There is More to the Recording: Oral Histories and Grief in the Coachella Valley

by Christian Paiz

Humanizing Acts is a series of essays and artworks that examines the impact of COVID-19 on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Each contributor writes about the ethical quandaries of conducting research at the border, living amidst the vulnerability and violence of pandemic times, and navigating complex interpersonal relationships and responsibilities. The scholars and artists share compassionate stories of people, including friends, loved ones, and neighbors alike, ultimately asking: How can academic research be a humanizing act?

In early October 2021, I received an unexpected call from Lupe Crespo, an older friend of several years and a former organizer for the United Farm Worker (UFW) movement in the 1970s and 1980s.1 The UFW movement originated in 1965 in California’s rural interior, especially in the San Joaquin Valley’s grape fields, and was led by Filipino and Mexican workers who demanded a union contract and better working and living conditions. Lupe’s path into the UFW had been surprising, she said. She was born and raised in post-World War II East Los Angeles, where she faced the same marginalizing conditions shaping her urban Chicana/o community. Some of these also affected California’s farmworker communities, but differences remained, as did geographic distance. Lupe only came across the UFW through its consumer boycotts in U.S. cities, which she joined with all the youthful enthusiasm she could muster. If not for this activism, she later explained, she likely would have succumbed to the deprivations consuming her friends and neighbors. She also met her husband, Luciano Crespo, through the union in the mid 1970s, when both worked in the UFW headquarters in the Tehachapi mountains, just north of Los Angeles County. Luciano could not have been more different from her: he was from Delano, the small town where the UFW was born in 1965, and from a Mexican and Filipino farmworker family. Where she was social and electrifying, he could be shy and introspective. Where she grew up in the barrio’s concrete tumult, he was largely in isolated, dusty towns and focused on caring for his grandmother. Both, however, fell in love with the UFW movement and with each other, and in the late 1970s, they moved their young family to California’s Coachella Valley, where they remained organizers for nearly another decade.

I met both in late 2013 as part of an oral history project for my dissertation research on the Coachella Valley’s UFW and Chicana/o movements, which eventually became a book, The Strikers of Coachella: A Rank-and-File History of the UFW Movement.2 By the time I met them, they had already left their UFW positions, but they still played key roles in the region’s politics and social concerns. Over the next eight years, we became close friends, even kindred spirits, and like many of the other people I interviewed, they were proud of my research and offered constructive criticism. In turn, I felt deep fortune for crossing paths with them and for academic work that felt so meaningful and important to me. Even after I moved to California’s Bay Area, we continued to see each other every time I visited the Coachella Valley, which was also my childhood home. And when COVID-19 restrictions appeared in March and April 2020, we turned our conversations to phone calls, often with me chiding them for not following social distancing protocols, much like I chided (and worried over) my older relatives.

In October 2021, however, Lupe’s call came late on a weeknight. When I answered, she spoke of Luciano’s sudden health decline and of her growing realization and grief that he was living his last days. She asked that I visit to say goodbye to a friend I loved, and whom I had hoped and expected to see many more times after the pandemic. I felt anguish and a vague sense I had failed him by not recording more of his life. My grief reflected the fact that I would soon lose a dear friend. But it was also a collective form of grief, for Luciano’s health decline exemplified what was already apparent to me as an oral historian: all my friends from this era were dying. His eventual death would be one more case of an entire generation’s passing. It felt then, and continues to feel now, subtly catastrophic, and yet inevitable.

Prior to this news, I had been busy finishing an article on the dangerous working and living conditions facing Coachella Valley farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines had already been announced, but their distribution promised to be unequal and uncertain for months, in which time new COVID-19 strains caused more infections and deaths among farmworker families in rural, non-white, and working-poor places like the Coachella Valley. For this article, I had turned to former oral history interviewees, who, like Luciano, provided an explanation for farmworkers’ disproportionate vulnerability to the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, they said, farmworkers already confronted some of the most dangerous laboring conditions in the United States. They also relied on the industry’s pitiful wages, which strained entire communities with immiserating byproducts, such as substandard, crowded housing, food and park deserts, high levels of chronic illnesses, and a dearth of social services, including health care access. Many, if not most farmworkers, also understood their pandemic designation as “essential” laborers as window dressing for pandemic sacrifices: while America “sheltered in place,” farmworker families were expected to toil and bear the brunt of exposure. And yet, interviewees like Luciano also insisted on optimism and argued the country could still build a better world for farmworkers by changing its labor and immigration laws, expanding social provisions, and investing in farmworkers’ rural communities.

“[Luciano’s] eventual death would be one more case of an entire generation’s passing. It felt then, and continues to feel now, subtly catastrophic, and yet inevitable.”

My work felt valuable, and I assumed I had enough time to return to a post-pandemic Coachella Valley and continue my conversations with Luciano, Lupe, and their co-unionists. It was in this context that I received Lupe’s call. In the remaining pages, I wish to discuss these academic and personal dynamics and consider our practices as oral historians. What became evident with Luciano’s death and this writing was that there was always more to the interview recordings, a more that I had not expected when I began researching the UFW movement. There were more feelings, more commitments, and more discoveries. There were more expectations, more ambivalences and silences, more questions and uncertainties, and more grief and loss with each death. I am not sure who will resonate with this writing, but if you do, I think we will learn much from your reflections, too.

A Biography of La Causa

In the late 1970s, Luciano and Lupe Crespo moved their family to the Coachella Valley as part of the UFW’s continued efforts to unionize Californian farmworkers. They both counted several years as UFW volunteers, which often entailed moving to distant regions with only the sparest of resources. They had worked in the UFW’s headquarters, led boycott efforts in cities, and fundraised among allies. For Luciano, the UFW movement had begun even earlier, when his grandmother and mother, both of whom knew Cesar Chavez as part of the Southwest’s ethnic Mexican farmworker community, joined the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in the early 1960s. In 1965, they joined picket lines when the NFWA allied with the Filipino-led Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and their early September grape harvest in and nearby Delano. Luciano was ten years old then and would enter his adolescence with the UFW’s energy and politics, as well as under the threat of local and national backlash. By the time he moved to the Coachella Valley in 1978, he saw the UFW as a weathered movement, both stunningly successful and with many strains and enemies, conditions it shared with other past movements.

Much like his Delano community, Luciano found in the Coachella Valley a region of profound social inequalities and racialized degradation. About 45 miles long, the valley was bifurcated into two distinct halves by the late 1970s. On the eastern side, a patchwork of irrigated fields gobbled desert land to produce a lucrative cornucopia of food. Migrant and local farmworkers were almost entirely nonwhite, labored with few protections and/or advocates, and under the whim of threatening and humiliating bosses. They became ill from heat and pesticide exposure, earned stagnant wages without social security, and lived in ugly, unsafe, and crowded housing. They faced widespread racial discrimination in local schools and public spaces. For UFW leaders, these conditions reflected the lopsided and violent relations in California’s agricultural heartland, in which white growers degraded their racialized employees’ lives and provoked their early deaths. They did so with impunity and with the aid of local, non-grower white residents. In 1965, these conditions pushed migrant Filipino workers and AWOC members to strike the Coachella Valley’s table grape harvest in early May, which successfully increased wages and encouraged another strike during Delano’s grape harvest in September.

2021 art installation near Palm Springs drawing attention to the region’s Indigenous Cahuilla history and continued presence. Photograph by Kristen Colada Adams. Public domain.

The UFW movement would blossom in the San Joaquin Valley before it returned to the Coachella Valley in 1968-69, when it also announced the National Consumer Grape Boycott. For two years, the UFW pummeled Coachella Valley grape growers with boycott-depressed prices and a series of local demonstrations by pro-UFW farmworkers and Chicana/o activists. In 1970, Coachella Valley growers finally agreed to the UFW’s contract demands and pushed the San Joaquin Valley into the same. In the next decade, Coachella Valley farmworkers led union drives in citrus, date, and vegetable fields, both successful and dispiriting, insistent even when California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) proved to win a pyrrhic victory in late 1975. A few years later, Lupe and Luciano moved their family to the desert, and by then, the UFW appeared exhausted and nearly defeated, facing a state and country enamored with anti-labor, rightwing politics. The Coachella Valley’s western half also contributed to the UFW’s decline. There, investors funded luxury developments that catered to wealthy tourists, in which all racialized labor was either invisible or demurring. Leaders on this half supported local growers, opposed UFW campaigns, and used local and state government resources to further isolate pro-union farmworkers. Today, much of the country only knows this tourist half.

“They worked in the places pro-UFW workers picketed and led union elections. They found homes in places pro-UFW workers lived in and demonstrated. But like my parents, our neighbors were largely unaware of this hidden UFW history.”

This 1980s Coachella Valley was also where my parents settled and where they joined a deeply marginalized community of racialized farmworkers on the eastern half. Most of our neighbors, if not all, did not see the UFW, despite its recent impact, benefits, and campaigns. They worked in the places pro-UFW workers picketed and led union elections. They found homes in places pro-UFW workers lived in and demonstrated. They sent their children to schools where pro-UFW activists attempted to reform. But like my parents, our neighbors were largely unaware of this hidden UFW history. Similarly, I knew almost nothing about the UFW in general, much less its local manifestation, despite an undergraduate degree in U.S. history and four years of teaching U.S. history in the east Coachella Valley. The region only became the focus of my graduate research after I learned about the UFW through its 1974 documentary, The Fight in the Fields. Like other oral historians, I intended to use oral history interviews to recenter farmworkers in our collective UFW narratives, naively expecting to find historiographic bounty.

This would not be the case, however. I began the oral history project with no interviewee prospects and struggled to identify UFW and Chicana/o movement participants. I drove the same childhood streets and walked the same neighborhoods. I visited the same restaurants, parks, and stores in years past. I spoke to older neighbors who were like godparents, to former teacher colleagues who taught the UFW in their classrooms, to the various people from my past—and asked, almost pessimistically: do you know anything about this? But little of the UFW appeared. In these early days, history hid from me in a place that had so fundamentally shaped me and that I had known my entire life. Tellingly, the connections I did make came by chance. The head librarian in the Mecca township, for instance, met my mother in the 1980s when he secured a “bookmobile” for our public housing community. Unbeknownst to her, he helped diversify local institutions and acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s activists—which he then shared after I absentmindedly expressed my frustrations. Similarly, a childhood friend, who was a field representative for a local politician, addressed a protest by a group of former UFW farmworkers, and then directed them to me. A few days later, Luciano Crespo’s son, who I did not know, defended me from an angry white man at a local bar. In his skilled defusing, Luciano Junior spoke of his father’s UFW movement history and of his lifelong fight for social justice. What fortune, I sighed with relief.

After this incident, I met the older Luciano Crespo in late 2013. We met a couple more times before the year was over and continued recording our conversations until 2021, when my attention turned to farmworker experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over nearly a decade, our conversations flowed from questions to answers, interests, and concerns. They took detours and cycled back. They clarified points, triggered new topics, and added unsuspecting turns. Each interview lasted more than an hour, but often they tallied more than two. And much like the other oral history interviews I conducted, Luciano’s biography slowly evolved over time and through repeated returns, gaining texture, clarity, and depth as we developed trust and as I gained learning.

“It taught him that the movement was ‘a passion,’ ‘a religion,’ more than a boycott or a picket line, but instead a seizing spirit and a sense of power in a new beginning—a force that accompanied like a friend and shielded like a threat.”

In this space, Crespo recounted his Delano childhood before the UFW movement, emphasizing his family’s strong women and his Filipino and Mexican heritage. He described farmworker skills and Delano’s segregated poverty, and the ways agriculture impacted many facets of his life.3 His relatives, as well as his close friends and the neighbors he had known his entire young life, lived in the same few blocks collectively known as El Bote. His elementary school and tree house were nearby, and the alleyways for impromptu baseball games were a couple of blocks away. A playground was across the street from his house, and at the edge of town were the donkeys he tried to ride, clandestinely, out of sight from their Filipino owners. Church was only a bit farther north from here, and old refurbished bikes were strewn all over, on streets and yards and empty lots.4 These were the common property of children. Once on them, Delano became a fast-paced grid of passageways and destinations, punctured only by the occasional stray chicken.

He was seven years old when he attended a National Farm Worker Association (NFWA) meeting in the early 1960s, a couple years before the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.5 He followed his grandmother to these meetings—solemn affairs, he remembered, as if people were getting ready to pray with their rosaries.6 He was only ten when his family and neighbors struck in 1965, and he was a teenager when the UFW won its 1970 grape contracts.7 When he graduated high school and considered higher education, both markers of his achievements and ambitions, the Teamsters Union raided the UFW fields in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys. In the interview, he spoke without regret or sentimentality of his choice to become a UFW organizer after high school, which meant foregoing a college education and experience, such as the one that had propelled me into the oral history interviewer position. For him, the UFW movement had offered a greater education.8 It taught him that the movement was “a passion,” “a religion,” more than a boycott or a picket line, but instead a seizing spirit and a sense of power in a new beginning—a force that accompanied like a friend and shielded like a threat, most eloquently illustrated by the UFW’s elongated chant, “Hhhuuueeeelllggaaaa.”

Our last conversation took place only months before his death. Pandemic restrictions were still in place in many parts of the United States and farmworker communities continued to experience disproportionate rates of exposure, illness, and death. In the Coachella Valley, and throughout the country, growers congratulated themselves for their generosity towards their employees—all while farmworkers weighed the relative threat of virus exposure against the still present threat of poverty. The small community in Mecca, for instance, lost two priests, several deacons, and multiple community leaders. Their children attended remote classes while quarantined in crowded, substandard mobile homes with inadequate digital connections. A long history of racist underdevelopment in the east Coachella Valley had also made safe drinking water and green space in short supply, which magnified the pandemic’s effects on farmworker communities. Local organizations and activists mobilized to distribute essentials to farmworker families, but their significant efforts could not replace the federal aid offered to citizens. And yet, when I interviewed Luciano once more for his thoughts on farmworker families during the pandemic, he surprised me by speaking with pride, confidence, and optimism: this too, they will overcome. Recent UFW legal wins in California suggest we may be seeing this prediction unfold. 

Traces of Utopian Places

An unexpected effect of interviewing UFW movement activists like Luciano Crespo was that it shifted what I can only awkwardly call my spatial relationship to my childhood home. The Coachella Valley looked so different, it seemed, so suddenly. It felt historically deeper and yet impossibly recent; it was layered and diverse but continuous enough for me to see it as a precursor to my life. My home had a history, I suddenly realized, at least one that encompassed my family’s experiences but also transcended them and helped me explain them.

This shift was subtle, but persistent, and it grew as I conducted more interviews. Luciano’s home in Indio, California, for instance, was a mere fifteen minute drive from my childhood town of Thermal, where I attended school until college. All along, I realized, Luciano had been my neighbor. We also followed most of our conversations with a glass of wine at a nearby restaurant, which was adjacent to a small café where I spent many weekend hours grading student essays as a high school history teacher. When I drove him in my desert-beaten green car, Skittles, and as we moved from place to place across the Coachella Valley, he would point to former UFW buildings and connect the passing neighborhoods, streets, and people to past campaigns, each referencing an entirely new (and barely submerged) Coachella Valley geography.

“This was the consistent observation: the UFW sought to transform the region’s farmworker-dependent social relations. In the process, participants underwent an existential metamorphosis.”

I felt the same with the other people who participated in the oral history project. I interviewed Petra Ruiz, for instance, in her small home in Indio’s windswept and sparsely populated hills, the same one on the cover of the book I eventually wrote. She spoke as we ate a low lit dinner with her son, recounting a childhood of poverty and orphanage, of migrations and farmworker labor, and then of the UFW’s early days in the Imperial Valley, where she met militant women leaders. The latter would bring her into the UFW and forever transform her life. Decades later, Ruiz still referred to them in martial terms: “ella era mi comandanta,” she would say, “she was my commander.” On that first interview, I took notes of her stories as day turned to dusk and would occasionally look past her kitchen window and towards the twinkling lights of the desert floor below, both magical and quotidian, familiar and yet mysterious. 

Similarly, the UFW leader Melecio Sanchez lived a stone’s throw from my aunt’s Coachella home and a couple streets from my mother’s retail job, where my brother and I, both in high school, worked evenings to help her with understaffed shifts, what I would later learn to be a common profit-seeking tactic by employers. I also met Evangelina Mendoza in an assisted living community in the Coachella Valley’s western half, where the local health care industry is located and where white retirees have settled for their sunset years. As a child, my family rarely made the trek to the west, where I never felt welcomed or respected, and where my parents likely felt much worse. And yet now, here was a figure of a transformative movement in her last years—helping me renegotiate my relationship to the space. I also interviewed Calisto Ramos, a kind and generous public school teacher, who, in the late 1960s, founded the local Brown Beret chapter. Most of our conversations took place in a Coachella Valley Unified School District building dedicated to evening English and citizenship classes, the same that Chicanas and Chicanos founded in the 1970s and the same where my mother finished her courses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Each of these interviewees also spoke of colleagues and co-organizers, people who had either died or had not been seen in years, but who were remembered as living in this neighborhood, liking this restaurant, marching on these streets.

Over these years, I recorded two hundred hours of interviews with approximately 70 people. Each practiced the same back-and-forth creation that guided me and Luciano in our conversations. Collectively, interviewee recollections brought into view a new Coachella Valley—one that was still familiar, but also more confident, militant, and hopeful than my childhood home. All along, I kept thinking, in all those places I knew so well, lived a world I had been searching for since my adolescence. 

“An unexpected effect of interviewing UFW movement activists like Luciano Crespo was that it shifted what I can only awkwardly call my spatial relationship to my childhood home.”

Importantly, interviewees did not see our conversations as a passive effort in storytelling. Instead, the recordings intended to instruct those listening that they could also compel a better world and, in the process, transform themselves for the better. Few cared to be remembered, in fact, but nearly all insisted on recounting their social movement histories to facilitate just futures for all people, especially for Californian farmworkers. “It wasn’t just changes in the workplace,” Clementina Olloque, another UFW member told me in an unrecorded phone conversation: “…the goal was to educate ourselves and to change our lives. It changed my life.” This was the consistent observation: the UFW sought to transform the region’s farmworker-dependent social relations. In the process, participants underwent an existential metamorphosis.

I shared a similar view of the oral history project and of the recordings’ potential role outside academic spaces—of their ability to disrupt what is given and to narrate new pasts to speak of new future possibilities. What I had not considered, however, was how these interviews would affect me. In hindsight, this sounds incredibly naïve. But it is understandable enough. I knew so little of my home’s recent history that I had not considered the possibility of such bounty near me, with me, for me—as it was near, with, and for others, especially younger residents. 

The interviews also meant an intimacy I had not expected and an emotional weight I could not have predicted. I became close friends with many of the people I interviewed—though ‘friendship’ does not really convey the nature of our relationship. We were from two different generations in different stages of our lives and in different social, cultural, and professional circumstances. But we still knew the same place, spoke in similar-enough languages, hoped for similar-enough improvements in farmworker families. We shared coffees and meals, drove to different locations, and attended their UFW reunions. I also met their relatives, interviewed their friends, and gave them updates on my writing and my family’s wellbeing, which was as important to them as my research. I felt a visceral trust and care through conversations, as well as a deep responsibility for their stories. I was proud and honored to be trusted so, and somehow, through writing and teaching, I wanted to take care of them in return. And yet, inevitably, as the years passed, more of my friends began to die, including many of the people named above. It is difficult to describe the subtle devastation I feel—both for the personal loss and for losing traces of a home I was just getting to know, one I wished to share with the world, as a gift, for people like my students and those moving towards a just laboring world.

Memory of Life and Death

In “My Community, My History, My Practice,” the Latinx historian Horacio N. Roque Ramírez described all oral history projects, and their academic and trans-academic desires, through their somber temporality: “Like mine, many of our [oral history projects] are late,” he wrote in 2002, “they are certainly not useless, but certainly late.” In the article, Roque Ramírez guided the reader through his 1990s interviews on San Francisco’s late twentieth century queer Latinx community. The interviews took place under the shadow of stigmatization and marginalization, and in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. His interviewees also became his friends, his neighbors and city compatriots, and they, in their interviews, recounted accounts of community mobilization and caretaking, of dignity, presence, and agency. But they also spoke “of a painful history of loss and erasure, a queer history of community destruction.” To be an oral historian, Roque Ramírez thus argued, was to be engaged in a collaborative “project” between interviewee and interviewer, one that expected the historian to approach the past in interviewee terms and to share, in some respects, in the community’s life. “I am more tired,” he explained, because “oral history has required emotional energy, it has required a piece of my life, nothing less than what narrators agreed to when the audiotape began to roll.”

Roque Ramírez’s article was a gift from a colleague after I shared my growing grief and concern about near-future partings. Like him, I also felt more tired, and, like him, I felt the oral historian’s pride, terror, and odd loneliness in carrying the weight of so many individual stories that layered into a collective project. “I am still somewhat incoherent today,” he wrote, “feeling I carry much weight and responsibility,” feelings that, if he was anything like me, may have surprised him with their grip after they unfurled themselves, inside. For him, oral history was thus not simply a research approach, as valuable as it was for recovering histories. Too much was involved to describe it only as a method. Instead, oral histories constituted a “project,” a “commitment to the memory of life and death,” one that was only possible through and with others. Oral historians agreed to this when they began, he argued.

Mountains and the green stripe of a distant irrigated farm backdrop the deep furrows of a freshly plowed field in the Coachella Valley. Public domain.

But I had not expected this agreement, certainly not like this, even when I eagerly reached for the figurative audiotape and logged hour after hour of testimonies. I did not expect the responsibility nor its surprising weight, nor the overlapping of feelings, nor the depth of intimacy. And intimacy was everywhere. Nearly every interview involved a shared space, even at the start of our introductions. This space usually meant a quiet room, a table, and a couple chairs. Sometimes it was a crowded dining table with a television in the background. Sometimes it was a porch facing the neighborhood and its surrounding fields. For all, the tempo ranged, but the breath-like exchange was consistent: the interviewer breathed in, the interviewee breathed out. With shared words, the speaker invited others into their world/s, even those not readily apparent. Others—for it was not only for the historian. Most participants, it seemed to me, spoke with more people listening and building, through them. The interviewees were older and experienced people, people who now counted their days and revisited their pasts to name the world. And in the process, they aimed to help the younger name theirs. But like Roque Ramírez, this careful taking of life stories surprised me and scared me. I never knew how to do it well and often felt inadequate and guilty with a vague sense that I was missing something important, that I was asking the wrong questions, that I was squandering this rare opportunity, that I needed more time, more learning, more knowing.

“I did not expect the responsibility nor its surprising weight, nor the overlapping of feelings, nor the depth of intimacy. And intimacy was everywhere.”

But time was something I did not have. Much like for Roque Ramirez, death and age haunted these interviews. Their undergirding logic and originating impetus were that of mortality: to interview before everyone dies. The project only began because it was already too late, past some of the erasure and weighed by a layering of losses, a home in it. There was, admittedly, a bittersweet relief that despite being late the oral history project (and its promises) was still not “useless,” that not all had been lost, that the interviews could still trace a collective memory of life and death.

Most of the people I interviewed would have said as much, I think. They, too, were at the interview under similar pressures. “Hurry, young man,” some would say, “I do not have a lot of time before this thing [knocking forehead lightly] gives out.” Others noted funerals of close friends and the absences reminding them of life’s end. They spoke of the organizers I “just missed,” those who knew more of an issue or moment but had died earlier—perhaps when I was still taking classes. They spoke of local people they had not seen in years while doing errands (a common occurrence in the Coachella Valley’s small towns) and who were probably no longer alive. They spoke of those too sick to sit with me. Each a world, each a part of a moment in time, each an absence, for us, a knot in a “painful history of loss and erasure,” to use Roque Ramírez’s words. Oral histories are not useless, but they are often late.

Mortality haunted in more subtle ways, too. I began this project when I was only twenty-six years old. The project “occurred” to me while chaperoning a college tour for our high school students, at the ragged end of the last day and when I was likely looking for a distraction. A history of the UFW movement through farmworker aspirations, I thought with some premature pride. It was succinct and generative, but it was also naïve, as Roque Ramírez reflected on his own study: “to commit so much so early on, not entirely considering the repercussions, not understanding [the oral history project’s] potential.” By the time I began to transform my dissertation into a book, I was in my mid-thirties—already at some distance from my younger self and already noticing the project’s early naivete. Even as I relistened to interviews, drew in more readings, and asked more questions, I continued to suspect that my relative youth prevented me from understanding what interviewees shared. The Latinx anthropologist and cultural theorist, Renato Rosaldo, once noted while reflecting on his youthful research that older people may be better suited to practice anthropology, that a life well worn with tragedy helped the scholar see the world as it was. I sometimes feel similarly about oral history. 

“Their undergirding logic and originating impetus, for instance, were that of mortality: to interview before everyone dies.”

Perhaps the inherent sense of loss in these exchanges reflected a tacit recognition that ‘the all’ of us cannot be seen or understood entirely by others, that there would remain a key insistent space between two people, and that age differences widened this space. This was not simply a matter of confusion; it was more subtle. It reminded me of my present relationship to my undergraduates as I enter my forties. How to explain what twenty years of unexpected life feel and appear like? How to trace the perspectives that shift with time, just like words that feel both worn and still new? It is likely that a larger experiential gulf separated me from the UFW and Chicana/o movement participants I interviewed, and that this gulf shaped our interviews and my rather humble attempts to understand their stories’ full significance.

Today, I regret focusing too much on social movements, on the subject I envisioned when I was only twenty-six years old. The interviewees also prioritized this subject. It was important to them and others, hence their focus. But there was also a tension in some interviews, between emphasizing their movement labors and wanting some space from it. Their movements had been fundamental to their lives and to their sense of self. But these movements and their politics were almost never enough for participants’ layered lives, and movements often demanded much more from participants than they initially claimed. All those hours, I think now, and I only captured a tiny part of a major life.

I carry a deep sense of pain and loss at not being able to do more for the stories of my home. I cannot work against time, I tell myself, whether in its proximity to death or its embodied apartness that can impede understanding. There is always more to the recording.

A Eulogy for My Friend9

Good evening.

My name is Christian Paiz. I knew Luciano only in his last decade, which was due to his son, Luciano Jr., who defended me one evening from a threatening man. He said his father taught him to stand up for others, that his father had fought for social justice his entire life, that he organized for farmworker rights.

This was late 2013. I was then a graduate student writing on the UFW movement in the Coachella Valley, where I had been born and raised, and where I had been searching for people like him, people who sacrificed much of their lives so others could live, who became human precisely through that sacrifice, and who helped bring a better world despite the challenges. It felt like fate that his son protected me.

Since then, I met with Luciano to talk about his young life in Delano, his UFW leadership in the 1970s and 1980s, and his subsequent community work here. We often followed our talks with a drink at a nearby restaurant and spoke frequently over the phone in the last eighteen months—often with him reproaching me for not calling enough. We were planning to meet once life returned to normal.

“He wanted younger people to know that they could fight, too, that they were not alone, that much had changed, and that much more could be changed, by them.”

I am humbled and intimidated by his request that I speak at his funeral. Luciano became a close friend over the years and his sudden passing has left me heart broken. I know this hurt only falls more heavily on his family, his wife, Lupe, and his children and grandchildren. I know it falls, too, on his lifelong friends, especially who knew him before I was even born.

So, I will share only a few thoughts and invite you to share your memories too.

First, Luciano was a generous and sincere man. He was smart and steady, and he was loyal to his farmworker community and to working people more generally. He insisted on Filipina/o history in UFW histories and on the role of women in the union’s unprecedented victories, much like his grandmother and the many strikers he met across the country and over two decades.10 Without either, he said repeatedly, there would have been no UFW movement. When I asked about his leadership and his labors, he pointed my attention to others.

He was serious, always prepared, obviously intelligent. He knew his worth and he knew what he was doing, and he insisted that others recognize as much. 11

In all this union talk, however, I also learned about his early life in Delano—like playing baseball with sticks, all his cousins in the barrio streets; like walking to and from school with his childhood buddy, arms over shoulders, hearing farmworker voices in the nearby fields; like smelling his school cafeteria’s chocolate cake, which he could not afford but still recall with relish fifty years later. When he was a teenager, Luciano took care of his grandmother, listened to her stories, and kept her company. He also worked in Delano’s grape fields with Filipino workers, all much older and nearly all bachelors, life-rich men who saw in Luciano a thoughtful, principled young man, someone who, as both Filipino and Mexican, was loved as kin. He felt guided and embraced by these older men, he said, generous men, like him. 

“Perhaps the inherent sense of loss in these exchanges reflected tacit recognition that ‘the all’ of us cannot be seen or understood entirely by others, that there would remain a key space between two people, and that age differences widened this space.”

After high school, he chose to stay in Delano to care for his family and join the UFW movement. He did not get a college degree, he said, but he received the best education he could through the union. There, he learned how to organize workers, negotiate contracts, and make circles around grower lawyers; he learned to fundraise and lead boycotts in faraway places, like New England colleges and union councils in New York City, where he would repeatedly ride the subway with thousands of donation dollars stuffed inside his Delano-thin jacket. He also met Lupe, who became the love of his life, and with whom he grew into elder age.

The truth of the matter, however, is that I wish I had spent more time on his life. Much of our conversations were about movement building, which reflected his priority to make the world a better place. He wanted younger people to know that they could fight, too, that they were not alone, that much had changed, and that much more could be changed, by them.

I also assumed we had more time. Many of us did, I imagine.

My heart goes out to you, Lupe, and to Luciano’s children, grandchildren, and relatives. It goes out to his friends and comrades, to everyone who is feeling his deep loss.

My dear Luciano, we already miss you. I have been thinking of you daily these last two weeks, and amidst the pain and loss, I also feel pride. I am proud of you for the life you have lived, for the choices you made.

You are a loved man, a man who knew how to love and be loved, a man who cared for his family and his communities.

So, I wish you all that the poet Alice Walker wished for her comrades, like you, those freedom fighters who built the world that now loves you in return.

May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest

And may you know we remember you,
dear friend.

Farmworker Futures for Us All

I am grateful for what Luciano shared with us. I am grateful he trusted us with his voice, and I am grateful to be part of a community that will cherish his memories, assertions, thoughts, and curiosities. I am also grateful for the other interviewees, those who also trusted and offered, corrected and encouraged. Most repeated the same lessons for a life well lived: be brave; be kind; be just; be true. I am grateful, especially, to have these stories as our futures loom with difficulties.

Such difficulties were especially apparent as I attempted to finish earlier drafts of this piece, when, from fall 2022 to spring 2023, California faced one “atmospheric river” after another. Each one unleashed days and nights of unrelenting rain on drought-stricken lands. Reservoirs filled to the brim, to the relief of California’s water-anxious residents, but so did rivers and streams. Soon, the rains began to flood neighborhoods and provoke mudslides on previously burnt mountains. They covered fields with mud and water, refilled long-forgotten lake basins, and displaced community after community with devastating destruction. In Monterey County, for instance, the small farmworker community of Pajaro was flooded when nearby levees broke in March 2023. Residents lost thousands in property damage and received uneven attention and support. As farmworkers, they also lost employment and income after nearby fields flooded, too. Pajaro has less than three thousand residents, much like my childhood home of Thermal, which is also a farmworker community of older, humbler houses and a collection of packed trailer parks—all vulnerable to the alternating forces in California’s new climate change reality: of unprecedented droughts followed by unprecedented rains bridged by an unprecedented pandemic and unprecedented wildfires.

Like Pajaro residents, farmworkers in the Coachella Valley and the United States face a future of significant challenges. Rising temperatures mean greater chances for farmworker heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It means higher rates of farmworker liver disease due to heat-driven dehydration. It means greater pulmonary illnesses, whether they originated in long-term COVID-19 effects or in the greater levels of toxins, smoke, and pathogens that forest fires blanket over the most marginalized. In a place like the Coachella Valley, increased temperatures may very well undermine the small farmworker communities. It may simply become too hot for people. Before then, the drying Salton Sea will likely expose nearby residents (who are nonwhite and working poor) to a century of accumulated pesticides and fertilizer runoff, chemical toxins that growers called mere “externalities.” Before then, investors will likely attempt to present lithium mining in the Salton Sea as an ecological answer to a world of externalities, investors who can then leisure in the Coachella Valley’s western half, where green golf courses continue to parch desert communities with impunity.

“[They] are all vulnerable to the alternating forces in California’s new climate change reality: of unprecedented droughts followed by unprecedented rains bridged by an unprecedented pandemic.”

Oral history is a project, Roque Ramírez wrote, not just an approach. And as a project, it is collective, collaborative, and inventive. It offers and expects commitments from speakers, recorders, and listeners alike. For me, such a project entails considering how histories of the UFW movement can be translated for the world we face today. What, for instance, would Luciano Crespo say about the Pajaro residents? How would Coachella Valley UFW strikers understand farmworker rights in an age of climate emergencies, when the major life disruptor is not only agribusiness’s relentless exploitation, but also the climate that agribusiness helped disrupt? What of their accounts can provide guidance in a moment of tremendous instability, especially as it concentrates its miseries on the most marginalized?

The oral histories, I think, insist that we learn to fight for social justice writ large—for our communities and for the communities of others. It means, I believe, dedicating our academic and community resources to push for a “just transition” in California and the United States—which is to say, to fight for social rights as we begin to grapple with the regeneration of our planet in the twenty-first century. It means envisioning a new agricultural sector, one that builds from past movement building tactics to produce an ecologically and socially regenerative farming world. And it means, more amorphously, a form of storytelling that connects us with the people around and beyond us, that stretch us to make linkages, that helps us safeguard Luciano’s prediction: the farmworker movement will triumph, still.


In oral histories, there is always more to the recording. There is more in the interviewee than the interviewer can know, process, or recognize. There is more to the recording in personal meaning and interpersonal affection and connection than the manuals suggest. There is more to the recording than mere questions of method, of supposed rigor. Oral history is a project, as Roque Ramírez argued, and as a project it requires reciprocity. For me, the latter means that despite all that remains outside the recording, we can still recognize that we already know enough to complete the work ahead of us. May god grace you, Luciano, with the same force that you graced us, loved us. And may we, in turn, be as beautiful as all the humanity that already surrounds us.

This essay is part of the series Humanizing Acts: Resisting the Historical Erasures of the COVID-19 Pandemic across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, funded by UCHRI’s Recasting the Humanities: Foundry Guest Editorship grant. Listen to the collaborative podcast, in which series contributors discuss the gifts of resisting the historical erasure of the COVID-19 pandemic with community and research.

This publication was partially funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

  1. Thank you to all the participants in this issue, especially Ana Rosas and Adrian Felix, and to my undergraduate researchers, who led much of this work. They are: Yara Choeb, Alin Cruz Rodriguez, Chang Ding, Laura Grimberg, Ximena Mandujano, Audrey McClish, Elissa Mei, Matisse Mulligan, Valeria Pasillas, and Ivonne Galicia. I look forward to reading your future scholarship!
  2. For a description of the oral history project, see my “Appendix” in The Strikers of Coachella: A Rank-and-File History of the UFW Movement.
  3. In an example, Luciano Crespo explained, “My mother was a very hard worker. To this day, she is now suffering the consequences of being a hard worker in the fields of California, in the fields of Delano. Her knees are out. Arthritis is in. She has lung disease that I feel can be attributed to the pesticides and things like that that have been applied to—in the years that nobody really knew about them. Sixties, fifties, people, growers would apply pesticides, and nobody knew about them. Nobody made an issue about them. I could say that maybe perhaps I’m a product of that pesticide because when my mother gave birth to me, I was born like this [pointing to a deformed ear].” Luciano Crespo, interviewed by Christian Paiz, February 8, 2014, digital recording in author’s possession.
  4. “The [Mexican American labor contractor] kids strutted a little by showing up with their brand-new baseball gloves, but—or their brand-new bikes. We had to put bikes together from four different broken bikes. We’d make one. Different colors, different size of rims, but we’ll make it. But, no, I didn’t see that strutting. No. Mm-mm. Maybe I was too much of a child not to notice it, but I’m pretty good at judging character even when I was a kid. But I didn’t see it. It’s confusing. Confusing. Today a lot of them are dying off. Same as a lot of the other people on the west side are dying off. We go to their funerals, and they’re there, and they’re mixing. It’s such a strange thing. Maybe it was the kids that were showing off. I don’t know.” Luciano Crespo, interviewed by Christian Paiz, February 1, 2014, digital recording in author’s possession.
  5. “And those guys, I remember, would come back in those days, and I just remember it like a cloud. They’d be singing with their guitars, and they’d be drinking beer. But back then the beer can—I don’t know why I remember the beer can, but I remember the beer can, and you would have to get a can opener, both sides. They didn’t have the flips. You had to get the can opener and drink beer. And I remember those guys would drink a lot and sing a lot. They would sing a lot. And I often wonder if these dudes were medicating themselves through booze and music because life was hard. And feeding children—and if they’re going to go up against the system, they’re going to get fired. They’re going to do this. They’re going to do that. That’s the kind of injustice that I think Cesar was fighting.” Luciano Crespo, interviewed by Christian Paiz, February 8, 2014, digital recording in author’s possession.
  6. “The feeling was very powerful. Very powerful. Very, very powerful. And I got the feeling that somebody was going to take out the rosary and start reciting the rosary, and I was just waiting for that to happen. That’s how quiet and how solemn it is—was. There was no agitation, no arguing, because Cesar’s message was true. It’s time we do something about these low wages. It’s time we get some bathrooms in there. Time they give us water to drink. Time they start spraying the pesticides, which they did not. They didn’t do that until about ten years later. I remember the pesticides, just doing it myself, going and picking grapes and coming home, burning, and I didn’t even know what the hell was burning me. My mother would just say, ‘Go take a shower, mijo.’ And I’d still be burning. There was nothing they would do. I must have hit some vineyards that had a lot of pesticide on them, and I can kick myself in the ass today for letting that grower get away with it. I was a child.” Luciano Crespo, interviewed by Christian Paiz, February 1, 2014, digital recording in author’s possession.
  7. Of the UFW Grape Strike in 1965, Luciano Crespo described a turbulent impact: “Turbulent in the sense that the strike had already started, and I’m talking about ’65 onward, and the strike had already started. You had families, like next-door neighbors. They were non-strikers, but all these years they were. friends of ours. But now they’re non-strikers, so what does that do? Creates a division. You had the next neighbors after that. They were strikers, and the next ones are strikers. The next ones were strikebreakers. You had that kind of combination tension in different neighborhoods. And you would have to deal with the sons and daughters that you grew up with in the neighborhood, and it was kind of hard because you like your friends. But because their parent chose not to strike but rather work, you had a difficulty. But you liked your friends. You still talked to them. You still hung out with them and all that. I did, anyways. I did, but there were some kids that wouldn’t. Stay away scabs, strikebreakers.” Luciano Crespo, interviewed by Christian Paiz, February 8, 2014, digital recording in author’s possession.
  8. “I did it [joined the UFW movement] because I felt that I would get the best education on the trenches from some of the best leaders that I’ve ever have come across. And I did it because I was wanting to learn to the point that I wanted to pay back those that abused and abused my mother and my aunts and my grandmother and all them for their years of farm labor in the fields. But the only way to do that is to become more smarter than them at the table, and that’s why I chose to stick around and do the trenches.” Luciano Crespo, interviewed by Christian Paiz, February 8, 2014, digital recording in author’s possession.
  9. With permission from Luciano Crespo’s family.
  10. You see pictures of the movement today. Majority of them are women around that little man [Cesar Chavez]. I don’t understand. The men talk big. They talk shit, but that’s after the fact. But who put it all together and knitted it? It was the women.” Luciano Crespo, interviewed by Christian Paiz, February 8, 2014, digital recording in author’s possession.