Title: ROAD TO DELANO
Author: John DeSimone
Pub. Date: March 10, 2020
Publisher: Rare Bird Books
Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
Jack Duncan is a high school senior whose dream is to play baseball in college and beyond―as far away from Delano as possible. He longs to escape the political turmoil surrounding the labor struggles of the striking fieldworkers that infests his small ag town. Ever since his father, a grape grower, died under suspicious circumstances ten years earlier, he’s had to be the sole emotional support of his mother, who has kept secrets from him about his father’s involvement in the ongoing labor strife.
With their property on the verge of a tax sale, Jack drives an old combine into town to sell it so he and his mother don’t become homeless. On the road, an old friend of his father’s shows up and hands him the police report indicating Jack’s father was murdered. Jack is compelled to dig deep to discover the entire truth, which throws him into the heart of the corruption endemic in the Central Valley. Everything he has dreamed of is at stake if he can’t control his impulse for revenge.
While Jack’s girlfriend, the intelligent and articulate Ella, warns him not to so anything to jeopardize their plans of moving to L.A., after graduation, Jack turns to his best friend, Adrian, a star player on the team, to help to save his mother’s land. When Jack’s efforts to rescue a stolen piece of farm equipment leaves Adrian―the son of a boycotting fieldworker who works closely with Cesar Chavez―in a catastrophic situation, Jack must bail his friend out of his dilemma before it ruins his future prospects. Jack uses his wits, his acumen at card playing, and his boldness to raise the money to spring his friend, who has been transformed by his jail experience.
The Road to Delano is the path Jack, Ella, and Adrian must take to find their strength, their duty, their destiny.
BOOK EXCERPT :
My historical novel set in Delano during the grape strike led by Cesar Chavez is about personal heroism over political convenience, moral choices that run against the grain of community standards, and unique opportunities the characters encounter to forge their own path in the midst of politically tumultuous times.
What led up to the Road to Delano
Cesar Chavez was hardly the first to dream of creating a labor union to improve the lives of impoverished migrant farmworkers. He knew the history of the unionizing efforts in California agriculture was dismal. It couldn’t be done if he judged the possibilities by the past alone. Many had tried, and every one of them had failed to change the system of abusive farm labor practices. The growers had proven they had the power to rise up and crush nascent reform movements. The law of the land was against him. So when Cesar quit the Community Service Organization (CSO) in 1962 to begin organizing a farmworkers union, he traveled a well-beaten path. The Central Valley had witnessed a long line of organizers seeking to change the economic relationship between labor and growers with little to show for their efforts. A cycle of misery and revolt had occurred in the Central Valley, the heartland of our nations’ industrial agribusiness, for nearly a hundred years.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the lords of the Central Pacific Railroad, who built the western half of the transcontinental railway, were giddy at the possibilities for the flat and fertile land. The Valley lays pinched between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coastal Ranges to the west and runs nearly the entire spine of the sunshine state. As the largest section of Class 1 soil in the world, with abundant water from ice melt, and more than 300 days of sunshine a year, it could become a farmers’ paradise. It only needed men to work the land. Up and down the Eastern seaboard the railroad promoted that cheap virgin farmland was for anyone with the skill and fortitude to tame it.
Farmers came, they plowed, and they planted.
Unlike Midwestern and Eastern farmers, they didn’t work small tracts. Instead, they laid out whole sections, using every mechanized advantage for the greatest efficiency. Come harvest time, they needed hordes of stoop labor to reap the bounty of their efforts. First, the growers recruited the Chinese workers who had built the great railroad to work the fields. Reactionary Californians who feared the Chinese would settle down and become landowners passed anti-Chinese laws that ostracized them from the community. So they left the fields. The Japanese, the Okies, and the Filipinos followed in waves. Mexican migrant field-workers, both legal and illegal, were long a part of the mix of nationalities engaged in labor on the industrialized farms.
Growers and industrialists wanted no limit on immigrant labor to keep wages down and to keep the workforce available for its vast needs for stoop labor. Growers provided temporary labor camps to house migrants. Growers didn’t want the workforce to settle down, to become comfortable, and to assimilate into the community. After the harvest, they forced them to move on. This created a migrants’ circuit stretching from Imperial County hard by the Mexican border to the citrus and nut orchards of the Sacramento Valley in the far north of the state. With a surplus of bodies constantly on the move, wages were kept low and working conditions intolerable. This created a malleable and subservient labor pool to operate the great agricultural machine.
Discontent rose steadily during the 1920s and 30s, with workers flocking to picket lines in a determined effort to extract better wages and working conditions from tightfisted growers. Communist organizers infiltrated many of the groups. Communists and progressives had the language and organizing skills of revolution, so they led the way. But the workers never embraced their ideology of class warfare and collective land ownership. They just wanted better living conditions and better wages. Some had once been landowners but had been chased off their land by drought and debt. No one wanted to give up their rights to own property, but neither did they see themselves as slaves to the land. Many of the Japanese workers brought over to replace the Chinese had their minds set on saving to buy their way out of stoop labor. Some of them, before the Second World War, became prominent landowners.
The American worker, no matter how poor, no matter how deeply disenfranchised, no matter how wretchedly they were treated, had no wish to forgo their ambitions of becoming respectable citizens. Even as part of a group, they were individuals. The myth of the rugged individual who claws their way up to achieve the American Dream through hard work and grit had sifted down to the lowest of low. This dream, though only a low-simmering aspiration, traveled with them as they stooped among the cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and grapes. A better life had simple ingredients: a house, a car that wouldn’t break down on the way to work, a healthy life for their children, nutritious food, and schools that didn’t discriminate. Then if the winds of good fortune blew their way, maybe they would even enter the ranks of the owners. If it wasn’t plausible for the many, it was possible for some lucky few. It was after all American soil they cultivated.
By the mid-1930s, successful strikes were on the verge of crippling many farm operations and strangling harvests. But before the growers caved into the workers’ demands, a new organization arose called the Associated Farmers, whose statement of purpose was almost solely focused on stopping all efforts at collective bargaining agreements. They allied themselves with law enforcement, who deputized local citizens, providing them with ax handles as tools of persuasion. They were to use them to force stubborn workers to defend themselves in a violent reaction. This physical confrontation was a battle fieldworkers couldn’t win. The wealthy growers in alliance with the armed state and aggressive vigilantes were efficient at putting down all dissension in the fields. It didn’t matter how peaceful a strike action began; it always ended with deputized citizens bearing cudgels and wreaking havoc. A melee always followed, a deliberate tactic in a strategy designed to discredit legitimate efforts to organize peacefully for a redress of issues. Growers had no intention of agreeing to any collective bargaining agreement, out of both principal and practice.
During the banner years of organizing efforts, 1933 to 1937, all the strikes were broken, leaders arrested, and known communist organizers were imprisoned. By the late ’30s, exhausted from fighting, workers lost their enthusiasm for organizing and unionizing efforts waned in the lead-up to the war.
Meanwhile, in the east, during 1933 and ’34, a debate raged in the U.S. Congress over Senator Wagner’s proposed bill to stop the labor conflicts sweeping the nation. After vigorous debate, his bill, The Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act, finally passed in 1935. The Wagner Act, a watershed moment for organized labor, codified the right of workers to join a union and affirmed that unions had the right to collective bargaining through secret ballots. It ended the most intractable struggle between industry and labor by granting unions standing to pursue collective bargaining. Except for farmworkers. The bill covered every category of worker, except it expressly excluded agricultural and domestic workers.
How much suffering, fighting, and poverty could have been alleviated in the lives of the lowest of the low wage earners if they had been granted the right to choose their affiliations. A moment of duplicity in leaders’ legislative duty to apply democratic principles equally and fairly; instead, they forced onto farm labor nationwide the culture of plantation racism current in Southern society, that not every worker needed to be or should be treated equally.
Duplicity runs deep under the well-phrased freedom-loving vocabulary of our civic discourse. Our nation’s history is full of talk of freedom and equality, but when the moment came to decide who should share in these new rights, the elites often engaged in a lurid game of keep-away played with the deepest ambitions of our nations most vulnerable.
Why were some workers granted a voice in their workplace, which since the law’s enactment had lifted millions into the middle class, while excluding the most vulnerable of workers?
Jesse F. Perea, Professor of Law at the University of Florida, concluded in his study, “The Echoes of Slavery,” that Senator Wagner agreed to exclude farmworkers in deference to the Southern Democrats. Southern Democrats, in turn, agreed to support New Deal legislation as long as nothing disrupted Jim Crow. The notion of southern landowners negotiating with black men, who had once been their property, over wages, and working conditions, was far too unpalatable for their gentility to stomach. The exclusion maintained the political structure of segregation for another generation to grapple with.
The law effectively disenfranchised farmworkers nationwide, just as American agriculture acquired all the techniques and technology of mass production. They received no access to workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, no health care benefits, or any form of relief, state or federal when their occupation impoverished them. They were forced into the lowest economic echelons of an increasingly prosperous nation. Those who cultivated the land and picked the food that Americans ate, migrated in hunger and destitution from one harvest to the next, a low-cost workforce to do the bidding of landowners. Farmworkers, by their legal designation, became a sub-class of the national workforce. Labor laws, forged by a history of conflict that created humane working conditions for millions, didn’t apply to them. They existed in a segregated limbo, on the fringes of the American promise. All of this was done to appease the segregationist sensibilities of a dying Southern plantation sensibility.
Unless they escaped into better jobs in different industries, there was little to dream about for these American workers.
Once America entered the war, efforts to organize for better wages were swallowed up in patriotism and pragmatism. Able-bodied men shipped off to war, leaving a shortage of farm labor. To meet the need for unlimited low-cost labor for growers, the federal government authorized the bracero program in cooperation with the Mexican government.
The importation to California fields of landless Campesinos recruited by the Mexican government met the growers’ need for a flexible, low cost, and manageable labor force. The vigilante strong-arm tactics of the Associated Farmers became obsolete.
A government bureaucracy developed to house, feed, pay, and control the braceros, and these farm labor administrators would brook no dissent. When a bracero misbehaved or complained about his job, he was packed on a bus and returned to Mexico. There was no negotiation of wages, for they were fixed by contract with the Mexican government. Braceros lived in shabby labor camps with a company store. Costs for housing, food, and incidentals charged to the store were deducted from their pay. Despite their meager earnings, it was more than the nothing they would earn if they returned to their impoverished villages south of the border. So they were quiet, dutiful, and hardworking, a lumpen workforce that fed the giant agricultural machine needed to feed a hungry nation.
After the war ended, California growers lobbied the Truman administration to continue the bracero program indefinitely. Truman signed Public Law 78, extending the program with the condition that citizens were granted priority in hiring. If jobs went unfilled, then braceros could be hired, a fair law the growers had no intention of keeping.
The largest of the bracero camps stood in Oxnard, California. The Buena Vista camp housed 5,000 men in a warren of shacks, flimsy dorms, kitchens, and eating halls bordering the American sugar Beet Factory, to whom they were indentured. It housed an exploitable workforce that harvested beets along the foggy coastal land of the Oxnard plains that fed the sugar beet factory that produced the white sugar used to sweeten our food. By four a.m., braceros loaded into buses and trucks and dispatched to the local fields for the backbreaking work of cultivating and cutting sugar beets. When the locals showed up at the Farm Employment offices seeking employment, the jobs had been filled. They were powerless to do anything to regain their stolen jobs, so they lived on the margins of a prosperous city, surviving on the scraps of work they could find while biding their anger.
Cesar Chavez in Oxnard
Into this cauldron of discontent, Cesar Chavez drove his beat-up station wagon on a hot August day in 1958. He had a one-year contract to organize the farmworkers in Oxnard for the CSO. Chavez had organized in communities up and down the San Joaquin Valley for the past five years. He was seasoned in holding house meetings, handling disputes, and solving problems. The CSO focused on voter registration, holding citizenship and language classes, resolving pressing community issues, and helping with health care and education. They were not a labor group. Cesar hadn’t come to town to help the unemployed. That aside, his heart was always with the downtrodden. The year in Oxnard opened Chavez’s eyes to what could be accomplished for a group he’d spent nearly his whole life around.
Cesar had a diminutive bearing—short, lean, and soft-spoken. At first meeting him, one could easily misjudge his grit, his tenacious spirit, and few in those early days understood the full measure of his fire. There was the anger of deprivation in that blue flame, but not the pure anger of youth. Time and knowledge had smoothed out his thinking. His motivation now existed in an alchemy of understanding that human dignity was a fragile state of mind tied mysteriously to economic freedom. A man could be free to go about his way, move where he will, and that was one freedom. But a man also needed a say in what he was paid, and how he was treated on the job. If he didn’t have a voice, he was no better than a slave, a modern indentured servant, perpetually in debt to the master.
Then there was this idea of the American Dream that sifted about in the air, the notion that a man could rise above his circumstances through the application of hard work because of access to opportunities. If that dream existed, it appeared to him parceled out directly along the fault lines of race. There was nothing haphazard about it. Some got the full benefit of the equality promised to them all; others with brown skin or Filipino names were subservient to the equality of others.
Life had taught him this truth. Since his father lost his Arizona ranch to the dual devils of the Depression, drought, and debt, he had stooped beside his parents in whatever field they could find to work. He hoed, cut, cultivated, weeded, trimmed, picked, shoveled, and hauled under the California sun, spring, summer, and fall, and in the winter rains he lived in the shacks that were so cold it went through everything he owned down to his marrow. That’s when the pain of his real poverty sunk in, when there was no remedy for the cold, the hunger in his belly, and the ramshackle surroundings he now called home. Something must warm a man beside the heat of a woman’s body. It wasn’t dignified to live in such want. That he knew.
He had reason to be angry, but he bided his time. He also had this secret, this wish, this crazy idea that foamed up inside him from time to time, that one day he would do something about the ache of wet and cold to the bone. Why shouldn’t he be treated like a man and not a farm implement? Those in charge received the full benefit of the truth that all men are created equal. Was that just a mythical notion like the gold of Ophir that existed somewhere, but no one could point to the exact location on a map. A true mystery. If you could only find that place, one would be prosperous and happy.
Or was that notion the anchor bolt of the American Dream?
Add to his thinking a deep sense of moral imperatives inculcated since his childhood days by his Roman Catholic mother and father. His clear understanding of right and wrong began with the way people treated each other. He observed firsthand his parents treating the lowest with dignity and respect. His mother played a crucial role in shaping Cesar’s world. Her dichos, or moral sayings based on Catholic wisdom and tradition, influenced him profoundly.
He had dropped out of school after eighth grade because he didn’t want to see her labor so hard in the fields. So he didn’t begin seriously reading until introduced to important books by Father Donald McDonnell in the early ’50s. Father McDonnell introduced him to Gandhi and Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, an encyclical on capital and labor. After reading the encyclical, he now had a framework for understanding the role of employer and employee from a Judeo-Christian perspective. He came to believe that class warfare was unnecessary and unchristian. The Christian view was to have harmonious relationships between the classes. It was apparent classes existed, and he had no problem identifying with the laboring class. But he rejected the socialists’ idea of state ownership of land. He learned from Pope Leo that it was a deep impulse in man to want to better himself, and that made wages, especially when they were at their lowest, the most sacred. And that if a man aspired to buy land through diligent work and careful saving, then the land became his wages. So landowners were entitled to their wages too, and labor was due respect and just treatment.
To the communists, the inequality between labor and grower meant a class struggle through collective bargaining that would ultimately reshape the economic and political order. To Cesar, the battle was for respect as a human being in the workplace. That respect had tangible manifestations. Labor had rights that were as sacred as growers’ property rights. Mutual respect meant a fair wage, humane working conditions, and the right of workers to speak as one voice.
He had read all this and considered it. Yet he didn’t have a full vision of how to bring human respect and wage justice to the people he served—until the year he arrived in Oxnard.
Cesar had a practical mind. He believed in patience. To begin, he wanted them to take tiny steps forward. He had to have an issue that would engage the people, raise their blood to just below a boil, so they would be willing to work to see change through. People wanted to be led, but they didn’t want to be tricked. They had to have a good reason to put forth the energy, and they needed hope their efforts would result in a positive improvement in their lives. He had no illusions that something great would happen. But he had committed to the work, to see what could be done. So he organized his house meetings and used his unusual gift. One that proved remarkably useful to him in those days—his ability to hear peoples’ needs. In planning his meetings, he thought the hot issue to begin organizing around would be the railroad crossing. He thought the mothers and fathers would be outraged about the lack of lights and whistles. The farmworkers’ kids had to cross the busy Southern Pacific tracks to walk to school, and he remembered that several of his classmates had been killed by trains.
The people surprised him. In house meeting after house meeting, men raised their angry voices about their stolen jobs. The growers were playing a shell game, pulling a fraud, saying there were no jobs for them when they could see the braceros in the fields, working away. Those jobs were stolen by the braceros because they were paid below the going rate. The beet farmers preferred cheap labor unless someone stood up to them. Cesar surveyed their eyes. These men had the beaten-down look of those with an expiring hope.
Finally, one night, after listening to them complain about no work, he stood and confronted them. If you want jobs, he said, you will have to fight for them.
Yes, they nodded their heads. They spoke cautiously in murmurs.
Who will go with me tomorrow morning to the Employment Office to demand jobs?
No one raised their hands. They had anger, even a flickering rage, but he could see plainly they were not yet organized. They did not yet understand how to take action for change. That would come in time. They possessed the seed of dissatisfaction; their situation reeked of injustice, and given time, they would learn to speak up.
Over the next year, beginning with one farmworker, he marched nearly every day into the backroom of the State Employment Office where the Farm Labor Office was located to register for work. Eventually hundreds of the unemployed followed his leadership. They were organized for change. And after one year the local farmworkers began to find work here and there, but were rapidly fired under trumped-up excuses—they didn’t work fast enough, didn’t know how to cut or cultivate, couldn’t drive a tractor, excuse after excuse. Growers grasped after their prerogatives with greedy malice, and would not let go.
Finally, because of his organizing efforts, the state of California officials overseeing the braceros was fired for taking bribes from growers. The officials running the Farm Office for the state were fired for breaking employment laws.
By the end of his year, the locals were finding plenty of work. It had been a hard slog, tedious, aggravating, nerve-wracking, frustrating, but Cesar had persevered. He had organized for change. If he could do this, there were so many possibilities.
Shortly before he left Oxnard, he stood on the edge of a beet field in the chilly morning; the ocean dampness lay in a thin mist over the fields as he watched the rounded backs of laborers inch their way along the rows of plants, chopping at the moist earth. Pope Leo’s words might have made that moment a personal epiphany, that “their scantiness be accounted sacred.” The less they earned, the more sacred their wages. These men contorting their bodies until the pain drove down, a nail through the flesh, were happy to work. When they rose from the fields, tired and aching, they were satisfied as men. They could feed their families. If his job ever was to organize for better wages and working conditions, he could do it. He could form a union. He could do it right here, right now.
But he wasn’t ready, so he bided his time.
These lonely men breaking their backs to make sugar were the only workers in America denied their right to vote if they wanted to speak as one to the growers. It would be a fight, a battle, a war. But he could do it. Those men out there were living proof.
He also knew that once he left this city, what he had accomplished would dissolve into nothing. The sense of injustice sifted into every fiber of his being.
Soon he left Oxnard. His family piled into his station wagon and drove to L.A. to take up his position of Director for the CSO. He never forgot these men and their struggle. The thoughts of what he could do for farmworkers would never be far from him. His idea of a union that would fight for the dignity of a man’s wages continued to grow in his mind.
And while that idea germinated in Cesar’s mind until it became a driving ambition, there arose discontent in other quarters of the valley. Not all growers saw labor issues the same way. There were enlightened farmers sprinkled here and there. So in 1958, farther up the valley from Oxnard, around Delano, another event took place that shaped the history of the land. It happened to a grower. His name was Sugar Duncan.
The Road to Delano
His story begins in the 1930s when he first arrived in the Central Valley to farm the fertile valley land. He had little money and owned no land. But Sugar was a gambler, and it was the Depression, land was cheap, and opportunities were everywhere for someone who knew his way around.
So our story, The Road to Delano, opens with another young man with great ambitions who rides a Pullman from the east into this restless land of promise.
John DeSimone is a professional memoir ghostwriter, editor, and novelist. He began working as a freelance editor for A-1 Editorial where he performed developmental and copy editing for both novelists and non-fiction writers. He guided authors through the developmental process of refining their voice and subject matter for publication. During that time he edited over a hundred books, both fiction and nonfiction.
For seven years, he worked with Christian Manuscript Critique Service, where he worked with Christian writers in both a developmental and copy editing capacity. He shepherded many authors into publication through detailed analysis and editing of their manuscripts.
3 winners will receive a eBook of ROAD TO DELANO, International.
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