Lidia’s hands rest on the very table grapes she picked as a child and young woman. (La Malcriada/Gloria Talamantes)
Freckles dot the hands and cheeks of Lidia Huante Mendoza, 67, remnants of a childhood spent working in the fields of California.
Childhood memories for some are filled with scenes of exploration, play, and sheer joy, but for Huante Mendoza, it meant waking up to help her mother prepare food for her family as they set out for work in the fields.
“When I was a kid, we stayed in labor camps,” Huante Mendoza said. “I remember waking up at the crack of dawn, with my mom making the fire so we could get food started and get everyone’s lunches ready for the day, in an old abandoned house where several families were squatting on that farmer’s land.”
From the tender age of five through around 17, Huante Mendoza not only helped her mother with household chores, but she also labored year- round with her family of 12 picking fruit under the blistering sun of California’s agricultural valleys.
For her family and countless others, the workday began in the wee hours of the morning, when there was just enough light to see, the fields still wet and glistening with the morning dew.
“It’s not work for little kids, but little kids did it,” Huante Mendoza said in her calm and reassuring voice. “I remember way, way back, 10 cents an hour was what they paid [us].”
In 1965, the year of the Delano Grape Strike, the average farmworker family earned $2,021 a year and the average single farmworker made just $1,576, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Migrant Research Project. By comparison, U.S. Census data shows that the median family income that same year was $6,900.
At that time, of the nearly 800,000 paid farm workers in the United States, one out of four were un
Lidia Huante Mendoza, age 15. Photo courtesy of Lidia Huante Mendoza.
der the age of 16 and one of out every eight were between the ages of 10 and 13, according to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor.
Entire families like Huante Mendoza’s endured the grueling work together, as the mercury rose throughout the course of the day, scorching both the faces of the workers and the grapes they spread out to dry.
“I didn’t wear a hat and I got a lot of sun damage because it would just get tangled up [in the plants],” Huante Mendoza said.
As a teenager, Huante Mendoza picked grapes outside of Fresno with her mother, stepfather, and younger brothers and sisters. She and her family were there when the Delano Grape Strike started in 1965 but were not involved when workers walked off the fields demanding hourly pay of $1.40. Involvement was never a topic for discussion. Instead, the focus was on picking fruit for American households so that Huante Mendoza’s family could earn a living to put food on their own table.
“We had to work in the fields. I mean, you worked seven days a week. All my brothers and sisters and I worked. We were picking grapes for raisins. You put these papeles [butcher paper] out in the middle of the rows in the vineyards and then you put your picked grapes there and you spread them out and they dried under the sun, in those days.”
Huante Mendoza’s ancestral ties to the land were inherited through her grandparents, who were also migrant farm workers who came to the United States during the Mexican Revolution.
All of her grandparents’ children were born in California with the exception of just one who was born in Guanajuato, Mexico.
They settled in San Bernardino and traveled up and down the valley picking fruit for a living.
“The Grapes of Wrath was their lives,” Huante Mendoza said. “That was exactly what it looked like.”
In the ‘30s, on the heels of the Great Depression, her grandparents, mother, and siblings were forced to move to Mexico by train.
Between 400,000 and one million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans left the U.S. as a part of a mass repatriation from 1929 to 1939.
Through repatriation programs, many state and local governments required Mexicans and Mexican Americans to show proof of legal residence at any given time. If Mexicans and Mexican Americans could not produce documentation, they were forced to repatriate whether they were citizens or not, according to a statement on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
Jingoism, defined as extreme nationalism often taking the form of aggressive foreign policy and anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant at the time, much like it is today, Huante Mendoza explained. Prevailing attitudes toward Mexicans and other immigrants working and living in the U.S. then was: “These Mexicans are taking our jobs away from us, but they were picking fruit, as [they] are now,” Huante Mendoza said.
The old adage that history tends to repeat itself is hardly cliché.
Huante Mendoza’s family then settled in Mexicali and continued traveling up and down California’s agricultural valleys to work the fields. Contracting with the growers, Huante Mendoza’s Tia Angie ran a labor camp in the Palo Verde Valley in Riverside County where braceros [guest farm workers] could live while they harvested fruits and produce for households across the nation.
“Up until a few years ago, I still had elder uncles and aunts who were still going to the piscas [harvest], all the way up in Washington State,” she said. “So it’s always been a part of my life.”
When Huante Mendoza was 18, she married and then later moved to Idaho and began working for the Idaho Migrant Council. The organization hosted the Teatro Campesino, the theatre troupe that formed in 1965 while on the picket lines, to educate and empower the workers. Through their skits, Huantes Mendoza learned many of the details of la lucha, like how Gallo Wine tainted the drinking water of the workers.
In her mid-30s, Huante Mendoza and her family moved to Washington State. She started attending Evergreen State College, which is where she diligently immersed herself in the Farmworkers Movement and the struggle in the fields.
Thirsting for knowledge on the plight of farmworkers and social justice, she and her fellow students reached out to Dolores Huerta and organized a talk with the civil and labor rights icon at the small liberal arts college.
The little girl who grew into a woman while working the fields offered Huerta a place to lay her head during her time there–a simple, yet heartfelt gesture of hospitality from one activist to another.
Years later, when Huante Mendoza learned that Huerta would be speaking in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian, she scraped together what little money she had to make the trek and planned to stay in a hostel for another chance to hear the labor rights leader.
At the event, they struck up a conversation, and before she knew it, Huante Mendoza was in a cab with Huerta on her way to Huerta’s hotel room. “She took me to her hotel, bought me dinner and said, ‘here, this is already paid for, stay two nights.’”
In 1994, her love of Chicano art led her to Chicago to work for the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Huante Mendoza sits in front of Cafe Jumping Bean on 18th Street in Pilsen. (La Malcriada/Gloria Talamantes)
“The first time I saw an exhibit of Chicano art–in San Francisco– I was speechless because on the walls were things that mirrored me- my reality- that I had never seen anywhere else,” she said.
“I hadn’t seen it in textbooks and I hadn’t seen it in any museum,” she reflected as her voice cracked with emotion.
Today, Huante Mendoza works as a benefits enrollment counselor for Alivio Medical Center in Pilsen. She assists people with health insurance and public aid applications, ensuring they are able to navigate the bureaucracy that often creates barriers for families in need.
As jingoism comes out of the woodwork yet again, the argument that Mexicans and other minority groups are taking jobs away from Americans continues to infiltrate society and government, culminating in nativist policies that undermine American values of inclusion, freedom, and self-determination.
On Sept. 5, 2017, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was rescinded by President Trump, putting more than 800,000 DACA recipients at risk, most of whom know only the United States as home.
“Abuse is never going to stop–abuse is always going to be a factor. And if people are here and they’re undocumented they’re always going to be vulnerable to any abuse, whether it’s economic, physical or sexual,” she said. “I know that some of those labor camps that were started early and never got repaired because nobody ever enforced labor laws.”
Huante Mendoza’s experience is essential in telling the story of the resiliency of the human spirit, often born out of struggle- a narrative central to American identity that has been shaped by immigrant families from the very beginning.
“[We must] show [people] that this isn’t new… show them that this is not a unique thing and that we’ve battled this before and people have continued [anyway]. People haven’t stopped coming to this country no matter what bad
things were said against immigrants. We kept on coming—from all over the world, people are still coming here. If [we] know that, there’s hope, as long as you work toward those goals. You can’t work toward those goals if you’re not educated on the past. If you don’t know what’s gone before you, then how can you deal with the future?”