Monday, September 13, 2010


From a mural by Diego Rivera

The excerpts below are from a report I did when 20 years old and a student at Michigan State University. I'd been given the great opportunity [during the summers of 1966, 1967, and 1968] to work alongside migrant farm workers families in the Capac, MI area by a Spanish-speaking Detroit diocese priest, Fr. Joe Melton, with financial support from Fr. Hogan in Lakeport, MI and the Deanery of Catholic Women. Most weeks I'd work about 3 to 4 days in the fields--picking pickles and hoeing sugar beets--and the other time spent trying to organize migrant access to social, job, and church services.

It was a time when the organizing of farmworkers by Cesar Chavez in California was just becoming known in Michigan. No one here had the illusion there'd be farm labor strikes in Michigan where, as at North camp, the families of labor crews came from many disparate places, and never stayed long at one place as they followed the rumors of available harvests. Some of these Mexican American families had small homes in rural Texas or Florida, but they were seldom at home. The workers of California had possibility of more solidarity, in the stability of working closer to their communities. Baldemar Velasquez' Farm Labor Organizing Committee of Toledo, Ohio did have some success, most in that area's tomato fields. In our local area, there was a one day labor stoppage due to Weller Pickles [Croswell, MI] paycheck irregularities, mediated by Fr. Melton and a FLOC representative.

Understandably, the hope of most field workers was to migrate out of the migrant stream into stable, better paying jobs, whether on farms, in towns or cities. In the passages to follow [the whole report was five times longer] I've added some clarifying comments. The writing is dry, when I fashioned myself a grassroots, hands-on social scientist/community organizer, but tells of that era, when there were perhaps ten times more agricultural workers in our state than there are now. It was also a time of national "War on Poverty" programs—almost in complete retreat now.

CAPAC SUMMER MIGRANT PROGRAM, 1967 [written in March of 1968]

As planned, this [past] summer I was to be responsible for helping the people of the camps develop a sense of hope, and for helping the community [towns of Emmet & Capac, MI] to be responsive to the spirit. Efforts were to be concentrated in two areas. First I was to relate the various interested organizations to the needs felt by the migrant people. These efforts were to center on the Capac Community Assistance Center and it director Bob Aguinaga. Second, I was to be a young adult religious formation program in which those of the community were to share ideas and feeling about God with those at the camps. While carrying out these commitments I lived and worked with the migrants. As it turned out, being with the people became the foundation and the determinant for everything that happened this past summer. …

Moving into North camp was a problem. [located ~2miles north of town on Capac Rd, then 1 mile west—abandoned and demolished over 35 years ago; I remember the multiple seat holed outhouses, and a string of barbed wire around the 20 or so wood shacks] The people of the camp were very accepting from the time of my first visit, but those who owned the camp were much less so. Michigan Sugar Company owns North camp. Their field man was quite worried when I told him of my desire to live at the camp and work in the fields. Although he was in charge of the labor force in our area, he had no authority over such decisions. My application had to be made directly with the man who controlled all company labor operations at the company office in Croswell, forty miles away.
On the day I went to Croswell he wasn't in, so I talked to one of his associates in the office. After I had made a fairly long and careful explanation of my purposed he was ready to let me sign a work contract. Then I mentioned that besides working I also wanted to live in the labor camp. I could see that he could make no sense of this. He could understand a person who worked for the church wanting to become a little closer to the people to understand them better—but to live with them? Suddenly he was telling me that finalizing a contract was really not his business anyway, and that he would have to clear everything with his superior. There should be no problem however, and in a couple of days I would be contacted and contracted by the local field man who lives in Capac. That was the last I heard from Michigan Sugar Company. A week and a half later I moved in anyway. This was mid-July and the pickle-picking would start toward the end of the month. I had convinced Weller Pickle Company of my "good intentions." It was unlikely that, in the couple of weeks that remained before they were to lease their camp out to Weller, Michigan Sugar would go through the trouble of tying to evict me. [and they didn't]

North camp license--expired; camp long gone as well

Thus began my stay at North camp. What the companies both feared to varying degrees was that I would become a labor organizer and lead an insurrection against their corporations. [some self aggrandizement here, tempered by mild sarcasm, and some over-projection as to the companies thoughts about my presence; I did realize that listening to the people of the camp's concerns was most important] The small farmers to a no lesser degree feel threatened by labor organization. But those who most fear unionizing are many of the migratory workers themselves. They have to work in order to live. They have no resources to rely upon in time of unemployment. Pancho said that since both of his boys were old enough to work, the four of his family could work intermittently and still get by. The children of the family next door were small. Their parents had to work whenever possible. In North camp each family had its own situation and its own aspirations. Unity was hard to conceive of when each one had his own to look after.

UFWOC March to Sacramento, CA

[A group of us did make a concerted attempt at change.]
Many married men wanted training for new occupations, but marriage made them ineligible for the High School Education Project [HEP, a paid GED program] and any other program which had no provision for family support. The same problem of obtaining training and still receiving a livable income confronts many single men too old to qualify for HEP. The Michigan Development & Training Agency [project that was run by the MI unemployment office] offers a wage along with its training sessions. After many phone calls [to these offices] and after a trip to Detroit with five prospective applicants [in which we had to wait many hours due to their not being ready for us, and lack of translators--besides my (2nd year Spanish) self--to help with forms], we found no opening at this particular time. We were asked to try again. By now the group has dispersed itself in to Florida and Texas. They are not likely to try again.

[One of them] Homer had been offered a job with an automobile assembly plant in Detroit. He couldn't find a place to live where he would still have some Spanish-speaking people as friends. A few days later all the people had left North camp and Homer was on his way back to Florida to work for a farmer he had worked for once before.

[Addendum: Later on I learned that Homer, due in part to letters our group had sent to Congress and the Labor Department voicing our frustration, did eventually get training as a welder in a similar Florida program.]

Mass during Cesar Chavez' Forty Day Fast 1968, Photo by Jon Lewis

Our efforts throughout our lives barely scratch the surface, but it's better to try to dig in, than not to. A purpose of this posting near Labor Day & 9-11, is to encourage new positive steps towards creative labor, jobs, and justice projects at home and internationally. Locally we've started an Alternative Service Opportunities agency, perhaps to be renamed Community National Service, or Blue Ops, … to recruit for our county Volunteer Action Center, AmeriCorps and Peace Corps as initial objectives. Years ago a little investment of my time and money, supported by church mentors and farmworker families , has made for a lifetime of changed attitude. Muchisimas gracias a todos que me han ayudado. May we help others to the same great gift.

"I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice." --Cesar Chavez

Some answers to Terrorism on the date of 9-11

If we believe that God does not intend us to live in fear, how do we make the conscious decision to live unafraid? Perhaps a new spiritual discipline based in mindfulness, compassion, humility, and solidarity can move us from fear to freedom.

Our culture of addictive consumerism prevents us from seeing and believing the truth about ourselves. And what is that truth? We are sons of God. We are daughters of the Most High Creator. We remember this through contemplative prayer, which teaches us that every moment is a sacred invitation from God to become fully human and fully alive. --Words of Tom Cordaro

For more of his thoughts on truth-will-make-us-free freedom, see his book, Be Not Afraid: An Alternative to the "War on Terror" available from

1 comment:

  1. Hi from Chicago, Michael--I enjoyed this blast from the past, especially in relation to my hometown! Fascinating, and what important work. Hope all is well with you and Andi.