Biography by Margaret Eleanor Rose
"It doesn't take courage. All it takes is standing up for what you believe in." This outlook has served as the guiding principle for Jessie López de la Cruz in her lifelong quest to improve the conditions of Mexican and Mexican American farm workers. Born in Anaheim, California, in 1919, de la Cruz was abandoned by her father when she was nine and lost her mother to cancer a few years later. She resided with her grandparents and was reared by her grandmother after her grandfather's death in 1930. "As far back as I can remember as a child," she recalled, "I've done farm work." Her extended family joined the stream of migrant workers who traveled up and down the state hoeing beets, picking prunes, apricots, and grapes, harvesting vegetables, and chopping cotton during the Great Depression in California. Moving from job to job, Jessie de la Cruz was in and out of school and only received a sixth-grade education. The family settled in Parlier, a small town not far from Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley.
She married her husband, Arnold de la Cruz, in 1938 at the age of 19. Very soon in their relationship she challenged the traditional expectation that wives defer to husbands. "I'd been trained as a child that the woman just walked behind the husband and kept quiet, no matter what the husband does. But in work I've been equal to men since I was a child, working alongside men, doing the same hard work and earning the same wages." At her insistence the couple developed a more equal division of labor based on mutual respect and sharing. The de la Cruzes had six children born between 1939 and 1947. When Jessie's sister died, the family adopted her daughter, Susan. The family struggled to make a living, endured poor living conditions in migrant labor camps, and faced illness and injury. She lost a baby daughter to malnutrition, lack of adequate sanitation, and inferior health care.
In her early forties, she found her life dramatically changed when farm labor organizers visited her home. One was a man named César Chávez. Having struggled all her life, she was immediately receptive to their objectives to obtain higher wages, adequate housing, improved working conditions, educational opportunities, and ethnic dignity. A beneficiary of the spirit of reform and social justice unleashed by the civil rights movement, she joined the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—the precursor to the United Farm Workers (UFW)—in 1965. Two years later she became a union organizer. She experienced a great sense of pride as the first woman field representative in the Fresno area, but her job was not always easy. "It was very hard being a woman organizer," she remembered. "Many of our people my age and older were raised with the old customs in Mexico." Holding fast to her beliefs and always outspoken, she persisted in hosting meetings at her home and in visiting and speaking at workers' houses. By providing services to union members, such as translating, writing letters, filling out forms, and advocating for their rights before various government agencies, she wore down initial resistance and earned the loyalty of workers.
Because of her seemingly boundless energy, enthusiasm, and organizing skills, Jessie de la Cruz was tapped to participate in collective bargaining talks with the Christian Brothers Winery. "I want you to learn this," union cofounder Dolores Huerta told her, "because eventually you might have to take over the negotiating of the contracts." This experience proved valuable when she served on the ranch committee (equivalent to a union local) and helped enforce contracts and pursued worker grievances against the company.
Workers took to the picket lines to enhance their bargaining power at their own ranches, as well as to further the union's leverage with the industry at large. De la Cruz was always at the forefront of these efforts to encourage coworkers, and women in particular, to ignore growers' intimidation and to become active in pressuring agribusiness to improve conditions in the fields and to recognize the union as the bargaining agent. When the union turned its strategy to the boycott, she again urged them to take part. Union members, led by de la Cruz, visited supermarkets in the area to plead with consumers not to purchase grapes, wines, lettuce, and other crops.
As the union became more established in the area, she assumed the responsibility for running the local union hiring hall. This innovation eliminated the abuses of labor contractors who often took advantage of workers, charging them exorbitant prices for transportation to jobs, as well as for housing, work tools, food, and clothing. The hiring hall also operated on the basis of seniority. Those who had worked with the union the longest received the first call when jobs became available.
The union served as a significant catalyst for her involvement in the affairs of the community. Her visibility, eloquence, and confidence made her a valuable community advocate and resource. She was appointed to a variety of boards and organizations, including the Fresno County Economic Opportunity Commission, the Central California Action Associates (a community education project in which she taught English to farm-workers), and the state's Commission on the Status of Women. She became active in school board and city council meetings and pushed for bilingual education. Her political activism reached a special highlight for her when she served as a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention in 1972.
Always industrious, Jessie de la Cruz achieved a family dream in 1977 when the de la Cruzes, together with other families, purchased farmland outside of Fresno and established a cooperative. The venture was a success, and she went on speaking tours to talk about family farming, cooperative landownership, and the struggle of farm laborers. That same year she returned to school.
Currently, de la Cruz lives in a retirement community in Fresno. Although her husband died in 1990, she continues to derive joy from her children and grandchildren. She also volunteers for the UFW and participated in its convention in 2000. She is the recipient of many awards, including recognition from the League of Mexican American Women. Her life has been an inspiration for union and community members alike. Since 1980 she has served as a symbol of the grassroots origins of the UFW and provided a lesson in individual courage and determination for a generation of college students who have read her noteworthy oral history. Her life has demonstrated how one individual overcame abject poverty and limited education to make a difference. "[N]o matter who I talk to I always talk about the union because that's the best thing that ever happened to farm workers." Her remarks serve as a testament to the transformative power of the UFW to accomplish social and individual change. "It gives me great pride to know that I had something to do with it— that I was involved, that I was organizing people."