Most of my Libby co-workers were migrants, mostly Hispanics from Mexico or Texas. It was obvious they got the crappiest jobs, especially those who picked tomatoes in the fields. Their days were as long as mine, and much harder. Young people were in the fields working, and their housing conditions were often deplorable. I met many migrant workers who worked in the cannery, and was curious to hear about their lives. A few were college students, travelling the country during the summer with their families.
Once the tomato “pack season” was over, most of the migrant workers were off to Michigan to pick cherries, or somewhere else. I knew that in September I would be heading back to college. The experience did make me very frugal, especially when it came to money I spent on college. I never cut a class, because I knew how many hours I worked in that factory to pay for every class.
During my high school days, I first met Baldemar Velásquez, who attended Pandora-Gilboa High School in Putnam County. We weren’t friends, but he was a familiar face. He was born in Texas, but traveled the country with his family, working in the fields by the time he was four years old. Their family settled a few miles from where we lived. During my college years, he and his father created the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), seeking better conditions for farm workers.
Baldemar was scorned by most farmers and took a lot of abuse. Thanks to FLOC and other organizations, conditions have improved in many ways. The month I headed to college, Baldemar called a strike against 10 tomato growers in Northwest Ohio. He had some initial success, but opposition grew. Progress was very slow. He called for a boycott of Campbell Soup Company in 1978. It was a long struggle for FLOC, though the company finally agreed to a collective bargaining agreement in 1986. In 1989, Velásquez was named a MacArthur Fellow (the so-called “Genius Grant”).
When asked in a recent interview what inspired him to get involved in food and agriculture, Baldemar responded, “I was raised as a migrant farm worker living in squalid labor camps. I watched my family being cheated out of wages and suffer verbal abuses from field men, labor contractors, growers, and racist townspeople in the rural towns we worked in!” The struggle continues.