UFW Civil Disobedience Campaign

Rev. Juan Romero

[A massive Civil Disobedience Campaign led by the United Farm Workers Union resulted in the arrest of between 3,000 and 2,500 striker farm workers and supporters, including more than sixty priests, nuns religious brothers, and legendary Apostle of the Poor, Dorothy Day. Also among those arrested and jailed was Father Juan Romero, executive director of PADRES, a national organization of Mexican American priests. The following is Juan's personal account of his imprisonment in Fresno County Jail for thirteen days. All persevered in "praying and fasting" as a way to "cast out the demons of injustice." His journal of the first two days was originally published in the PADRES Newsletter, September 1973, and is reprinted here in honor of the Golden Jubilee of the United Farm Workers Union, May 2012.]

--August 3, 1973 - 2 PM. Fresno County Industrial Farm, Caruthers, CA 93609.

I have been under arrest for 19 hours, and just moved into new quarters -- our third move. The spirit is high, and beautifully strong; we are confirmed in our direction and action. When I joined the picket line yesterday morning, the line captains were very careful that we remain on public (state) property -- from telephone post to telephone post, outward toward the street -- and that we do not trespass the property of the grower. The line itself was well-ordered and disciplined, although noisy: "¡HUELGA! ¡VENGAN, COMPAÑEROS! ¡ESQUIROLES! ¡CHAVEZ SI, TEAMSTERS NO!" etc. The point of the pickets and gathering was precisely to challenge the injunction which is calculated to diminish the effectiveness of the strike. Let me go over a little more chronologically the sequence of events:

Arrived from Puerto Rico, enriched from the ecumenical experience of reflection on Hispanic Ministry, but frankly I was a little bored from eight days in the lush paradise of the flamboyant and coqui. It was a good time for dialogue and prayer, but a little too disconnected to the reality I live. Dad picked me up Tuesday afternoon (July 31st) and took me to his seminary near Compton where he was studying and where I spent the evening. Wednesday morning I heard about the arrests of the priests and nuns in Fresno, and called the UFW headquarters in L.A. The people who answered were happy and surprised to hear from me. They gave me a run down of the situation, and asked me to mobilize people (priests and sisters) to go up to Fresno and/or send telegrams to the judge and sheriff who had the farm-workers, priests and nuns in jail. That was the end of my leisure vacation time with dad. I was in Los Angeles not only to visit him, but also to attend the Las Hermanas national meeting where I was scheduled to be a speaker. I spent much of Wednesday afternoon contacting people about the situation; urged telegrams, and prepared to come up to Fresno. I contacted some Sisters, but unable to persuade any to go to Fresno. Only one priest -- Ralph Luna -- was interested, willing and able come up with me. We borrowed a car from St. Linus parish in Norwalk where I had been assigned, and left L.A. about 8 PM.

We arrived about 1:30 in the afternoon at St. John's Cathedral in Fresno where one of our PADRES, John Esquivel, lives. Earlier in the day, he and Enrique (Abe) Lopez had visited the jail full of farm-workers, priests and sisters, and the padres left them a Spanish hymnbook that during my visit three months prior in May I had envied. John gave us a map, and pointed out the town of Parlier where the 5 AM rally was to take place at the park. We got up at 4:15, and were shortly on our way.

It was still dark for the early morning ride to Manning Street in Parlier where the park is located. Upon arriving, we saw five sheriff cars before we saw any farm-workers. In our borrowed, large blue station wagon, we parked in the lot next to a car with two local young Chicana women. Shortly afterward, Sister Pearl came by and introduced herself, a nurse for UFW in charge of their clinics. She took our names and that of "next of kin" who should be contacted upon arrest. We saw Rev. Chris Hartmire of the National Farm Worker Ministry, and he was happy to see me and Ralph. He mentioned that Dorothy Day arrived the day before, and that was an especially pleasant surprise! Chris asked me to be master of ceremonies for the morning rally, and I was very happy to comply. Towards the end of the Rally, Cesar Chavez arrived. In his powerful and quiet way, Cesar can truly move a crowd! He is honest, tough, and straightforward. He spoke of the importance of unity and of the UNION, and of non-violence. He challenged his listeners to fight the fight with spirit but non-violently those who opposed the farm worker cause. He assured that would put Fresno on the map, and suggested the political recall of the judge and sheriff who stood in the way of farm worker freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Cesar outlined the importance of asserting their rights right here in Fresno where unjust injunctions unconstitutionally denied free assembly and speech. He also asked: "What are you going to tell your children and your grandchildren when they ask you, ‘Where were you on that strike? Did you go to jail?'"

By then, about a hundred people or so from the rally were ready to go to the picket line. Chris Hartmire informed me that Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement was one of them, and that we would be riding in the same car. Our car keys were collected, and Ralph and I joined a car that contained, besides Dorothy, a young Jesuit priest who is a new pastor at a parish in Spokane, a Chicana Sister of St. Joseph of Orange -- a Health Organizer (male nurse and clinic director) for farm workers.

Dorothy Day reminded me of Simeon as she said with great sincerity and truth, "I am so happy to have lived to see this day!" For most of her 78 years, she has been a champion of the poor, living with them in her deeply evangelical life style. She was plugged into some of the early organizing efforts of farm workers that failed here in California during the 30's. She has been in jail ten times, and on long fasts many times, traveling along the path of non-violent search for justice that some have considered "anarchical."

The first time Dorothy went to jail, she was the youngest of the group. This time, confessed, she is the oldest! Careful to bring her own portable chair, Dorothy sat at one end of our picket line, reading aloud the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) from a pocket New Testament. The day before, Dorothy wanted to read the New Testament to the sheriffs, but they were too far away. She promised to return the next day to read them the Sermon on the Mount, and redeemed her promise this day! Meanwhile, the rest of us chanted, cheered and invited: "¡HUELGA! ¡VIVA CHAVEZ! ¡ABAJO LOS TEAMSTERS! ¡SALGAN, COMPANEROS. VENGAN CON NOSOTROS. NO SEAN ESQUIROLES!" (Strike! Long live Chavez! Down with the Teamsters! Come on out, companions -- Don't be strikebreakers!) We kept in our places for a while, and then began to walk in our orderly long rectangle, carefully keeping out of the private property.

Shortly after we had arrived at the picket line, two large busses, empty except for the driver, came and waited at the picket line. A Spanish surnamed sheriff officer said that he spoke in the name of the people of California, and through his efficient mobile loudspeaker system, he informed us that we were "AN UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY!" He did not explain why we were "unlawful," but just declared our gathering as such! One of my fellow inmates, a young Chicano intending to study law had with him a Penal Code book. In the evening, during the visit of a UFW lawyer, my companion inmate showed me the definition of an "unlawful assembly" that involved a "riot" and other things that did not apply!

The arresting officers were super nice to us, a contrast to the style of previous arrests other farm workers recounted to us. This time, for the mass arrest, the sheriffs loaded one large bus with the women, and the other with the men. The farm workers were asked to put their hands upon the bus while searched. It's a scene I have seen in East L.A., especially three years ago during the days of the Chicano Moratorium in August 1970.

When my turn came to enter the bus, the officer kindly asked me if I had any knives or weapons. I wagged my head in the negative, and he simply invited me to get onto the bus. Not wanting clerical privilege, I just got in the line again. Another sheriff asked if I had been searched. I responded, "Not really." A little embarrassed, he cursorily went through the motions of searching me before I got on the bus.

We began our journey about 9:30 AM, and were first taken to the Industrial Farm where we arrived about 11:00 AM. The quarters looked like an army camp, bunk beds in a dormitory, but were comfortable enough. The sheriffs seemed unorganized, obviously not used to such large mass arrests at one time. Booking us proved to be a challenge. We were herded into an auditorium-like room where waited a short time. Soon we were given a false start, and then asked to go into the contiguous large room. Then we were told, "Not yet!" Finally, we did go into the next room where the booking process was taking place. Information sheet filled out and signed (or refused). Picture taken and numbered (MUG), and thumb prints taken. A courteous sheriff man filled out for me a form on which he checked in the box "Mexican" as my ethnicity. Upon seeing that, I explained to him that I was born in this country, as were my parents, grandparents and ancestors for over four centuries. I asked to rather be identified as "Chicano" that I affirmed with pride of identity, not nationalism. However, to no avail insofar as that was not a choice.

During our bookings, the women arrived for the same procedure. They were warmly cheered -- especially when Dorothy Day entered. After the bookings at the Industrial Farm, we were transferred on another bus to the Fair Grounds. At our new "home," we had one large room -- bigger than a large auditorium -- no beds, just mattresses on the floor. The men prisoners who had been arrested on the picket lines the day before had been at the Fresno County Jail, and they had just come back from their arraignment in court. It was a good feeling to be with a group of people that included about 25 priests among more than 250 men. We later received the good news that Cesar would come with two priests to visit us the following day at 9:30 AM. Just that good news perked up the whole group. However, Cesar was detained with a telephone conversation with George Meany. The jail authorities wanted to move us to another facility before Cesar came, but the common decision of the men was to stay there at the Fair Grounds (temporarily converted to a jail -- no beds or shower facilities) until Cesar came. He finally did, and it was a great joy! He was accompanied by Father John Coffield, one of my life's mentors, and Rev. Chris Hartmire. Cesar spoke movingly, appreciatively, and gave some good news: The whole world is watching, and there is great support! Teamsters look like they want to back out!

George Meaney is nationally marshalling even greater support! From the Fair Grounds, some were taken back to County Jail, and the rest of us were taken to the Juvenile Hall (Youth Center of Fresno) since we could not all fit into the official jail. Here at the Youth Center, there are showers, and I'm going to indulge right now, 7 PM! About an hour ago, at the six o'clock news in Spanish -- yes, we had a TV in our Youth Center jail -- a good ten minutes was dedicated to the whole (strike, picket line-injunction-civil disobedience) situation, including what is happening to us. The farm workers, with evident pride, were hearing themselves talked about on television, and that mattered.

In about an hour and a half, we will celebrate the Liturgy, have Mass. PADRES John Esquivel and Enrique Lopez of Fresno (John and Abe were with us for the PADRES Convention in L.A., October 1971. Abe was with us in April at TUCSON for our Retreat-Workshop with Dom Helder Camera. Father Woodruff who was at MACC for five weeks this summer came here to visit us about 4:30. Fr. John returned later with the paraphernalia for the liturgy. We will praise and thank our God for health and strength, for perseverance toward victory in the struggle -- a fuller share in the Paschal Mystery. ¡Viva La Huelga! ¡Viva Cesar Chavez! ¡Vivan Los Campesinos! ¡VIVA LA VIRGEN DE GUADALUPE!