Chapter 7: La Lucha: The Beginnings of the Struggle, 1920-1930s
1. What were the Imperial Valley Strikes?
The Mexicano communities in the Imperial Valley have been historically linked to San Diego's Chicano communities through immigration and economic development. The children of many immigrant farm workers from the Valley aspired to go to San Diego to get a college education and obtain better jobs. Simultaneously hard working, tenacious, and socially consciousness of the Mexicanos from "El Valle" became an important stimulating force within the Chicano and Mexicano communities of San Diego during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
The first Chicano/Mexicano labor activism in the San Diego-Imperial Valley region stemmed from the grueling experience of the farm workers. As the Imperial Valley's agriculture expanded so too did the demand for workers. Initially, in the construction of the irrigation canals and the clearing of the land, a succession of groups were recruited:
- American Indians,
- Filipino, and
- Chinese laborers.
These groups formed the majority of farm workers in the valley until the 1920s when large industrial size farms began to dominate. There after Mexicano immigrants became the major labor force. In 1927, Paul Taylor, a noted economist visited the Imperial Valley and reported on the conditions. He found about 20,000 Mexican immigrants working in the fields and that about half of them had been born in the United States. Working 9 to 10 hours a day in the spring and fall, and suffering in temperatures over 110 degrees in the summer, the seasonal workers suffered from low wages and an abusive system of labor contractors.
In April 1928 the Mexicano workers formed a union to try to challenge the wage abuses they had been experiences. As was to be the case in hundreds of other Chicano unions, the original organizational efforts to unionize came from a "mutualista," a mutual aid society, the Sociedad de Benito Juarez led by Felemon B. Gonzales. The new union was called "The Imperial Valley Workers Union."
In May 1928 the union sent out letters to all the growers respectfully asking for 15 cents a crate for picking cantaloupes or 75 cents an hour for the labor. They also requested an improvement in working conditions:
- ice for drinking water,
- picking sacks,
- lumber to build out-houses and
- legal compensation to injured workers.
Within a few days the sheriff arrested 36 workers for refusing to leave the fields where they refused to work unless their demands were met. The arrests provoked community meetings in the Mexican colonias. In one instance, Sheriff Gillette entered a pool hall where laborers were meeting to discuss the strike and Francisca Rodriguez, a farm worker, tried to force him to leave, aided by several others. They were promptly arrested. While most Mexicanos returned to work, at the old rate, the Anglo Americans began to fear a communist plot and rumors circulated about a possible Mexican uprising. The Sheriff then began making indiscriminate arrests of Mexicans on the streets and in pool halls and this led to criticism in the Mexican newspapers in Mexicali, an appeal to President Calles for intervention, the dispatch of a state official to investigate the situation, and ultimately to the farm workers getting most of their demands. More than sixty union activists were jailed for short periods of time and the union continued to survive for four more harvests.
In October of 1933 and June 1934 there were many strikes that resulted in violent reactions by the police and growers. More than once thousands of workers walked off their jobs only to be convinced to return by the Mexican consul. In 1934 the Cannery and Agricultural Workers International Union (CAWIU) called for a general strike of lettuce and vegetable workers and the authorities reacted by mass arrests and prohibitions against meetings. Scores of individual were arrested only on suspicion of supporting the strike. Isolated instances of violence and wholesale violations of civil liberties continued until the federal government sent a special conciliator to the Imperial Valley to try to mediate a peace. Ultimately the CAWIU lost the battle, overwhelmed by the combined alliance of growers, Mexican and state governments. The Mexicano agricultural workers of the Imperial Valley would have to wait more than 30 years for another unionization effort, one led by Cesar Chavez, himself a farm worker.