Alicia Uribe remembers the 16th of April like she remembers her feet or the fingers on her hands. The day is built into her body now. It has been ever since it first happened. She and a hundred others started the 16th lined along the hot dirt shoulder in front of the Mel-Pak vineyards. The road behind them slid six greasy miles east to Coachella and Indio. Alicia cocked her union flag over her arm and let it slop sideways like wash on the line. The 90 degrees around her kept lifting off the valley floor in thin slabs. Each way Alicia looked, the world had a warp to it and a shimmer, like the air was dribbling sweat.
The 16th didn’t feel all that different from any other spring day in the Coachella Valley. At ten, the heat pushes past a hundred and the asphalt on the far side of noon bubbles like cornmeal mush. Three o’clock cooks spit before it has a chance to touch ground. Without deep wells and old age, the Coachella Valley would be one long griddle of sand, anchored with greasewood and horned toads. As it is, 40,000 people live along its bottom and rising sides. The old ones built Palm Springs to comfort their rich arthritis; the young ones dug enough deep wells to cover patches from the San Jacinto Mountains to the Salton Sea with grapes, date palms, grapefruit, melons and sweet corn. If it were a year like any other, Alicia Uribe and her hundred friends would’ve been up to their shoulders in Thompson Seedless. But 1973 hit the east end of Riverside County like a bizarre snowstorm. The trouble and the crops came in together. A lot of folks guessed the trouble was coming, but no one knew it would show up quite the way it did. From the 16th on, the Coachella harvest was as plain as the nose on Alicia Uribe’s face.
She remembers a red pickup truck and a white sedan spitting rooster tails behind their tires. The two shapes bounced along the ranch road, through the fields, and towards their line.
“Los Teamsters,” the woman next to her said.
As the word jumped from ear to ear, the pickets began shouting and waving their red and black flags. The truck pulled even with Alicia and a fat man in the passenger seat jerked a .38 out of his pants. He let the sand billow over the tailgate and used his mouth to shout back.
“Eat shit,” the fat man rumbled.
The white sedan slumping along in the fat man’s tracks was quiet. Its upholstery was covered with four men in clean shirts. Making a sudden skip on the loose dirt, the car swerved right and one of the shirts in the back window leaned out and laid a pair of brass knuckles along the side of Alicia Uribe’s head. Ever since, her face has had a little dent to it. The blow fractured Alicia’s cheek, broke her nose and dug a scratch across her right eyeball. The white sedan turned left and disappeared towards Palm Springs.
Lying there in hot sand mixed with her splatter of 19-year-old blood, Alicia Uribe became the first casualty in a war that’s bubbled out of every tin-roofed shed within 40 miles of downtown Indio. The fight is all about grapes and the people who pick them. It has three parties and two sides. On the one hand is Alicia Uribe’s 60,000-member United Farmworkers Union, AFL-CIO. Their three-year contract with the desert grape industry expired April 15th. On the other, the 27 growers who own the Valley’s 7,100 acres of table grapes sit with the 2,000,000-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America. The Teamsters own the red pickup, the white sedan, the brass knuckles and a fresh set of contracts which give them claim to represent the Valley’s 3,500 vineyard workers. The International Brotherhood and the growers have signed each other up and the UFW is striking them both. It’s no small fight. Before the summer’s over, it could grind its way across America’s produce counters and perhaps even reach the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
* * *
None of this would be happening if it weren’t for the United Farmworkers. Ten years ago, they were a truckstop joke up and down Highway 99; now they’re all nationally known. There were lots of reasons for the union’s rise, but the biggest was the pure and simple need for it. Since the Okies left to fight World War II, farm labor had belonged to a lot of Mexicans and a few Filipinos and Arabs. Telling one from the other was hard if you just looked at check stubs. The Southwest had a white man’s wage, a Mexican wage, and a lot of distance in between. Most Americans paid little attention, holding comfort in the knowledge that Mexicans didn’t need much money seeing as how the price of beans was so cheap. White folks commonly understood dollars were a fortune in Spanish and trusted the honky legend that was sure all the wetbacks took their earnings south and bought steel mills on the outskirts of Tijuana.
As a result, the nation’s 3,000,000 agricultural laborers worked an average of 119 days a year with an annual wage of $1,389. One out of every three farmworker houses had no toilet, one out of every four no running water. The average worker lived to be 49 years old and a thousand a year died from pesticide poisoning in the fields. If there was anything the people with those lives needed, it was a union.
And they knew it. Since the Spanish missions, California’s produce has been worked by people who followed their dreams across a border and figured they deserved a whole lot better than they ended up getting. In 1884, Chinese hop pickers waged the first strike in Kern County. They asked for $1.50 a day and ended up with an ass-whipping and a broken union. After that it was more of the same. Growers are very powerful people with big bags of money, and a command of both the language and the local police. At the same time, the world is full of people who are hungry, poor and desperate enough to chase their dreams to California. Together, the two make a magic combination all the way to the grower’s bank. Once you’ve paid your last peso to get there, California’s a hard place to get back from and an easy place to starve. Over the years, the bosses have made a practice of hiring a new dream if yours gets slow or uppity. The technique’s been enough to make a lot of folks swallow their bitch and tote that sack. The man who signs the paycheck is called “yassuh, boss” and thanked for the opportunity to sweat in his fields.