Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

We put dirt around it to hold it down. We had them by the thousands. It was very windy and very cold. We started out there on our hands and knees. I was crying. It was beautiful. I’m not calling it beautiful, my crying. But to have little children five, six years old helping us, because they knew how important it was to save those plants. The wind was very strong; it was just ripping those paper caps off of our hands, and you could see them rolling. (Laughs) We ran out of caps. Okay, each of us got a hoe and started pulling dirt over our plants, very gently. We covered all of them. We came home; it was dark, cold, and wet.

The next morning we were all anxious to find out what had happened during the night. Oh, it was great to go out there and remove the dirt from those plants and watch ’em shoot straight up like anything. We saved every one of ’em. It took hard work to do it.

If it had been one of the big growers, what would have happened? The farmer would just go out there and look and see all the dead plants, and he’d say: “Oh, what the heck.” He’d go home and forget about everything. He would get on his pickup, push a button, lift up a telephone, and call the nursery: “Bring over this certain amount of thousands of plants and call the workers; okay, plant them over again.” That’s his way of farming.

We’re in very marginal land. We survive by hard work and sacrifices. We’re out of the Westland district, where the government supplies the water. There’s acres and acres of land that if you got out there you can see green from one end to the other, like a green ocean. No houses, nothing. Trees or just cotton and alfalfa. It’s land that is irrigated with tax-payers’ money.

These growers that have been using this water signed a contract that they would sell, within ten years, in small parcels. It’s not happening. If the law has been enforced, we would be out there right now.

It’s the very, very best land. I worked it there. You could grow anything: tomatoes, corn, cantaloupes, vegetables, bell peppers. But they just grow one or two crops, because they just don’t want to hire any people. They have big machines that do the picking. Instead of planting a few acres of one crop and a few acres of another, they just go to one crop. What they’re looking at, when they see the land and the water, all they can see is dollar signs. They don’t see human beings out there.

These farmers aren’t thinking about putting food on your table. They’re thinking how much money they’re gonna make per acre. They’re putting a lot of chemicals and pesticides into the soil in order to have a bigger yield of crop. They call it — what? — progress? With their progress, they’re gonna kill the whole planet. Even themselves. In the not too long.

They’re thinking: “Well, I’m alive. I’m gonna enjoy life. I’m gonna have millions of dollars.” We’re thinking about our future generations. My children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren. We want a place for them. We don’t want them to end up with land that won’t grow things.

There are some big companies, individuals, who own land not only in California but in Arizona, Mexico, all over. They don’t even know anything about the land. They know nothing about farming. They don’t even live on the farm.

A big meeting here in Fresno, that was my first public appearance. I was nervous. I looked around, and there were all these big growers. And these big businessmen that had stores out in the vacation areas up in the mountains. They were there because they were against raising wages for women. I heard my name, and I got up there. My knees were shaking. (Laughs) I got up before these microphones, and I looked around and saw my notes. The only thing I said out of my notes was “Ladies and Gentlemen.” I said, “My name is Jessie de la Cruz, and I’m here as a farm worker.” And then I started.

I said “We are forced to go out and work in the fields alongside our husbands, not through choice, and not because I love to be out in the sun working so hard ten hours, but because of the need. Us women have to go out there and help support our families.” And I said: “I have six children my husband and I raised, and we never had to go on welfare.” Oh, they applauded. Good for you. Oh, it was great that I never had to go on welfare. And I said: “These men here who are growers and businessmen and restaurant owners, if they pay higher wages, they could just close down the welfare doors.” Oh, I felt in the pit of my stomach, right there in the pit of my stomach, pain. It was a hard ball right there. I forgot what I was saying, and my hands were behind me. And I hear somebody in our group say: “Go on, Jessie, tell ’em, tell ’em.” And I said: “What I’m gonna tell you is not something I read. It’s something that’s engraved in my heart and in my brain because it’s something that I’ve lived and many other farm workers’ families have done the same.” So I went on and on and on. (Laughs) I was congratulated, but for about three or four days, there was a pain right here, a sore spot in my stomach. But I managed to tell ’em off. (Laughs)

How can I write down how I felt when I was a little child and my grandmother used to cry with us ’cause she didn’t have enough food to give us? Because my brother was going barefooted, and he was cryin’ because he wasn’t used to going without shoes. How can I describe that? I can’t describe when my little girl died because I didn’t have money for a doctor. And never had any teaching on caring for sick babies. Living out in labor camps. How can I describe that? How can I put into writing when I’m testifying about things that are very deep inside? About seeing all these many people that have their little children killed in the fields through accidents? It’s things that are a feeling you can’t put into words.

I’m making. It’s hard work. But I’m not satisfied, not until I see a lot of farm workers settle on their own farms. Then I’ll say it’s happening.

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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