February, 2001 + San Juan, Texas
Sarah, my son-in-law Jeff, and Sam, my then-infant grandson lived 5 hours north of me, in Austin. My center of gravity had moved north with them. A powerful magnetic force was drawing me to Austin.
I had missed the childhood years of my nieces and nephews. At best, I saw them every two or three years. I hardly knew them. I resolved not to let this happen with Sam. I didn't want to be at his high school graduation only to realize we barely knew each other. I wanted to be close to him.
I had the greatest job I could ever want. Litigating on behalf of low-income folks, representing and marching with the UFW, and dedicating my efforts to win decent wages and benefits for farm workers was second to my family.
I felt my days at the South Texas Project coming to an end. I was torn in two. Moria, Jamie, Juanita, UFW staff, and Valley farm workers had become my beloved brothers and sisters. I knew these good people loved and respected me and the work the Project did. I also knew my efforts gave meaning and purpose to my life.
For instance, I met with a group of farm workers in the UFW hall one afternoon, preparing them for court. I gazed at the huge painted murals on the walls. Each of these spoke of the many injustices farm workers suffered: low wages, no health insurance, no other benefits of employment, and exposure to deadly pesticides. That is the short list.
The people at the table were intimidated by the justice system, especially the U. S. District Court, with its aura of majesty. Expensive appointments were everywhere there. Deep pile carpet, raised bench done up with costly oak and mahogany, two huge, all wooden tables, and velvet drapes met the eye. In short, the Courtroom and the UFW hall were polar opposites. The Courtroom was quiet, august, and solemn. The UFW hall often rang with the sounds of children being children, music, and boisterous laughter. hard working UFW members felt at home there, as I did.
I reassured my farm worker clients that things would be OK and I would handle the legal and factual issues. I told my Plaintiffs that the court system did not intimidate me in any way. I saw the relief they felt. They knew they had an experienced attorney to act for them. The justice system was a world apart. Most farm workers do not believe they belong there.
[Digression]: Cesar Chavez died in 1993. This was a devastating loss for the UFW and a personal loss for farm workers in the Valley. Due to the sudden and unexpected announcement, we were caught off guard. No ceremony or memorial had been organized. UFW members spontaneously gathered at the Union hall. Food, an alter, candles, flowers, rows of seats, remembrances, and posters appeared throughout the day. More and more members arrived. The good folk did what needed doing.
People stood and spoke feelingly of their love for him. In that hall, grief could have its day. An impromptu memorial was organized without word or effort. This was accomplished from the inside, so to speak, without comment.
I felt extremely privileged to be there. I moved freely from the UFW hall to state and federal courts. My efforts improved the lives of these folk whose labor is so essential to out well-being, and they let me know it.
I knew my Rio Grande Valley life was giving way to another, as yet unknown one in Austin. A farewell gathering had been organized. My successor was already in place. A huge crowd appeared. Wonderful things were said. I felt heavy and lonesome. I said "Thank-you, thank-you" time and again. I laughed with some and wept with others. These very good people had given me more than I can ever repay.
The move to Austin was anticlimactic. I lived with my family there and worked several part-time free legal service jobs. We all moved to Ohio in 2002.
As I write, I gaze at the huge framed picture of Cesar Chavez, given me by my UFW family and signed by Cesar's nuclear family. Titled 'Portrait of a Cause', this magnificent poster captures the farm worker struggle over the years.
I live close to Sarah, Jeff, Sam, and now Oliver. I see them frequently. My thoughts reach out to the Valley and the dedicated ones who continue to work on the front lines. This is for them:
"May your hearts always be joyful,
may your songs always be sung..."