Tastemakers: Jessie Lopez de la Cruz

Episode Summary

Jessie Lopez De La Cruz (1919-2013) was a Mexican-American farm worker and labor activist.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s tastemaker was a warrior for workers’ rights. She dedicated herself to speaking up for those who couldn’t advocate for themselves. We’re talking about Jessie Lopez De La Cruz.

Jessie Lopez was born in 1919 in Anaheim, California. She was the oldest of three in a family of farm workers, and lived with her extended relatives -- including her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

Because her family struggled financially, Jessie started picking fruits and vegetables in the field at five years old. By the time she was nine, her family had left Anaheim to work as migrant farm laborers. Jessie therefore attended  dozens of different schools. She helped with farm labor and also helped her siblings with their homework, because she spoke the most fluent English.

Beginning in 1929, a string of tragedies rocked the foundation of Jessie’s family. First, her Aunt Maria, who was more of a sibling figure due to her age, died in an accident. Then in 1930, Jessie’s mother fell ill and died, After that, her grandfather died, too. In 1931, Jessie’s step-father fled the country after having an altercation with another man.

All of this happened in the thick of the Great Depression, which hit Jessie’s impoverished family hard. They often had to sleep on the side of the road in a tent. The adults made 10 cents per hour, and the children made nothing.

In 1932, Jessie witnessed her first strike. In San Juan Capistrano, a coalition of workers -- many of whom were Mexican -- gathered to protest working conditions. An official from the Mexican Consulate arrived to negotiate with the participants, and he asked Jessie for help translating from Spanish to English. This was her first experience helping to negotiate a labor dispute. 

Jessie’s family faced one hardship after another. Their car broke down, their camp flooded out, and they were forced to settle down in an abandoned granary. There, they foraged for food and potentially contaminated water to survive. At one point, Jessie came down with typhoid fever and had to stay isolated in the hospital until she recovered. 

In 1938, Jessie married Arnold de la Cruz, another farm worker, and moved to the small city of Huron. Jessie then worked in a local lunch truck that served many of the surrounding fieldworkers. She  and Arnold had six children. 

Thanks to her childhood and her many interactions with laborers as she served them food, Jessie was highly aware of the many injustices faced by workers -- mostly Mexican Americans -- in the agriculture industry. They worked in brutal heat, foremen pocketed their taxes and wages, and they faced extreme price gouging at company stores on farm property. Racial wage gaps and a lack of opportunities for higher education prevented many from standing up for themselves.

In 1965, Arnold started working with Cesar Chavez and the organization that would become the United Farm Workers, then called the National Farm Workers Association. The group met in Jessie’s home, and soon Jessie herself became involved. She later recalled Chavez proclaiming, “women have to be involved. They're the ones working out in the fields with their husbands, if you can take women into the fields with their husbands, you can certainly take them to meetings.”

In the following years, Jessie traveled between the surrounding towns to enroll farm workers into the union -- and she recruited more people than anyone else in the organization. Jessie and the United Farm Workers picketed stores, advocated for Mexican-American workers’ safety, fought employer corruption, and converted others to the union cause.

In 1968, the first United Farm Workers hiring hall was established directly next to Jessie’s home, and Jessie became the manager. She distributed food donations, collected dues, and continued translating for community members.

Her community work and advocacy earned her spots on the Fresno County Economic Opportunity Commission, the Central California Action Associates, and California's Commission on the Status of Women. In 1972, she was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

One of Jessie’s key contributions to the United Farm Workers was making the organization more welcoming and inclusive to women. Jessie added women to all-male committees and guided their leadership on a variety of projects, despite pushback from within the union.

Jessie also faced opposition  from outside forces. She was called a radical, a communist, and a troublemaker by counter-protestors and reporters.

In 1993, Jessie retired from the United Farm Workers. Her trailer caught fire, forcing her to move to a senior apartment building. She joined the California Rural Legal Assistance and sorted donations at a Catholic charity.

On September 2nd, 2013, Jessie died. Her funeral in Downtown Fresno drew hundreds of attendees who had been touched by her advocacy.

Jessie’s life was depicted in an ABC miniseries and in a biography. 

As always, we’ll be taking a break for the weekend. We’ll be back on Monday with the story of another tastemaker. Next time, we’re heading back to late 19th century New York City.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you on Monday!