gaze solemnly, almost reverently, at their comrade-in-arms: “The Strikers of Coachella.”

El Malcriado, July 1, 1969, 8. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

And yet, the newspaper provided no captions; it gave no names, quotes, or backgrounds—nothing on what people saw, what they said, much less on what they hoped for, yearned for. The textual austerity is especially surprising given the photospread’s visual splendor, its diversity of photographed figures, its community of feelings and stories. Arguably, the austerity reduces the grape strikers to silhouettes and story placeholders, to a homogeneous Other that serves as the readers’ empty canvas, readers who could then project any fantasy and desire, any version of their wishful thinking, including the notion that they knew and understood the Coachella Valley grape strikers of 1969.

Many years have since passed, but the wishful thinking remains. Schools and streets are named after UFW leaders, while classrooms, museums, and public agencies routinely cover it. In this spirit, the Postal Service unveiled a commemorative stamp of a key UFW leader, Cesar Chavez, in 2002, while the National Park Service named the UFW headquarters a national monument in 2012. Some have adopted the UFW’s tenacious optimism and slogans as part of their political lexicon, such as si se puede, boycott grapes and huelga! In 2008, presidential candidate Barrack Obama used si se puede’s translationYes We Can—to encapsulate his unprecedented, and successful, campaign. In the last fifteen years, the UFW movement has also been the subject of at least ten books, a motion picture, and two documentaries. The tally grows further when we include the titles before 2005. Collectively, these accounts cover many aspects of the UFW, including its broad and interracial leadership, its deep roots in transnational labor history, its eclectic, almost festive tactics, its visionary politics, and its self-inflicted wounds. And yet, like El Malcriado, the collective portrait has presented UFW farmworkers in their very absence—as background to leaders, or as vague figures of political virtue, or as mute witnesses to the actions and voices of others, especially white liberals. Few have eschewed this absent frame.

History often sits among forgotten peoples.

This book is an attempt to return to the UFW’s rank-and-file members. It traces their intersecting lives in the Coachella Valley and their aspirations, politics, and actions in and out of the UFW movement. It draws inspiration from historians of forgotten peoples—those everyday women, men, and children, students, teachers, and workers, from rural towns and impossibly large cities, who joined in the anonymous, but no less daunting or significant effort, to build life-affirming worlds. Like these historians, I ask modest questions. Who, for instance, joined and sustained the UFW movement in the Coachella Valley? What lives had they lived, and how did their past shape their relationship to the union? What did farmworkers want and what costs were they willing to bear? Who did they meet; what ideas and politics did they gain; how did they transform their work, communities, and families, and, in the process, themselves? In turn, who did not join the UFW, and why? How did farmworkers relate to social, cultural, and political differences, whether pro- or anti-UFW? How did they respond to UFW demands or understand its decline? Finally, what remains of their efforts? I ask: Who were these people? What did they see and hear, desire and experience? How did they move the world and how did the world move them?

Of El Malcriado’s photographed Coachella Valley strikers, these questions have been largely impossible for me to answer. But of the multiple communities who led, sustained, and defined the Coachella Valley’s UFW movement from the 1960s to the 1980s, much can be said, as I discuss in the next two sections. For now, I want to briefly state the book’s assumptions. It assumes all people are poets, philosophers, and visionaries; that they calculate the possible against the real and see glimpses beyond the marginality shaping much of their lives; that social, political, cultural, and personal differences always exist, even amidst talk of unity and shared histories; that joy, frustration, and uncertainty lace all social and personal efforts that promise, empower, challenge, and disappoint; that nothing is permanent, neither structures nor movements; and that nothing is ever in vain, even if shadowed by failures. At its most ambitious, The Strikers of Coachella aims to move in rhythm with farmworkers’ steps and gazes—to consider the weight of life lived in shaping choices, or the felt precariousness in the gamble that is to strike while poor and non-white, or the palpable quality of holding aspirations for changes that feel always impossible and yet, occasionally, possibly real. The Strikers of Coachella narrates a history of the UFW movement that transcends its leaders and shows how everyday people were of utmost historical significance: they initiated and propelled forward movements, and they helped determine our present fortunes. History often sits among forgotten peoples.

Christian O. Paiz is assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley.