Friday, March 26, 2010


August, 1991 + San Juan, Texas

I had been living my 'Gandhi in the Valley' fantasy for five months. When I first arrived I dusted off our low-rent furniture, sorted through piles and piles of mail, hired an office assistant, and put the files in some order. I also re-established funding, made friends, impressed people, and generally got the Project up and running. I thought I was doing OK. Without fully realizing it or understanding the implications, I had been viewing myself and what I was doing through a self-centered lens. I was the lawyer helping farm workers who couldn't help themselves. I was operating in a limited, myopic way that created distance between the people and me. Juanita saw right through it.

On a hot and humid Friday, she called me to the table in the back of the Union hall. No one was in sight. Juanita was very sensitive and knowing.

The hall was a spacious, open room with a make shift stage, chairs upon chairs, and a smooth, bare, concrete floor. The eye could not overlook several huge, brightly colored murals that depicted the farm worker cause on all four walls. One was surrounded on all sides with graphic portrayals of the UFW struggle for justice. This was the center. Here is where the Union met, organized, marched, and boycotted. This building and hall were where the Project offices were located.

From this awe inspiring place, the UFW and the Project carried on our peace and justice work together. Here untold numbers of people volunteered, politicians campaigned, speakers spoke, and poor folk received the help they needed. It was this room that spontaneously drew deeply grieving farm workers on the news of the death of Cesar Chavez. It was only right that Juanita brought me here for a talk I will always remember.

She was not one to waste time; she got right to it. I knew something important was in the offing, like, "Ray, you're the greatest these folks and I have ever seen; you're just like Cesar." No.

Juanita spoke in firm yet gentle terms. Holding me with her deep magnetic eyes she said, "Let the people tell you what they need". That was the heart of it. I knew what she meant. She also said some things about the distance I was creating and my assumption of superiority. In short, I had to learn that the work I was doing was not about me.

I felt totally deflated, like a charlatan who had been exposed. My first instinct was to argue and defend myself. However, by this time, I trusted Juanita explicitly. I knew she wouldn't say this to hurt me. Her motive to speak to me came from her love for farm workers. Her concern for them was obvious in all she said and did. She was centered and grounded in them. There was nothing I could say.

This lead directly to a long, painful, and confusing time of deep soul searching. Why had I come here, really? Was I here to bask in the glory of my service? I wrestled with these questions all the time. I knew I had to fix this, but how? I was transfixed with this dilemma. I strained for an answer. Maybe if i did this, maybe if I did that, or maybe I should do something else.

I even pondered leaving, but I knew that was failure and cowardly. I had to persist, to pursue this one compelling thing. I had had experience like this deciphering Dylan's music and opening to Ahmed's counseling. I was living dead center in my own existential koan, flailing about internally. I vowed to tough this one out no matter what.

Zen folk know. It's the mind, stupid. I was immersed in noise, static, and confusion. I felt depressed until an answer came: Watch Juanita, watch the people, and listen. I watched, listened, and learned.

Finally, I had it, I saw it. There was no separation between Juanita and the Union members. She loved them and they loved her. She never talked down to anyone. She cared about them and the members responded. They trusted her because she was one of them, not someone in a job sent there to perform certain duties.

I followed Juanita's example. I learned to trust the people I had come here to serve. Things got better. My 'Gandhi fantasy' evaporated. I had, once again, arrived.

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