Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

I was called before the committee. I told them if they want to talk about un-American activities, I’m prepared to do so. Lynchin’, the poll tax. We just got it on. (Laughs) The damn thing was broadcast, and everybody in the city heard it. It was as big as the World Series. We had the National Negro Council down and local 600 of the UAW. We were the first group to go on the attack. The next stop was Chicago, where you guys kicked ’em in the ass a little bit more. They just went downhill from there. It was all over the front pages. They were sayin’ I was a surly witness. But that single incident endeared me to the hearts of black people. Fightin’ back, sayin’ what they wanted to say all their lives to a southern white.

I’m 60 now, and I’d like to produce a cadre of young people, black and white, who can carry on this work. It’s not guaranteed. It would be a big mistake for anyone to believe that the great American Dream is apple pie and a happy endin’. It ain’t necessarily so. The whole goddamn thing could go up in smoke. Reconstruction teaches you that, right? It’s a continuous struggle all the time. The minute you forget that, you wind up on your ass.

(He laughs softly, a sudden remembrance) Had I stayed in Catholic school,

I would probably have become an altar boy. I would like to have been one. St. Mary’s is a beautiful, old German church. It’s truly an architectural gem. I was 14 when I was last there. You come back as mayor for the 175th anniversary of the Sisters of the Holy Name. The altar’s much the same. The nuns prepared a chair for me on the altar, a big chair, like a throne. (Laughs) I’m sitting on it. That’s the highlight of my life as mayor. It impressed me more, thinking back to my childhood, than sittin’ down with Henry Ford or President Carter. (Laughs) My American Dream. (Laughs)

Jessie De La Cruz

A one-family dwelling in Fresno. A small, well-kept garden is out front. She has six grown children; the youngest is 21. She is active in National Land for People.

The American Dream for me is owning a piece of land. Something you can call home, where you can stay in one place all the time, raise a decent family, build a community. Where you have a job all the time, and nobody’s gonna fire you. My mother’s dream was having a house, but she got sick and died in 1930.

I musta been almost eight when I started following the crops. Every winter, up north. I was on the end of the row of prunes, taking care of my younger brother and sister. They would help me fill up the cans and put ’em in a box while the rest of the family was picking the whole row.

In labor camps the houses were just clapboard. There were just nails with two-by-fours around it. The houses had two little windows and a front door. One room, about 12 by 15, was a living room, dining room, everything. That was home to us.

Eight or nine of us. We had blankets that we rolled up during the day to give a little place to walk around doing the housework. There was only one bed, which was my grandmother’s. The rest of us slept on the floor. Before that we used to live in tents, patched tents. Before we had a tent, we used to live under a tree. That was very hard. This is one thing I hope nobody has to live through. During the winter the water was just seeping under the ground. Your clothes were never dry.

My husband was born in Mexico. He came with his parents when he was two and a half years old. He was irrigating when he was 12 years old, doing a man’s work. Twelve hours for $1.20. Ten cents an hour. I met him in 1933. Our first year we stayed in the labor camps.

We followed the crops till around 1966. We went up north around the Sacramento area to pick prunes. We had a big truck, and we were able to take our refrigerator, my washing machine, and beds and kitchen pots and pans and our clothing. It wasn’t a hardship any more. We wanted our children to pick in the shade, under a tree, instead of picking out in the vines, where it’s very hot. When I picked grapes, I could hardly stand it. I felt sorry for 12— , 13-year-old kids. My husband said: “Let’s go up north and pick prunes.”

We stopped migrating when Cesar Chavez formed a union. We became members, and I was the first woman organizer. I organized people everywhere I went. When my husband and I started working under a signed contract, there was no need to migrate after that.

We made plans of how we’d set up our own little school for preschool children and the older children could be taken into town to attend public school. I came up with the idea of having our own rest home for the elderly. The Chicano people who couldn’t work anymore and needed to be taken care of. A clinic was discussed, too.

A friend of ours said: “I’ll rent you six acres.” We started farming those six acres. We were out there from morning till late, on our hands and knees, planting tomatoes. There was the risk of a cold wave coming and killing our plants. So we had to use hot caps.

One day we had finished planting and said “Tomorrow we’ll put the hot caps on.” They’re cap-shaped papers, with wire. Around two or three o’clock I heard on the radio — I always carry a little portable — I heard the weather was gonna be 23 degrees. It was gonna kill our plants. I was scared. I ran back to the group and said: “Hey, it’s gonna freeze tonight; we’re gonna lose our plants.” Right away we started putting the hot caps on.

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.

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