by La Stephanie
It’s winter 2011 and I am returning to Oregon. I am Indigenous, P’urhepecha by bloodline and had traveled to Michoacán, Mexico to reconnect with, and learn more about, my family as an attempt to feel grounded in the whirlwind that was post-college life. After returning from Mexico, I anxiously awaited a bite after casting out a net of resumes.
One day, I received a call from an old friend. We chatted briefly before he shared that he received a call for a job from the United Farm Workers (UFW), the historic labor union co-founded by César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong. Elated, I asked him about the details and he told me he couldn’t interview for the position, so he recommended me for it.
Words cannot describe how I felt at that moment. I am the daughter of Indigenous farmworkers. As a kid, I spent many days and nights with my nose in books reading up about the farmworker movement, what it meant to be Chicano, and anything that would give me more of my people’s history. The possibility of this job was a dream come fucking true. I imagined all of the badassery that was the UFW: the underdog that had overcome all odds to help revolutionize labor unions while changing the lives of thousands of farmworkers. You ask any self-proclaimed Raza and they’ll know what UFW stands for. The black eagle? I wore that shit loud and proud. After almost 50 years, the UFW was still a force to be reckoned with and I was about to be a part of that history.
Several interviews later, I was offered a position as an organizer with the UFW. It would be my job to represent Black, Southeast Asian, and Mexican farmworkers that had voted the UFW into their worksite.
Three weeks later, I was off to my new home in Eastern Oregon. As a young P’urhepecha woman, I relocated my entire life for the movement I quietly admired as a young Chicanita, and I did it with so much joy and hope. I was ready for whatever this new adventure was going to throw at me.
Working with UFW members in Eastern Oregon and Washington taught me so much. Even writing about it now, I can’t help but choke up. My workers taught me to back shit up with actions, not just words. They taught me to not pretend I had all of the answers because workers can read you from a mile away. They taught me the value of true, backbreaking work—do you know what it feels like to work six, 12-hours shifts a week at a dairy? They taught me the meaning of love and they taught me to be humble. I can say that my time with the workers truly changed my life for the better. I will always be indebted to them because they were there when I went from being a fumbling fool to a full-fledged woman. In the end, however, I had to leave them. I could no longer work with the UFW. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Working with farmworkers was one thing, but working for the union was something else entirely. It was like traveling back in time. Women on staff were more likely to spend their time doing administrative duties in the office rather than being out in the field, representing farmworkers. It wasn’t until very recently that women were given any positions of power at all, on the board or otherwise.
When it came to organizing, I was sometimes the only woman in the room. When it came time to strategize about how to make the union stronger and more efficient, I was the only one discussing the importance of having women at the table with management. I was also the only one suggesting more women participate in worker leadership. Sometimes the workers disagreed with me. Hell, some men who disagreed even stopped participating in worker leadership roles because they did not like how I held them accountable or how I called them on their bullshit. I made sure they knew I was not playing around. It was clear the Union structure made no room for the voices of women and at times I felt as if the older Mexican women had come to expect that their voices and opinions wouldn’t matter. Farmworker women knew how to speak their mind, but it was rare that anyone pushed them to participate beyond that.
More often than not, the resistance to change came from co-workers. Staff blatantly used homophobic language. I can remember a very specific instance when my direct supervisor and I met with workers to discuss a supervisor they were having issues with. Instead of discussing this supervisor’s incompetence, my supervisor simply referred to him as a “joto.” Joto became a catch-all word for anyone participating in undesirable behavior, and it also became a way to exert dominance over growers. This language was used openly, even though I was out to my supervisor.
Sitting in meetings, you could see the gender dynamics in the room. Men and women sat separately and when women did share room with men, men sharply dominated the space. The UFW felt like such a time warp, I was surprised I wasn’t asked to cook and clean up after male staff during my time there. I wanted to organize farmworkers with other women at the forefront, but there were no other women organizers where I worked, and, historically, the Union had done little to reinforce the importance of women worker voices. How can you possibly organize thousands of women and queer and trans farmworkers if you can’t even get your shit together enough to retain the women on your staff?
Ultimately, I cut my time at the union short because I couldn’t take it anymore. Being in the UFW was reminiscent of being back in an abusive home. As a child survivor of domestic violence, I make no qualms about calling abusive behavior out and my supervisor was ill-equipped to handle strong women. If you didn’t play the docile, well-behaved woman, it was as if you were speaking a language he didn’t understand. As a defense (because he felt threatened), my supervisor made me feel irrational for continuously bringing up the lack of women in the Union. He was also manipulative and sometimes controlling, at times asking where I was during my off time.
My supervisor was placed in a regional director position even though he had taken no management training and had likely never supervised other staff. I brought up multiple conflicts I had had with him to higher-ups, but nothing was ever done to improve the work environment. The sexism that was perpetuated disgusted me.
As an Indigenous woman, I deserved so much better and so did the workers. But goddamn did it feel good to finally leave. I no longer had to work in fear. I no longer had to feel isolated and alone. I was no longer going to be gaslit or made to feel irrational. As soon as I left, I began to feel strong again.
It’s been almost two years and I am still healing. I had to leave while my supervisor got to keep his job. Incompetence was rewarded and I could not continue to do this type of work anymore. Thankfully I’ve found something better, a place that treats me with respect and ignites my passion for organizing. Sometimes, it feels like a part of me was taken because I can’t organize with farmworkers anymore, but one day I will go back to the work stronger than ever. No one can keep me from my dream. You’d be a fool to believe that anything could stop me.
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