THE GARCIA FAMILY | Working for Justice
Don’t you feel there should be justice for us? Don’t you feel that we need to be treated like human beings? - Guadalupe Garcia to her son Robert
In 1970, Robert Garcia was a 27-year-old foreman, making good money. He had worked his way out of the fields and was driving a bus for a large vegetable grower. Then the UFW came to the Salinas Valley, the growers refused to negotiate, and thousands of workers walked out of the fields in protest.
Robert’s mother, Guadalupe, was one of the first to join the strike. Robert recalled:
She said, ‘Mijo, you should join us.’ And I was saying, ‘I don’t need to join anything.’ She said, ‘Don’t you feel there should be justice for us? Don’t you feel that we need to be treated like human beings?’ At that time, I was a foreman. I used to treat farmworkers like dirt, too. I think that the best organizers for some of us in those days were the people that worked for the company. Because there was no respect. They treated farmworkers like machines.
I had never heard about Cesar before. I wasn’t into all that stuff. I was a foreman for Mann Packing. And my mom and my dad decided to join the farmworkers union, and they wanted me to join the strike. I told my parents, ‘No, you guys do whatever you want to do, I’m going to stay, cause they are going to pay me good money. I’ll continue being a foreman. I don’t care about the strike or anything else. I’ll support you guys, don’t worry about the rent or food or anything, I’ll take care of you guys. You just follow whatever you want to do. That’s on you.'
So I was driving the bus, taking farmworkers who were breaking the strike. One day I saw my dad, picketing at Mann Packing. My dad was holding a picket sign. I saw a sheriff knock him down, take away his huelga flag. He just threw him down. I said, ‘You don’t have to do that. All he’s doing is holding a flag – and you attack him.’ I thought, there’s something wrong with this picture. I felt pretty bad; they didn’t need to treat farmworkers like that. They weren’t doing any harm to anybody. All they wanted was better wages, better treatment. So I decided to walk off the job. I told my crew, ‘Let’s go, let’s get out of here. I’m not going to take this.’
My mom was really the inspiration. She was really hard core. She had always been a farmworker, and she knew how they treated them, and I guess she saw something coming that would be better for them. Better pay. They had to go to the bathrooms anyplace, especially the women. The union talked about toilets, and a medical plan, and unemployment for farmworkers. ‘Justice for farmworkers,’ that’s what she said. I remember that. She said, ‘Justice for farmworkers. Finally, there’s someone that has enough courage to stand up and fight for us Mexican farmworkers.'
Everywhere there was a vigil, my mom was there. There was no place the Virgen de Guadalupe walked that she didn’t walk. That was her patron saint.
Robert talks about a raid where police did immigration checks.
Robert was learning to be an organizer.
The meetings were about organizing, becoming aware of what the growers were doing. Most of what I did was not interpret but more like encourage them. Because I’d been a foreman and I knew how we treated them, and I knew that there was something good about the union.
I had to go out into the fields and look for leadership. I had to go out into the fields and talk about Cesar Chavez, talk about the union. That’s when I learned that if I could give the men, and the women, a dream, that was just a dream. In reality, it was just a dream. And if I could do that, and make them want it, then I could be a good organizer. Cause the union only gave you promises: Medical, better wages, better treatment, work with dignity. And all you saw was just words, OK? And people joined the union. Maybe they were hungry from somebody to come and step up and say, ‘Here, you follow me, you know, this is all we can do.’
By 1975, Robert had been working fulltime for the union for several years. He worked long hours, travelled a lot, and sometimes went months without seeing his seven-year-old son, Robert Jr.
He was more his grandma’s son, wherever she went, he went. He liked the movement. He carried that, even when he was in high school. He was always talking about Cesar Chavez. He was very proud of his grandmother. Very proud how his grandmother was always there, how Cesar Chavez would come and eat at the house, and his grandmother would cook, make fresh tortillas.
From spending time with Chavez, Robert learned the importance of being humble.
I listened a lot to his conversations. I listened a lot when he met with farmworkers. I listened when he met with politicians. Most of my knowledge came from him. Most of the empathy came from him. Most of the respect came from him. And most of the humbleness came from him. When you’re humble, people listen. That’s why we followed him, because he had that knowledge of humbling himself, where he was not the big leader, he was just a farmworker.
And from his mother, Robert learned simple wisdom. One of the complaints he heard most often from workers was “these guys are working too hard and making us look bad.”
My mom told me one time, she said, ‘Mijo, put your hand out like this.’ I put it out. She said, ‘Are your fingers all the same?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘You tell them that. That not everybody’s going to work at the same pace. There are some that are older, there are some that are younger, there are some that have more strength, there are some that are weaker. So if you don’t want them to work any harder, just let them go. You do the best that you can, and that’s it.’