Latinos continue to take many paths in the San Joaquín Valley

EDITORS NOTE: This column from 2000 underscores a glimpse at the Latino experience that is part of the ‘Caminos (Paths) exhibit currently underway at Arte Américas, 16030 Van Ness in Fresno. The exhibit, which includes a photo gallery of Vida en el Valle photos, runs through June 30.

Some childhood images remain imbedded in your mind, much like the scene from a favorite movie: You know how the story turned out, but your memory keeps begging for repeat performances. Such was the summer of ’67 when I first stepped onto California soil as a wide-eyed 12-year-old whose only world up to that moment had been a small patch of west Texas and northern Mexico.

That summer visit to Cantua Creek, near Coalinga, lasted only one week. It was July, and the sun was as vicious as any encountered in west Texas. But it was a chance to visit my uncle, Eliado Loera, his wife, Cuca, and their six children, the oldest 17 and the youngest 8. Months earlier, they had squeezed into their old station wagon and made the 1,000-mile trip to work in the lush fields of the San Joaqu¡n Valley. This was a ritual repeated by thousands of other migrant farmworkers. Their summer home was a migrant housing center bare of luxuries but full of love and care.

The image that remains vivid is lying in the bed of a pickup truck at night and watching the stars sparkle above. The talk would eventually drift to the future. Mixed in with the jokes and the laughter were chats about school, careers and marriage. Life was grand, and the only thing holding us back was our desire. The next morning, those thoughts were erased by reality: There were tomatoes and cantaloupes to pick; that job couldn’t wait for my daydreaming cousins and their parents.

Flash ahead 31 years to a Holiday Inn conference room in Bakersfield. The speaker for a Latino political conference was filmmaker Luis Valdez, co-founder and executive director of Teatro Campesino. “No matter how much success I attain,” he said, “I will always be looked at as a farmworker.” That image can’t be washed off with soap or college degrees, he continued.

I subscribe to his sentiment, although my work in the fields was brief: three years helping my Anglo stepfather irrigate, water, cut and bail alfalfa in Texas and New Mexico; and two summers cutting and packing Thompson seedless grapes outside Delano. I had spent summers at my grandparents’ ranch just across the Río Grande in Chihuahua, México. But the harvesting of corn, watermelons, squash and sugar cane was left to my aunts and uncles. In my heart, I am a farmworker, just like my Uncle Eliado and his family.

As I embark on this initial column, I look at how the last 44 years – including 31 in the San Joaquín Valley – have determined who I am today. I can’t help but look at the stereotypes of Mexicans by an Anglo world (and vice versa) and of Mexican-Americans by a Mexican world.

Mexican families long have been held in high esteem for their cohesiveness and support. But I am a product of a Mexican-born mother who has been divorced five times and a Texas-born father whose lawyer is putting the finishing touches on dad’s sixth. A younger brother has five years left on an attempted murder sentence in Huntsville State Prison in Texas; a sister is homosexual; and another sister has been incommunicado with the family for three years.

Signs of a dysfunctional family? Maybe. But the family has managed to remain supportive of each other through the years. Maybe it’s because of the lean times when my mother, Josefina, would heat canned beans over an open fire because that’s all we had. Maybe it was because we dreamed along with my stepfather of better times ahead; but the dreams of J.R. Shockley died with him unfulfilled a dozen years ago.

My life is probably no different from the estimated 1 million Latinos who live, study and work in the San Joaquín Valley today. They still provide the labor that keeps agriculture strong; but the children and grandchildren of those farmworkers have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, publicly elected officials and, even, journalists.

These are heady advances for a Latino community that only three decades ago represented less than 15 percent of the state’s population. In two decades, that will be 45 percent. As Univisión President Henry G. Cisneros pointed out in a luncheon speech last week, that is “huge change.”

I want to write about that change and others and their impact on the Valley. I want to look at the challenges that I first pondered 32 summers ago under the night sky at Cantua Creek.

Juan Esparza Loera has been editor of Vida en el Valle since it first published in August 1990. Send question, comments or suggestions to: (559) 230-8280 or jesparza@vidaenelvalle.com