John Sanchez Oral History Transcript
Interview conducted by Harvey Schwartz
March 31, 1998
Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University
2000, revised 2015
Copyright © 2015
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John Sanchez Oral History Transcript
Interviewer: Harvey Schwartz [HS]
Interviewee: John Sanchez [JS]
Date: March 31, 1998
Subjects: Migrant Farm labor, 1933 Cotton Strike, The Great Depression, Molders’ Union
[Begin Tape 1 - Side 1 (A)]
HS: - Petaluma with John Sanchez. Today’s the thirty-first of March of 1998 and this is
part of the oral history collection project of the Labor Archives and Research
Center of San Francisco State University. Okay, John, let’s um, go ahead. Can you
tell me - I’m going to sort of ask you questions, we’ll do it question and answer style
JS: Well, it’s not being recorded now, is it?
JS: Oh, it is. Okay. Fine.
HS: So - can you tell me where you were born and when you were born?
JS: I was born in Pixley, California, May the sixth, 1920, in Tulare County.
HS: What did your parents do for a living?
JS: They uh, they was migrant workers - they picked cotton, they picked grapes, they picked
potatoes and worked in the melons - cantaloupes, watermelons and stuff like that.
HS: Ok. Now, you one time mentioned on the telephone to me - you said that they were
fruit tramps - that they referred to themselves as -
JS: As fruit tramps, yeah.
HS: Can you kind of expand on what that was? You said that was a way of life -
JS: That was a way of life. That’s the way we made our living - up until the time that we
started working in the fruit - why, we used to go to different places and work in the fruit.
And I mentioned the fact that we travelled to Shafter, California, and worked at the
Hoover fann in the onions. And then we came back. As soon as the harvest of the onions
was over, we came back to Pixley and started working picking cotton. And I used to
remember as a kid - little child, four, five years old - I used to walk besides my mother
and dad - I had a little sugar sack - and I’d pick out the cotton and put it in my little
sugar sack and when my sugar sack was full, I’d pour it into my mother’s sack or my
dad’s sack, and I grew up picking cotton and I got real good at picking cotton. At one
time, when I was about eighteen or twenty, I could pick six hundred and eighteen pounds
of cotton in one day and that was at three dollars a hundred - we was getting three dollars
a hundred. So that was good money, then. And the cotton harvest would last from
September till about March. In February and March, we’d pick bolls. Those are the
cotton bolls that didn’t open up real good. So we picked the whole thing - the boll, and
then evidently the gins - when the cotton bolls went to the gin, the gin would break up
the bolls and get the cotton. And the cotton wasn’t as good from the bolls as they was
from picking it out in the - from the cotton fields, you know - from the cotton vines. And
uh, but uh -
HS: Well now, um, where did they live at this time? When you say that they were, you
know, you said they were fruit tramps. Is that before they went into cotton picking?
JS: Yeah it was before we went to the cotton picking. And we built little shacks out of
cardboard or whatever we could find to kind of knock off the wind and then the cold and
we - okay, the way we had mattresses, we didn’t have mattresses, we had these big grape
sweatboxes which - I guess, I don’t know if you know what a raisin sweatbox is - it’s
just about as big as this table - so my mother would put two of these together and then
we we’d put straw on top of these grape boxes and then we’d put gunny sacks on top, and
that was our mattress. And then we had - we covered ourselves with gunnysacks to keep
from freezing - it was awfully cold - and we didn’t have no heaters and so, and we didn’t
have no electricity so we used candles for light and we used - we took one of those big
cans - I guess it was a milk can - we cut the top off of it and we’d use it as a stove. We’d
put wood in there and start the fire and then we’d put a piece of metal on top and that’s
where my mother would cook our food. And -
HS: Was this in a tent affair sort of thing?
JS: In a, yeah, in a tent, sort of tent. We called them squatters village then, squatters village. I
don’t know what - that’s what everybody said.
HS: John, was this when they were fruit tramps or after they lived in Pixley?
JS: That’s after they lived in Pixley.
HS: You lived in a tent in Pixley.
JS: Yeah, I lived in a tent in Pixley.
HS: And how long did you live in a tent in Pixley, do you recall?
JS: Oh, we lived in a tent in Pixley ‘till I graduated from grammar school - and that was in
1935. 1 graduated from grammar school in ‘35 and then, at that time, we was lucky that
some farmer - I still remember - some fanners let us use a little house that was out in the
field. It was a little house, a little - one big room house. And he let us live in there, and
he said, “You people can live in here, as long as you take care of the place and don’t burn
it down.” And so we lived there for many, many years.
HS: When your family lived in a tent - do you know who owned the tent and the
property and the land? Was it owned by one of the cotton ranchers or something?
JS: Yeah, it was John [Pavlovich?]. He was the owner of the place that little house was in. In
the middle of a vineyard. This little house was in the middle of a vineyard and John
[Pavlovich?] he was the owner and he let us live there free of rent and that was the first
time that we ever lived in a house and that was - oh my God - that was up in the ‘30s.
Previous to that we just lived wherever we could, wherever we could find a place.
HS: When you lived in a tent before 1935 - was - did somebody own that tent, and that
piece of property? Was it the same guy, or somebody else?
JS: Well, it was the same person.
HS: Oh, I see. Okay.
JS: This John [Pavlovich?], he seen us living in that tent, and it was raining and we were
getting all wet, so he felt sorry for us and he let us move into the little house. That little
house I’m telling you - inside the vineyard. Of course, that house is gone now, and all the
houses - all the places where we lived in - it’s gone now. There’s nothing. Nothing left
there to remind me of the places. At that time, there was a lots of eucalyptus groves.
Previous to us moving to Pixley, I guess people made their living out of the eucalyptus
trees. I guess they used to cut ‘em down and sell ‘em for wood. But now, there’s no
eucalyptus trees there now. It’s all cotton.
HS: John - do you know why your parents decided to settle in Pixley as a kind of a base?
JS: Yeah. Okay, that’s a good question. Because we had started the school, and they - my
dad and mother wanted us to get a good education and she said, “Well, we’ll have to stop
moving around because the kids are going to school now and they need an education.”
And I learned a lot in school. I skipped two grades. I was in the first grade, and then I
skipped the second grade. I went to the third grade, and I skipped the fourth grade and I
went to the fifth grade. And I remember the principal used to come around each room
with my grade card and it was all A’s, all A’s, all plus A’s, and he used to tell the kids,
“Look. This boy here is very smart. He’s got all A’s on his card and I want you kids to
follow in his footsteps and you people can get A’s too, you know.” Grade A’s, you know.
And I felt kind of humble about it. I felt ashamed because here we are, you know,
poverty-stricken people, and then I was so smart in school, see. And then, still today I
have a brilliant memory of the past. I can remember things that - as a little kid, I can
remember things real good.
HS: Was the schooling in English? Was any of the schooling in Spanish at all?
JS: No, it was all in English.
HS: How did you find that? Was that good or bad or—
JS: Well, we found it kinda - different, I guess - ‘cos we spoke Spanish - my dad and
mother spoke Spanish - we spoke Spanish. So when we went to school, we had to start to
leam to speak all over again. And even today, I’ve heard that I have a little accent. And I
just never could get rid of that little accent that I have.
HS: You spoke - you still speak good Spanish?
JS: Oh, I speak good Spanish, yes. I speak Spanish, you know. And then, and today, I can,
you know, interpret. A lot of Mexican people come here, they don’t know how to speak
English so I speak for them. And I’ve been to, you know, trials at municipal courts, and
I’m an interpreter, you know, for the Mexican people, you know. And -
HS: Nice, that’s great
JS: People, in those days, in the ‘30s, people - the white people - were real cruel. They
didn’t like the Mexican people. I don’t know why. But they would treat us bad, they
would talk to us bad and they thought that we was - I don’t know - out of space or
something. They couldn’t - they wouldn’t tolerate us.
HS: You mentioned that they gave you a hard time for your clothes and shoes and —
JS: That’s right. We used to - we didn’t - I remember when we didn’t have to go to school
we’d walk maybe three, four miles to where they had the Pixley refuse dump. I guess
where people throw stuff that they didn’t want, you know. And we’d go there and most of
the wealthy people would throw good clothes, you know, good shirts, good pants, good
shoes, and my mother and I, and my sister, we’d go there and we’d pick ‘em up and bring
‘em home. And my mother would fix them up. She’d sew ‘em. My mother got to be a
good sewer. She could sew real nice, you know. And I’d wear the good clothes to school,
but the kids - the white kids - would see the clothes with the patches on, and they’d
make fun of me. And I was - a lot of times, I would cry because they would make fun of
me. And then I’d go home that night and my mother would say, “Well, don’t cry. They
don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what they’re saying. Their day will
come, you know, someday they’re going to regret that.” And I felt pretty good about that,
but still - there was one good thing about it: I was a little Mexican barefooted kid, but I
could sure beat them kids in class! I could out-read them, I could out- write them, I could
- still, today, I have a beautiful handwriting. Very clear. And I copied my first teacher’s
handwriting. She could write on the blackboard real clear, you know. And I said to
myself, “someday, I’m going write like that.” And sure enough, today I write like my
HS: John - how many white kids and how many Mexican kids were in school? When
you were young, and around the neighborhood and stuff?
JS: I guess there was more white people than there was Mexican people, see.
HS: Were there Filipino people and black people, too?
JS: Mmm, yeah, there was a few black people - not very many. I can remember there’s about
four or five black people - the [Gorees?] was a black people, and the Hopkins was
another black people, and the Williams, that was another black people, and the Browns,
that was another black people. That was about all the black people there was.
HS: How were they treated in school by the kids?
JS: Well, they was treated like we were. They was treated pretty bad, you know. And, we
didn’t know nothing about - we thought, you know, colored - black people - we called
them colored people at that time, you know. We used to go to school with them, we used
to visit at their houses; we didn’t know nothing about hating colored people. And then
when the Okies came to California in the - I think about ‘33 the Okies came over here -
and they brought that prejudice stuff with them from Oklahoma and saying - they called
them, you know, niggers: “Niggers are not supposed to be with us, they’re not supposed
to be in a bar with us, they’re not even supposed to ride the same bus.” And I remember
the Okies bringing that up, you know. In - I guess they came here in - 1934, 1 think, is
when The Grapes of Wrath and all that stuff- 1934, yeah -
HS: It’s in that range.
JS: And we were surprised when they brought that thing that you weren’t supposed to mingle
with black people. We didn’t know any difference when we used to mingle with ‘em. We
used to eat at their houses, we used to - they was good people - to us, they was good
people, ‘cos they was mistreated by the white people just like we were - the Mexican
kids, you know.
HS: Well, now, when the people came from Oklahoma and Texas and so on - did any of
you guys ever point out, “Hey you guys have come to work just like us. How come
you’re down on these black guys?” Did anybody ever - did you have any discussions
JS: Yeah, we had discussions - I’ll tell you what happened. They used to - we used to get
twenty five cents an hour for working out in the field and the Okies would come over
there and says, “We’ll work for fifteen cents an hour if you’ll give us a job.” See, and
they cut the wages. Do you know about that? Or heard about it?
HS: A little
JS: Yeah. And so that’s - we got to where we hated the Okies because they was coming to
take our jobs, you know. It’s just like today - the Mexican people come from Mexico -
they come over here - they take the white man’s job. But look at it this way: that there’s
no white man that you can get to go pick grapes or cut fruit or anything like that. If it
weren’t for the Mexicans, I don’t know what - they’d lose all their crops because white
people won’t pick fruit - won’t pick grapes, you know. And the Mexicans will do a lot of
work that the white people can’t do. But still, the white people will gripe because they
say the Mexicans come over here and take their jobs, you know. And it’s not true. They
won’t do that kind of work. And so - that’s where it’s all at, you know.
HS: Okay. One thing I didn’t ask you was your parent’s name, your parent’s names.
JS: Oh, Pedro Sanchez, my father. And Mary Sanchez, my mother.
HS: And do you know if they’d ever done any other work in their lifetime besides fruit
work? Or agricultural work?
JS: Well, my mother - there was some rich people that lived across the field from our house
and their name was the [Forsblatts?]. They had three daughters - the man and his wife -
and they had a grape farm, and my mother used to walk across the field to Mrs.
[Forsblatt’s] house and she’d do housework - she’d clean house, wash the dishes and
stuff like that. She was more like a maid or something. And she would - this Mrs.
[Forsblatt], Mrs. Ethel [Forsblatt] - would, you know, pay my mother a little bit of
money and then she’d give her cakes and cookies and stuff like that. And of course my
sister came out smelling like a rose because she could get the clothes that the girls had,
see, and she got clothes like that, but the kids at school, you know, they found out that my
mother was a housekeeper at the [Forsblatts] home and they’d ridicule me real bad about
that. They’d say, “Hey, your mother’s working for the rich people. She’s a” - they had a
special name for it, and I didn’t like that, you know. That’s - if it hasn’t been for Mrs.
[Forsblatt], I don’t know what we’d a - we’d a went hungry because she used to - Mrs.
[Forsblatt] used to give us a little foods, you know, and give us hand-me-down clothes
for my sister and she’d give us a little money - I don’t know how much, but it was a little
money. My mother used to work there maybe three, four days a week: cleaning the
house, washing the windows, doing the house - the laundry and stuff like that.
And then, when the grapes was ready to harvest, why Mr. [Forsblatt] - Gus [Forsblatt] -
would hire my mother and my dad to pick the grapes. And we used to pick the grapes in
trays and we’d cut the grapes into a big sort of, let’s see, a canister - a big tub or
something - and then when we’d get that canister full of grapes, we’d spread out a paper
tray and we’d put the grapes on a paper tray and we’d level the grapes. That was for the
sun to hit the grapes and dry ‘em up and that would make raisins, see. And they’d dry
‘em for a certain amount of time and then we’d have to go back and then turn the trays,
and we got to where we could turn trays - a thousand, five - maybe fifteen hundred trays
- in a day’s time. We’d slip one tray under it and flip it over - I don’t know exactly how
to describe that, but we got used to doing that. And we used to turn a lot of trays. First
we’d pick the grapes, let ‘em dry, and then we’d come back later and turn the trays and
they’d pay us so much. I think it was a cent a tray for the grapes and I think it was a
quarter of a cent to turn the trays over. And a good person could turn, maybe, close to
two thousand trays a day. That’s a lot of trays. That was to make raisins. Like today, we
have raisins - that’s the reason for having the raisins. They dry ‘em up, and then they turn
‘em over and they dry them up on the other side. And then later on, when the grape -
when the raisins - are dried on both sides, then we’d go there and we’d roll up the trays -
we had a certain way; we’d pull it over like that, and then we’d bring up one side of the
tray, and we’d roll it just like rolling a cigarette. And we’d roll the raisins, and we’d stack
‘em under the vines. I can remember just rolling so many of those in a day’s time.
HS: That’s amazing. Did your dad ever do any other work in addition, in those early
days, besides agricultural work?
JS: Well, for a while my dad worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad in Pixley and he
worked there for a while and - of course, we’d work there while there was no cotton
picking or while there was no fruit - but we could make more money, you know, picking
grapes and picking cotton. Just working at the railroad, you know, eight hours each day,
so much each hour, you know. You couldn’t make no money that way.
HS: What was he doing for railroad?
JS: Putting in railroad ties under the rails, putting in the railroad ties. Taking out the old ties.
A tie is a wooden thing that goes under the rail and it’s clamped onto the rail and, you
know, so that the train, when it runs over the rail - why, it takes the shock of the train.
That’s what the ties - they call them ties - railroad ties. It’s a large piece of wood, you
know, and it’s placed under the railroad.
HS: And you’re saying that paid less than cotton picking?
JS: Oh, yeah. You know cotton picking - 1 could make, like I say, six hundred pounds a day
and that’s at three dollars a hundred. That’s pretty good money. Three dollars a hundred,
HS: Three dollars a hundred, okay, interesting.
JS: And, uh, I used to make ninety dollars a week. Ninety dollars a week, you know, and I’d
work - work the five days and then go up there Saturday and work half a day, and then
I’d be off half a day Saturday and all day Sunday. And I used to make ninety dollars a
week picking cotton.
HS: Okay -
JS: And we had big long sacks - we had twelve foot canvas sacks - and we’d put a zipper all
alongside the canvas sack and I’d put cotton in there, sometimes a hundred and twenty
pounds - a hundred and, uh, I guess a hundred and twenty pounds was the most that I put
in one of those sacks - and so, we’d weigh the sack and they’d take out - I think it was
five pounds for the sack - and then the rest was the weight of the cotton. And then we’d
walk up to the trailer, and then we’d unzip this big sack, unzip the sack, and the cotton
would fall out. And then we’d zip the sack again and go back and get another row of
cotton and start picking all over again. And they used to pay us at every weight. Every
weight, the cotton farmer would be there with big trays of change, of money, and you’d
weigh your cotton, your sack - and then whatever that weight, why, he’d pay you right
there. He’d pay you. So, at night when we left to go to work, why our pockets would be
full of change, full of dollars bills, quarters, ten cent pieces, well, you know, they’d pay
you every - up until then, they used to, the fanner used to keep the poundage in a book,
you know. And I guess that got too hard for them to figure out, you know; so many
pounds, so many pounds - and so then they decided to pay cash at every weighing. At
every weighing they’d pay cash.
HS: Okay. That’s great information, actually. How many children were in your family?
JS: Just me and my sister and that was it.
HS: Okay. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Hoover Ranch? That was Herbert
JS: Herbert Hoover, the President of the United States. And I don’t know what year it was,
but I know it was at Shafter - and we’d go over there, Shatter, California - and we’d go
over there and work in the onions. I was real small then - I didn’t work - I stayed out
there with my dad and mother in the field. Once in a while, I can remember getting a
great, big onion. Some of those onions got real big and if I’d find a big onion like that -
well, I’d give it to my mother and she’d put it in the other onions, you know. And we
worked there ‘til the onion harvest was over with, and then we went back to Pixley.
HS: Okay, what - do you know the year that you actually moved to Pixley?
JS: Well, I was born in Pixley -
HS: Oh you’re right, 1920 -
JS: But then we’d go out of Pixley for a while to work at like the onions, you know, stuff like
that. But we’d always come back to Pixley, you know. Because we was in school then.
And you know, during school days - I don’t know how it is now - but during school
days, you’d get three months’ vacation. Or two months - I don’t know remember
correctly. And in those two months that we was on vacation, why, we’d travel to different
places in California and work, you know. And sometime we’d go to San Jose and work in
the apricots and then, one time, we went somewhere - I don’t remember just where it was
- would have prunes, a lot of prunes, and we worked in the prunes there for a while, you
know, for three months, and then by the time school started again, we’d go back to
Pixley, you know, to start school again.
HS: Did your parents ever say how they were treated, how people were generally treated
at the Hoover Ranch? At Herbert Hoover’s Ranch?
JS: Well, I mean, yeah, it was bad because they used to look down upon us, you know. Like
the white people would come up and tell my dad, said, “Why don’t you Mexicans stay in
Mexico? Why do you have to come over here and take our jobs?” And stuff like that.
And my dad says, “Well, we have to make a living, you know. I have two kids here to
take to school.” But that didn’t - they said, “Go back to Mexico! Go back to Mexico,
where you belong. You come over here and take our jobs.” And, you know, and then, it
wasn’t too long afterwards - several years afterwards - then the Okies started coming
over and taking our jobs.
HS: Yeah. So the people coming from Oklahoma came after your parents had been in
the Herbert Hoover Ranch?
HS: Okay. So that’s earlier. Okay. Kinda fixes that in time. Right, okay. Maybe we can
move to the situation in 1933 and kind of move down in the direction of the situation
on the verge of the strike.
JS: Yeah, I was -
HS: The big cotton strike of ‘33.
JS: I know of the big cotton strike. I’ll tell you what happened. I remember in that time - in
those days - they had wells. They had - I don’t know if you remember - big, big wells.
You know, deep. Oh my God! Some of them half as big as this room, you know, to get
water. And it was very dangerous, you know. A lot of those wells was left open, see. And
I remember one time, in the thirties, there was a very prominent man in Pixley - let’s see
- a Mister - I can’t think of his name right now - and he had a little kid about three, four
years old, and the little kid fell into this well. Fell into this well, see. But it didn’t kill the
little kid - 1 don’t know what happened. And nobody would go down in this well to pick
up the little kid and my dad said, “I’ll go!” And my dad climbed down - they had a
stairwell, I mean a ladder, you know. My dad climbed down - way down there - we all
watching him, and the press was there and everything and my dad became a hero! He
went down there and got that little kid and then brought it back up and presented it to the
man that owned the little kid, you know, and oh my God! My dad was a hero, you know.
And then just think; a poor little Mexican that nobody wanted - he rescued that little kid
there, you know. And I got up and I made a speech. And I said, “Yeah! You people
condemn us, and there you are - all you white people - not a man could go down in that
hole but my father.” And he went down there and rescued that little baby. And boy, that
was a big thing. A hero, you know. A Mexican hero! For saving that little boy.
HS: Yeah, absolutely.
JS: Isn’t that something?
HS: That is something, yeah.
JS: I still remember that. My dad risked his life, you know. But it’s strange that that little kid
wasn’t hurt. I don’t know how it happened that he fell down in that well and that well
was, oh, maybe thirty-five, forty, maybe fifty feet deep, you know. In those days, they
dug big wells, you know, and they put a motor up there and the motor would dig the,
would get the water out, see. And then, later on, the well would go dry and that was the
end of it. They’d go somewhere else and make another well.
HS: Do you remember getting very much adequate water when you were picking cotton?
JS: What kind of water?
HS: Did you get good, clean water to drink when you were out in the heat?
JS: Oh no! We never got clean - we never got good, clean water. We’d just get water from
wherever we could, you know. I remember my mother - we had a little wagon - and we
didn’t have water at that time at the little house I’m talking about - so my mother had to
go across the field to a farmer up there - John [Allen] ’s farm - and she’d have these cans,
these milk cans, and she’d get a couple - three, four milk cans full of water and she’d
drag it down the field with a little wagon and that’s our water that we drank. To this day,
I’m amazed that we never got sick or anything, drinking that water. And a lot of that
water was rusty, too, because those cans, you know, kept the rust. And you could take a
lot of hell in this life and still, I mean, not get sick. I mean, you know, I’ve often
wondered why we didn’t get sick. But we never got sick. [Tape ends abruptly]
[End Tape 1 - Side 1 (A)]
[Begin Tape 1 - Side 2 (B)]
HS: John, okay. You’d mentioned also that- the toilet facilities that they had - you’d
mentioned something about that, too.
JS: Oh, yeah, the toilet facilities - there was a little outhouse. The people built it, they put a
little roof, with what wood they could find, lumber or something, and then they put a
platform there, and then they cut a round hole for you to sit on - you didn’t actually sit on
it - you had to - you’d straddle it because there was, like I say, black widows under those
toilets - you know, a lot of black widows - they was poisonous, too. And I know of a lot
of instances where people got stung by the black widows. And it was a very, very
embarrassing to go to the doctor but, let’s see, Doctor Siebert - Doctor Siebert in Pixley -
he was the only doctor there and we used to call him a horse doctor - I don’t know why
to this day. But he would, you know, take these patients that was bitten by black widows
and he’d open up the place where they was bitten and he’d drain the poison out and he’d
put some kind of medicine in there and people would get well, you know, two, three
days, they was alright. It was nothing serious, but it was getting stung in the, you know,
in that place, you know.
HS: Would this be out in the cotton fields where they had these holes, these round holes
for toilets where the black widows down there?
JS: That’s right. We’d take them out there - well, the fanners would put ‘em out there - the
farmer would put these outhouses and that’s what we’d use. And let me see - there’s
something else I wanted to say - in those days, the Mexican people were very united, you
know. They’d help each other and they’d - we’d gather at different Mexican families in
the evenings to eat. One family - one day - one family would cook a big pot of beans and
make a lot of tortillas, and we’d all gather at this one house: three, four, five, six families
- and some of the colored families, black families, too, would gather there - and we’d eat
all that food. And then, next day, they’d have another food gathering at another place and
the same thing would be over and over again. You know, making tortillas and beans and
stuff like that, and that’s the way we kept from getting hungry. And then, another thing
that I find strange - in those days - well, of course we didn’t have anything - of course,
we didn’t have a door to lock or anything - we just left our stuff like that opened as it
was, you know. And there was many times we’d come back from work and we’d find a
note on the stove and whoever it was said: “Sorry we had to come into your house but we
was hungry and we just cooked a few little things to eat and we thank you.” And, you
know, today, they don’t do things like that. 1 mean, they come into your house and they
take everything you got, you know. Of course at that time, we didn’t have anything. But
the people were so kind as to just leave a note there, thanking us for - and in those days,
people would - if they had a sack of beans, they’d share it with you. A sack of rice or
something, they’d share it with you, you know. People would come from surrounding
communities and bring us food and it was amazing how we successfully lived then. And
to be in good health today. Like I say, I’m seventy-nine years today, and I’ve never been
sick a day in my life! So I guess the water in Pixley was good, and the food was good.
HS: Yeah, it must have been.
JS: Must have been.
HS: Must have been - at least enough.
HS: You know - one question: when you were actually out in the fields, working in the
fields - was there water brought to you at that time by the cotton owners? By the
cotton farmers? In other words, it gets very hot...
JS: Oh it’s very hot! Do you know it gets a hundred and fifteen, sometimes, out there? But
you get used to it. You get acclimated, I guess or whatever you call it.
HS: Sure. But you still need water, don’t you?
JS: Oh you need water, yes. But we’d take - my dad and mother would take these glass jugs?
These glass jugs, you know - gallon glass jugs. And they’d put a gunnysack - sew a
gunnysack around it - do you know what I’m talking about? Gunnysack? What is a
gunnysack? It’s some kind of material, isn’t it?
HS: Yeah - it’s a brown material - a rough material -
JS: Brown material. Yeah. I remember my mother would sew this brown material around this
jug of water, this glass of water, and she’d fill up the glass with a gallon of water and -
she’d do this at night - and then she’d put a little water on the outside of the gunnysack
and this would keep it cold. And in the mornings, we’d go to work and that water would
be cold. Would be cold, be cold ‘til about ten, eleven o’clock, ‘til the sun started beating
up, you know - beating down. And then it got hot. I’ve often wondered how we survived
- a hundred and fifteen it gets over there in Pixley and Bakersfield and places like that.
It’s hot. But you get - like I say - it doesn’t bother you because you’re used to it. You’re
used to it.
HS: On the verge of the big ‘33 strike, there were - one of the complaints that the
workers had - for the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union - one of
the complaints was that the employers were getting better profits that particular
season and the wages were not going up. Do you remember any talk about anything
JS: Oh sure. Yeah, I remember the - okay, now, the cotton was forty cents a pound. Forty
cents a pound. And they wanted us to pick the cotton for a dollar and a half a hundred,
see. And the strikers said, “Well, if they’re getting forty cent a pound for cotton, why
can’t they give us a little more?” And the cotton fanners wouldn’t do it. In fact, they shot
up the people. They was angry at the fanners, I mean, at the cotton pickers. But then,
after the strike was settled - one man got killed and I think one man was wounded - then
this - Chambers - Pat Chambers, was it? Him and the farmers got together again and
then they raised the price of cotton to three dollars a hundred. Three dollars a hundred.
And you know what happened? I used to - I knew the farmers that done the shooting -
and you know they didn’t do nothing about that - the Sheriffs Office came over there
and if I remember correctly they didn’t ever take them to jail - they just cited them, I
guess, or something. And they didn’t arrest none of them. Because John Allen was in
there, one of the strikers and, let’s see, MacDonald was another one - he wasn’t a striker,
I meant, a farmer. . .
HS: Yeah. Was Allen a farmer, also?
JS: Yeah. John Allen was a farmer. And Lee Bailey and, let me see, the last name White - he
was one of them. I can’t think of his first name.
HS: You know, two guys were killed. Two people were killed and eight wounded in
JS: Well, one person was killed and one person was wounded, wasn’t it?
HS: Cletus Daniel says there was two killed and eight wounded. In his book Bitter
JS: I thought Mister [Rudehohn?], the principal, he was the one that said that there was one
killed and one wounded. But, I remember correctly, at that time, I haven’t forgotten - I
know there was two of them killed - and my dad was standing at the front of the strikers
and a man was killed, fell, next to him. And let’s see - Galarza, Galarza - let’s see - the
last name Galarza was one of the men that was killed. Galarza. I remember the name ‘cos
he used to be with us. Him and his family used to come over to our house and we’d eat
food and then we’d go to his house and - I think it was Galarza, Ernest Galarza, maybe?
Ernest or something like that?
HS: Do you remember what your dad said about the strike and what the extent of his
participation in it was?
JS: Well, he did say that if we held out long enough that we’d get our price. We were striking
for three dollars a hundred and, you know, my dad said, “If we go out there and pick it
for a dollar fifty a hundred, well, they’re not going to raise the pay, and you know, so
we’ll hold out long enough and they’ll have to pay that.” And sure enough, but one or
two people had to be killed before they raised the wages in the cotton picking, see.
HS: Let me ask you this: do you at all recall what your dad or other people who were
workers also - do you remember what they said about the union at all? The union
had a left-wing background, or basis. It was one of the things that the employers
and the papers got on their back about, because they were affiliated with the
JS: Oh, they were?
JS: Well, you know I didn’t know anything about that.
HS: Yeah. Did your dad ever know anything about or say anything about that?
JS: No, I guess not. I know my dad used to send - there was a man then, he was a - he was
the organization of agricultural workers - he was out of Washington, D.C.
HS: Creel. George Creel.
JS: That’s him. Yeah. Do you remember him?
HS: Yeah, he was an NRA official - he came out to kind of settle the strike.
JS: Yeah. Well, my dad used to send him money when he was in Washington or wherever he
was - the state of California - my dad used to send him three, four dollars, and all the
strikers used to send him three or four dollars or whatever they could and he was
supposed to deliver us from all that, but I don’t think he did.
HS: You’ll enjoy reading what Cletus Daniel has to say about it. He agrees that he didn’t
really deliver. Creel.
JS: Well, he didn’t. And the thing about it was, we heard many years later on that he was
fleecing the poor people. He was taking that money and he wasn’t doing nothing for
them. And they’d take advantage of us, the poor Mexican people. You’d be surprised at
how the white people used to take advantage of us, you know. And still, today, I feel
bitter about it, you know, and still today, even though in Petaluma, I find that they hold it
against the Mexican people for a lot of things, you know. You can’t - if you’re working
somewhere - say, for years, I worked for Pacific Gas & Electric, you know. And if there
was a, what I want to say, if there was a - if they wanted to give you a raise or something,
well you wouldn’t get it, the next white guy would get it. Stuff like that, you know. You
can’t really pinpoint it down, but it still works. And I know there was a lot of white guys
at PG&E, they got good jobs and they got promotions. I never got a promotion, you
know. I never got a promotion. They’d always say, “Well, next time that this comes up,
we’ll see what we can do about it.” But that’s as far as it went, you know.
HS: Yeah. Did your dad ever have any interest at all in unions and politics? Political
parties or anything?
JS: Well, like I say, he - with this man that we’re talking about - this guy in Washington -
HS: Creel. George Creel.
JS: Yeah. He was thinking this man would deliver us, you know. And I always heard my dad
say, “Oh, he’s gonna come through. He’s gonna come through. He’s gonna help us out.”
But he never did help us out, I don’t think, that I know of -
HS: It seemed possible at the time - he did help get the strike settled - but union
recognition was not gained. And he wasn’t particularly strong in standing for union
recognition. So the result was that the gains were without a union. You got a little
better wage but you didn’t get a union under you so ... it wasn’t so great.
JS: And you know what helped us all out? Of course, I wasn’t there at the time - this
Mexican guy that died - what was his name? From Delano, California? This uh -
HS: Cesar Chavez?
JS: Yeah. He was the one that brought us out of the - whatever you call it? He was the one.
HS: Later, yeah.
JS: Yeah, later. But they had to march from Delano to Sacramento a few times, you know?
And he was a strong union guy, see. But it’s too bad that he had to die, see.
HS: Yeah, I know. I was going to ask you a little bit later about him.
JS: Mrs. Huerta, the women that took his place - I think it’s Mrs. Huerta - that took his place
HS: Dolores Huerta.
JS: Yeah. I don’t think she’s doing as much for the poor people as Chavez was, you know.
But the thing about it is: Now, Chavez, he was supposed to be a poor guy like us and you
always see the mansion that he’s got over there by Bakersfield somewhere? Man! He’s
got a mansion over there. I’ve been told that. I’ve never seen it. But have you seen it?
HS: No I haven’t.
JS: Somebody said that. Man! It’s a beautiful - you know like a mansion on a hill, you kn ow.
And we get to thinking, “How did he get that? How did he?” - you know. I mean, he got
some bucks from the poor people to build that, you know. And everybody schemes.
Everybody - they skin you alive if you let ‘em, you know, huh?
HS: [Laughs] Ah, Sure, I understand what you’re saying.
JS: And here we are like - if Chavez was bom, was living now, I’d like to take him back to
Pixley and show him some of the places we lived in here and the pictures in this book
here, the little cardboard shacks that we built and that we - now this is going to shock
you, but you know, at that time in Pixley when I was a kid and everything, we were so
poor we didn’t have spoons, we didn’t have dishes, we didn’t have nothin’. As bad as I
hate to admit it, we ate with our lingers. It’s hard for you to believe that, isn’t it?
HS: That’s really tough.
JS: We ate with our fingers. We didn’t have no cups or nothing, you know. And then you get
to thinking in your mind, “How can that be? How can that be? How can anybody survive
by eating with their fingers?” We’ll survive. I’m proof here that I got here the hard way
and then I can, you know - sometimes, you know, I’m telling you this, but I wouldn’t tell
anybody else that I used to eat with my fingers. That’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?
HS: Yes, but it illustrates an era. It illustrates how hard the era - the period of time was.
And how poorly paid people were. It illustrates something important that we should
know. That we need to know historically.
JS: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about people in old Mexico - you know, people is poor in
old Mexico. They do eat with their fingers, you know. And a lot of people, a lot of white
people say, “How can that be? How can anybody eat with their fingers?” I said, “They
do.” I said, “I used to do it. I used to do it.” And they look at me kind of strange, you
know. But yeah, you learned to eat with your fingers. If you ain’t got no spoon or no fork
or no knife what can you do?
HS: Yeah. You know, you had mentioned that you were in school the day that the
growers shot the workers -
JS: I was. I was.
HS: And can you kind of create what happened and what you experienced that day?
JS: Well, I was in school and we heard the shooting, “Pow! Pow! Pow!” And our principal,
Mr. Rudeholm, said, “There’s an emergency in Pixley right now. You kids are not going
home ‘til that shooting stops and we don’t know He said he didn’t know what it was,
but I’m sure he did. And he said, “You people sit still. We’ll let you go in a few
minutes.” And so - I don’t know what time it was - he claims that some man came from
the strike - I don’t know if it was a policeman or who - and he told Mr. Rudeholm, our
principal, he said, “Well, the shooting is over with. Some of the strikers was injured.”
And stuff like that. And this man told Mr. Rudeholm, he said, “It’s all right to release the
kids. They can go home.” But I heard - still in my mind - 1 can hear the shooting over
there. We didn’t know what it was. We thought it was maybe a car backfiring or
HS: This is October, so you’re in school that October. October 10 th , actually. 1933.
JS: Yeah. And today, you know, the 99 freeway goes right where our school used to be. They
destroyed our school. I mean it wasn’t pertaining to the strike or anything - the school
had been there - oh my God - years and years and years. It was a nice school, you know.
But I guess it got too old and they started - they realized they’d have to build another
school, so they tore the old school down for the highway to go through there. At one
time, the 99 highway used to go right through Pixley, right through Tipton, Tulare - now
they have these freeways where it bypasses the towns.
HS: Did you, at all - during the thirties - have any other contact with unions or with any
political happenings at all? Before World War II, yourself?
JS: No, not that I know of. No, I don’t remember having any affiliations with any unions or
anything. I remember my mother used to write to somebody - used to send them money -
somebody that was supposed to give the people more money in their pensions - because
my mother - oh, my mother was drawing an old age pension. This was like, maybe in the
early, maybe in the ‘40s? ’45? An old age pension. And my mother, she used to get, I
don’t know, $40 or $50 or $60 dollars a month old age pension. And then, these people
from Washington or Sacramento, they used to write my mother letters and - “If you
donate so much to this, we can better your pension.” Which was a bunch of garbage.
They never did, you know. But that’s how people can manipulate the poor people into
giving them money, see.
HS: John? About the period 1938 to ‘41, around getting close to 1939 - you mentioned
you saw basically the end of hand picking and the beginning of machine picking?
Can you describe that, what you saw?
JS: Yeah. Okay. In the ‘30s and ‘40s there was thousands and thousands of people from all
over the United States would come to Pixley to pick cotton. You know, they had
thousands and the thousands of acres and people would come there - they’d start there in
September, October, November, December and then January, February, March. They’d
pick cotton all that time, see. But then, you know, in - I don’t know when it was - in the
later ‘40s or something - they started bringing mechanical cotton pickers. This is a
machine that straddles the rows of cotton and it just sucks the cotton in. It done away
with a lot of people’s work, man. We used to remember making a lot of money picking
cotton. And they - I remember they tried to destroy a lot of the cotton pickers - a lot of
the people who used to pick cotton - they tried to destroy the cotton picking machines.
They’d take a big piece of iron, you know, and they’d tie it - they’d wrap it around one
of the stalks of cotton, you know, and so when the cotton picking machine would come
there and it suck up this machine and the piece of iron would break up all the teeth. The
cotton pickers had teeth that would suck the cotton. And that piece of iron would get in
there and tear up all the machine - dismantle it - you couldn’t use the cotton picker. So
they’d have to get another one. And people, you know, they would go out there and
destroy them. I don’t know how many cotton picking machines were destroyed, but there
was a lot of them destroyed.
HS: That’s real interesting.
JS: It is, yeah. I remember one time - I’ve always been on the side of the law. I never did like
to do bad things. I remember one time - course, I was about eighteen or nineteen - a
bunch of guys got together and said, “Well, Johnny, get ready; tonight we’re gonna go
destroy cotton picking machines.” I said, “No. I don’t want to go.” They said, “Oh.
What’s the matter? You chicken?” I said, “Yeah. I’m chicken. What if we get caught?
We’ll go the jail or something.” So they’d go out there, you know, and they’d destroy the
cotton picking machines and I’ll tell you what happened later - the farmers used to have
anned guards on them, around the fields, you know, the cotton fields. They had anned
guards to watch that nobody would sneak in there and tie those pieces of iron in those
cotton stalks. They didn’t stop it. It’s still going on. Cotton picking machines are still
going. They’re better now than they was then, you know.
HS: Yeah. Do you remember what happened to some of the people who got displaced by
those machines? Do you remember what happened to some of them?
JS: Well, they just - I guess they went back home to where they lived and I guess they never
came back to Pixley. Some of the people that used to pick cotton, I guess they found
other ways, means of working and a lot of them left Pixley and went somewhere else. I
remember a lot of families that we used to get acquainted with during the cotton harvest,
they never did come back anymore after the cotton pickers - well, they couldn’t - there
was no work.
HS: What did your parents do after that?
JS: Well -
HS: And what did you do, yourself, after that?
JS: I started working - I started working when I was about eighteen years old and I started
working on fanns. I started in a dairy. I was working in a dairy, milking cows. And then I
was working in the alfalfa fields, picking up the alfalfa hay, putting it on a big wagon and
when we’d get the big wagon full - we had a tractor pulling the wagon - and we’d go to
the fann where the cows was at and we’d dump the hay there and we’d go back and get
some more hay. And they paid us. I think at that time they paid us about seventy-five
cents an hour. Which wasn’t much, but then the farmer - at that certain farm that I was
working - he’d give us milk, and he gave us a little three-room, little dairy, a little cow
bam. It was a little - I never will forget that little three-room barn. It was a little cow
bam. He let us live in there. And we lived in there a long, long time. And he was a rich
farmer. He was a millionaire, I guess. He owned lots of land. He felt sorry for us and he’d
bring us milk and when he’d kill a cow or a hog or something he’d bring us part of it to
our house. He done a lot for us, you know.
HS: How long did you live there yourself?
JS: Well, that was me and my folks?
HS: Yeah, you and your folks.
JS: Okay. We moved from Pixley to the John X. Bettencourt Ranch in Tipton in 1939. And
from 1939, ‘40, and ‘41,1 was drafted into the United States Army and I was in the Army
for about two and a half years, and then in ‘40 - I think it was in ’45 - I came back to
Tipton and started working again in the ranch.
HS: You were drafted in ‘41?
JS: ‘41. 1941.
HS: And you were in for two and a half years.
JS: Yeah. And I didn’t - I - my folks tried every way in the world to get me out because I
was taking care of my folks. You know, I was working. My dad, he couldn’t work then.
My mother couldn’t - they was old then, see. And so, we went to the draft board and
those people at the draft board, they just cold-hearted. They don’t care about nobody.
They just wanted to get guys to go in the Anny, see. And so what could I do? I just had to
go, see. But then, when I was in the Army, I remember that the Army took part of my
paycheck to send it to my dad and mother because I told them my dad and mother
couldn’t work and so that’s what they done. They sent ‘em part of my paycheck - I don’t
kn ow how much. At that time, I was getting twenty-one dollars a month. Can you believe
that? Twenty-one dollars a month as a United States Anny private.
HS: I can believe it, since I once got seventy-eight dollars a month in the Army.
JS: You did?
JS: And what year was that?
HS: Oh good Lord! ‘63.
JS: Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of difference see.
HS: Yeah, it was better money, sort of [laughs].
JS: Yeah. And to make things worse, I had never been away from home. I was a mommy’s
boy - a mother’s boy. And I cried. I didn’t want to leave my poor mother. That sickened
me, you know. And you talk about heartbreaking, you know. I was hoping that they’d
send me to California where I could come home once in a while. Instead, they sent me to
Fort Riley, Kansas. The asshole of creation! Over there - I took my basic training there,
spent there, I think it’s thirteen weeks there, and then from there they sent me to Camp
Claiborne, Louisiana, to a military police battalion and I stayed there ‘til I got discharged
from the Anny.
HS: So you stayed all the time in the United States?
JS: In the United States, yeah.
HS: You were an MP? They made you an MP?
JS: Military police. Yeah. I was taking care of - I was working for the Provost Marshall’s
Office and we had a compound where we had all the AWOLs and guys that couldn’t do
the Army stuff so they put them in the brig, you know. And I used to watch the brig, you
know. I tell you - this is getting away from the subject - but I’ll tell you what happened
to me when I was at Fort Riley, Kansas, this is for a good laugh, I was at Fort Riley,
Kansas, and we used to go out to the rifle range and we’d shoot at the target. You know,
sometimes I’d get [unintelligible] but I made marksman, see. And one time, the First
Sergeant came to the barracks and he said, “I want three volunteers: you and you and
you.” He said, “We’re going to go on a honey detail.” “Wow.” I said, “Good. Honey
detail - we’ll get bees, we’ll get honey.” You know what it was? Clean out the latrines
over at the rifle range. [Laughs] And from then on I never volunteered! Well, you
couldn’t. They’d volunteer: “you, you, and you.” And another time, they asked me to go
get the skyhooks out of - they said, “The skyhooks are at company C. Go to company C
and get the skyhooks and bring them back over here.” I went to company C and
company C said, “Well, no. Company A’s got the skyhooks.” And you know I spent a
whole day going for skyhooks. There’s no such thing as skyhooks!
HS: [laughs] Yeah. It’s a funny world.
JS: Funny world. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HS: Even weirder than the outside world.
JS: Oh it is! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HS: Yeah. Okay. We’re getting close to the end of this side, so let me call this the end of
the side, okay. The end of side two.
[End Tape 1 - Side 2 (B)]
[Begin Tape 2 - Side 3 (A)]
HS: - testing side three. Okay, John - 1 wanted to ask you a little bit about the period at
the end of the war, just a little bit about the work you did - I know you worked at
the Richmond shipyards.
JS: Yeah. I was a - when I came back from the Anny, why, my sister’s husband, he was
working up there at Kaiser Cargo Incorporated Yard Four and he came from Richmond to
Pixley and he said, “John, there’s big money to be made at the defense plants.” And I
said, “No. I’m not interested in big money. I’m happy here. I got back from the Army, I
want to stay in Pixley.” And my sister said, “No, John. You can make a lot of money if
you go to Richmond and work in the shipyards.” So they finally talked me into going
over there, so I went over there and I worked about, maybe seven or eight months, and
then I went back to Tipton.
HS: When you were in the shipyards, do you remember labor unions in the shipyards?
JS: Yeah. There was labor unions - I don’t remember just what labor unions it was - I
remember - yeah - I belonged to a union, then. I can’t remember just what union it was.
HS: What kind of work did you do?
JS: I was a shipwright.
HS: A shipwright, okay.
JS: Do you know what a shipwright is, more or less?
HS: More or less, yeah.
JS: Yeah. Building up. Shipwright is building the scaffolds on the side of the ships so the
welders can go in there and weld and then the chippers can go in there and chip, you
know. The welders, they weld one through and then they’ve got to chip it and they make
a little groove in there and then the welders, they fill that in, see. And we used to build
Liberty Ships. And I remember one time while I was working over there in, let’s see, I
guess it was 1943? ’44? Yeah, 1944. 1 was working there in ’44. We built one of those
liberty ships in one week. In one week we built a Liberty Ship. One week. Because they
had three shifts, you know. And they had millions of people in Richmond, you know.
You had to line up for everything. I remember. It was so crowded in Richmond that,
okay, we slept in three separate things, I mean, okay - as soon as I left for work,
somebody else came in and slept in my bed and when he got up to go to work, somebody
else came and slept in his bed. Three shifts of sleeping. That’s how crowded it was. And
all the stores, you had to line up to buy something. You had to go to the theater, you had
to line up for something. That was so many people in there. My God! I remember when I
started working there they fingerprinted me and took my picture and I made the remark -
I said, “Well, I just got out of the Anny. Why do you have to fingerprint me? I’m not a
criminal or nothing.” And he said, “Well, the reason for that is we have to still check
your background.” I thought that was, you know, I didn’t think that was right. But
anyway, they fingerprinted me. And another thing, you know, when I went into the Anny
and was accepted for the Anny, they fingerprinted me, see, and I told the sergeant that
was fingerprinting me, I said, “Why do you have to fingerprint me?” I said, “I haven’t
killed anybody. I’m a good guy.” And he said, “The reason for that - when you get out
on the battlefield and you suffer a direct hit, and if we’re lucky enough to find a piece of
your finger, we can identify you.” [Laughs] If that is the truth, I mean, you know -
HS: Yeah. Comforting thought, isn’t it?! [Laughs]
JS: Comforting thought. And here I was a little snotty-nosed kid and they hit me in the face
with something like that. You remember the fingerprint procedure? They fingerprinted
everybody. And I still remember my serial number: 39255 117.
JS: It’s been a long time.
HS: Yeah. Mine was 28984106 I remember that one, too. Do you remember any
possibility you were either in the shipwright - there was a Shipwright’s Union at
that time - 1 know.
JS: I bet you that’s what it was.
HS: It was 1149 in San Francisco. I don’t know what the local number would have been
in the East Bay or in Richmond at that time. Does that sound familiar at all?
HS: Do you know - did they have - at that time, they had, sometimes, segregation in the
locals - in the union locals. Do you remember the black guys being separated from
other people? Anything like that?
JS: No. But I’ll tell you what happened - and this is the God’s truth. I was there working at
Shipyard Four when that place blew up. What was the name of that?
HS: Port Chicago?
JS: Port Chicago. Boy, it shook the whole world, you know. And you know they had black
people in Port Chicago? They had no white people. They had black people. And I don’t
know if it’s true or if- somebody said, “Well if it ever blows up, you know, we’ll lose
the black people. We won’t lose the white people.” And I think that was kind of bad
wasn’t it? And sure enough, they lost three hundred black sailors. And the rest of the
sailors, they wouldn’t go back to work, and so they court-martialed them, you know. And
finally, here the other day I read in the paper, they cleared them. They gave them back
honorable discharges and everything.
HS: Right. I recall that, too. When you were working at Richmond how did you get -
were there black guys working there as well as Mexican guys and white guys? How
did everybody get along? At that time?
JS: We get along good. Yeah. Yeah. We got along good. Everybody worked along good. I
always did get along good with the black people because they suffered a lot, like I
suffered a lot. I really feel sorry for the black people, you know, and the Mexican people.
They go through hell over here in this country.
HS: Well, you worked - you did some road work in El Cerrito around that time didn’t
JS: That’s right. I worked at El Cerrito in - golly - that was after I came home from the
shipyards. I went - my sister’s husband was working at El Cerrito. He was working on
the street department and again they came over there to Tipton and they said, “John, we
can get you a good job at the City of El Cerrito.” And I didn’t want to go but then they
talked me into it and so I went over there and I think I worked there maybe five or six
months and I wanted to go back to the country. I just never - still today I’m not happy in
this part of the country. I never have been since I left Tipton. I want to go back to Tipton
and Pixley. You know, Tipton and Pixley will always be God’s little acre for me and that
is the truth. Still, I don’t like it in Petaluma. I don’t like it nowhere. And someday, before
I die, I’m planning on moving back to Tipton and Pixley.
HS: What is keeping you from moving there now?
JS: Well, I bought this house. My late wife, she wanted a house. I didn’t want a house, and to
keep her happy I bought the house and now I’m stuck with the house. And so - but - you
know, I guess I could sell it now and get out of here and I think I will someday. I don’t
know. I get a good pension from PG&E and I get Social Security and so I get enough to
live on and I’m not very extravagant. I don’t wear fabulous clothes. I watch my p’s and
q’s and I don’t eat much food and so I make it okay.
HS: John - you worked - just to kind of fill in your life, your career - you worked - you
did foundry work for about eight or ten years in the molders’ union?
JS: That’s the Molders’ Union, yeah. I remember that real good - the Molders’ Union. You
know, there was some foundries - I remember a foundry in Porterville, California that’s a
little ways from Tipton, I worked there, you know. And I started talking to the other
workers, “We should organize and get this foundry into the union.” So the boss found out
about it and he fired me because I was trying to unionize the foundry.
HS: What year was this, approximately?
JS: Nineteen - let’s see - maybe 1954 or ‘53? Something like that.
HS: How’d you get into that work?
JS: Let me see - I worked at - okay, there was a foundry in Delano, California, that’s just a
few miles from Pixley, and so I went over there one time to try to get a job and the boss
said, “Well, we don’t need anybody right now but give us your phone number and
address and we’ll get in touch with you if we need you.” A couple of weeks later, they
called me! And sure enough I went to work there and I was working for a dollar an hour.
It wasn’t a union foundry, see - working for a dollar an hour. And we was working forty
hours a week and pretty soon they cut me back to three days and I just couldn’t make it,
you know. And then I did try to talk to the people about getting into the Molders’ Union
and again I got fired for doing that.
HS: Let me ask you now - how did it come to you to go after a union? To try to get a
union in there? Did you talk - did anybody talk to you or did it just come to you in
your head? Who got it started? What was the thought process behind it and the
discovery process behind it?
JS: Well, this comes from my dad. My dad, way back in the ‘30s, my dad said, “You know,
the union will get us good wages. The union will protect us. The union will do good for
us.” And always, in the back of my mind - like I was working at the foundry in Delano
for a dollar an hour and they was making thousands of dollars selling castings - you
know castings is stuff that you pour the metal in there and make, you know, - and I’m
working for a dollar an hour! And then if it’d been a union foundry, we’d have gotten
four or five or six or seven dollars an hour, see. So the union always protect us here, and
when I worked at PG&E I belonged to the electrical union.
HS: When you’re doing the foundry thing, when you’re trying to find a union, how did
you go about coming up with a union? How did you go about contacting them?
JS: I’ll tell you what - I wrote to the Molders’ Union in San Francisco and I told them to
send me a list of addresses. So there was foundries all over, you know, like Sacramento,
Fresno - places like that - and I’d write to these foundries. You know, I’d write - I’d list
my qualifications and everything and that’s how I got my jobs! Writing to the foundries.
HS: I see.
JS: I got my jobs that way.
HS: But how did you get the union thing going? Oh, you got fired! So, you got fired -
JS: I got fired, yeah. And then I brought it up before the union about getting fired and they
wanted to reinstate me and somehow or other they didn’t reinstate me - I don’t know
why - they just didn’t -
HS: But did you get fired before the union got in there? You said you got fired for union
JS: Yeah because we wanted - this foundry in Delano and this foundry in Porterville - see,
they wasn’t union - and we was trying to get them into the union - and the boss, you
know, he doesn’t want anybody like that because he’s got to pay more money.
HS: So he fired you and then you appealed to the union to try to get reinstated.
JS: Yeah. I appealed to the union. And the union said, “Well, we will try to organize that
foundry and also the foundry in Porterville.” But they never did - they never did succeed.
HS: Okay. But then you got other jobs, you say, by writing?
JS: Yeah. Then I got, I’ll tell you what, then I got a job in Fresno, California, working at a
foundry. That foundry had been there for 33 years and I started working there in ‘59 and
then ‘59, ‘60, ’61 - in ‘61 they closed the foundry! After thirty-three years there! And one
time we struck - we belonged to the union - they wouldn’t pay us enough, so we struck. I
was on strike duty. I had my little sign up here and we’d walk around the foundry - but
what good did it do? There was scabs working in there. We didn’t do any good. We
would try to keep these guys from going in there and they wouldn’t - they worked - so I
thought it was a loss of time to go on strike. And they held us off on strike for - I don’t
know - two, three months and finally we couldn’t - I mean, they pay you - what was it
they paid you? Just a little something - not enough to live on, see. And so then we had to
give up the strike and go back to work.
HS: What kind of work did you do in this foundry? When you were working in these
JS: I was a metal pourer. I took the big ladle that has tons of iron in there and it’s a molten -
okay - they have these motor blocks, old motor blocks. You break ‘em - halve in two -
they got a machine that melts these motor blocks and the liquid runs like water, see - and
it’s strange: that liquid weighs just as much as a piece of metal does. You stick a piece of
metal in there, a piece of molder, and you pick it up and you melt it and that metal, that
molten metal weighs just as much as that piece of metal. You’d think it didn’t - you
know, it would weigh less, but it doesn’t. We had hand ladles too, that we poured the
metal into these uh, - they make a - let’s see, how is it - they make a mold, and the
molders, they make a mold and then you pour the metal into this mold and then soon as it
dries up, it gets cool, then you shake the mold away and you get the casting, you know.
HS: I see. Okay. So you were active in the union effort - the union movement, in the
strike movement. Did you ever have any political connections, or political activity as
well? At the same time you’re in the union movement?
JS: Well, I know that a lot of times when we was working - okay - when you’re in a union,
certain guys do certain things and you can’t - some guys, we’d catch some guys doing
something else that they wasn’t supposed to and then we’d chastise them. We’d say,
“Hey - you’re not supposed to do that.” They’d get angry, you know. They probably
made more money to go in there and do something - like a molder - a molder’s not
supposed to pour metal, see. And a guy that pours metal is not supposed to do anything
else - he’s not supposed to grind the castings and stuff like that. So everybody’s got their
certain job to do, but some of them - the boss will tell them, he says, “Well, why don’t
you come in later tonight and grind some of these castings?” Well, you’re not supposed
to do that! But they do, see. And a good union man doesn’t do that. A union man doesn’t
walk through a union line. You know what I mean? You respect the union. That’s why
you’re a good union man, see. And I was a good union man - I respected the union - I
wouldn’t cross a picket line, you know.
HS: I’ve got a question for you - just around this time, the very early 1960s - Cesar
Chavez comes on the scene and begins to organize in the agricultural fields. Did you
have any connection with the Chavez movement? Did you get involved in it or what
did you think about it if you didn’t get involved in it?
JS: I think it was a good thing. I was a hundred percent for it and I walked on that line going
to Sacramento. And then we got to Sacramento we had a big rally over there - a big rally
- you remember that? There was hundreds of us, you know, and every time we - they
started - what was it? Bakersfield, I think? Started walking up there and every town -
Tipton - they’d gather a few more guys - and Tulare - gather a few more - when they
got to Sacramento, it was several thousand. That’s the only way that you can get anything
done. You’ve got to move in an orderly way and have a lot of backers behind you and
that’s the only way you can succeed in a union.
HS: Okay, How’d you get involved with PG&E? How’d you get the job with PG&E?
JS: Well, I was working at a foundry in Petaluma and - that was another thing there - I
worked from ‘61 to ’67 - I started working for PG&E - no, I started working for PG&E
in 1964. 1 worked at this foundry in Petaluma, it was called the Petaluma Iron Foundry,
and Joe Sacco, he was the owner of the foundry, and he was hard to work for. He was a
hard guy to work for and I worked the night shift and I was there by myself. According to
rules and regulations, according to the rules of the union, a man working alone at night is
against the union. They’re supposed to have two guys - two guys working. I don’t care
what it is - and I tried to get the union to, you know, get another guy to be - and Joe
Sacco said, “No that’s a waste of money. Why do you need another man with you?” I
said, “Well, listen - I’m working here - what if I have a heart attack or something, or you
know? Who’s going to call the police, or who’s going to call the ambulance?” I brought it
up with the union, you know. And then, somehow or another they just let it go by. They
didn’t respect my challenge, so the first chance I had somebody told me in Petaluma:
says, “Well, you can get a job at PG&E if you want to.” And so I said, “What’s this about
PG&E.” They said, “Well, that’s the electrical company.” So I went to Santa Rosa and I
signed up and sure enough in a week’s time I had a job and I started in Santa Rosa as a
pipe wrapper. I worked as a pipe wrapper ‘til I retired.
HS: That’s 1964 you started?
JS: Yeah 1964, and I retired in ‘85.
HS: What does a pipe wrapper do?
JS: Well, take two joints of pipe - a welder welds it around - takes - a hot pass is the first
weld, and then there’s a guy with a chisel - he chisels that weld - and then they put
another weld on there and then he chisels it again and then they take another weld and
then after they get through welding it, they take an X-ray of that weld and the X-ray will
detect if there’s a hole in there where the gas will leak, you know. So the X-ray - we’ll
take the X-ray and as soon as the X-ray is Ok’d, well then they call me and I paint the
pipe in the middle with something so it won’t collect rust. I paint it, and then I let it dry a
few seconds, and then I take this special kind of tape and I wrap it and wrap it and wrap it
and wrap it to fill up the joints and then I give it one more pass and that tape is supposed
to last a lifetime. We - in ‘67 we put in a twelve inch line from Fulton, California to
Willits, California and that’s thirty-some-odd years and some of that wrap is still holding,
that’s thirty-some-odd years. I had a general foreman then and he was over there and he
checked out some of those wraps. He had a backhoe come and clean, dig out some of
those wraps to see how it was holding out, and it’s holding just as firm there as the day I
wrapped it - that’s thirty-some-odd years.
HS: That’s amazing. Yeah. You worked on BART, too, didn’t you, at one point?
JS: Yeah. I worked in San Francisco and in BART we had three shifts going: day shift, swing
shift, and graveyard shift. I worked the day shift. We worked over there right on Market
Street and we had to dig in seventeen feet down below the surface of the street.
Seventeen feet. And we had to shore it up with steel beams - those flat, long, iron, steel
beams - had to shore it down seventeen feet and then we’d go down under there and
we’d take out all our utilities, our electrical wires, our gas mains. And then, in the city,
they got - what is the heat that they’ve got in these pipes? Well you know about it - it’s -
steam heat - steam heat - we’d have to move out the steam heat pipes, you know -
HS: Oh yeah, of course.
JS: - And so, we worked there, golly, for a long, long time - several - I guess maybe two,
three years - I don’t know - and we finally got the project done and now there’s BART
where we used to work!
HS: Did you commute at that time from Petaluma on down?
JS: Petaluma to San Francisco.
HS: Wow. You drove every day down there?
JS: Well, there was five of us, you know. One day one guy would drive, the other day -
finally I’d drive - but that was quite an experience and we - working there - people just
walking by - they didn’t mind us, you know. I remember one time, there was a welder
standing next to the ditch where we had dug out the ditch - and this trolley car came by,
and this welder had some of those welding rods in his back pocket and that’s how close -
that train hit those welding pipes, I mean, those welding rods, and ripped his pocket
completely off! That’s how close it was.
JS: And the guy that was driving, I guess he never noticed or anything but that’s how close it
was to him getting hurt. Just ripped his pocket completely off. It hit those rods - you
know what a welding rod is?
HS: Yeah, right, sure.
JS: That’s about the only casualty that we almost had.
HS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. My God. What was the union like? The International
Brotherhood of Electrical union? International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers,
JS: Very strong. You got a complaint, and boy, they’d follow through. I made several
complaints from foremen that was trying to take advantage of me and I’m telling you,
still, that thing still survives at PG&E. The say that it don’t but they don’t much care for
the Mexican people. They say they do, but they don’t. I can tell, you know. You can tell.
HS: You’re talking about PG&E or the union?
JS: I’m talking about PG&E.
JS: So I’d complained to the union, you know, and the union would come over there and talk
it over with the foremen - but they didn’t like me for that because I was a union man.
They’d call me - what the hell was it? They had a name for it, you know. But they
couldn’t fire me because I had too much time with them. They couldn’t fire me. But what
they’d do, they’d ship me from one area to the other, you know. They’d ship me over
there. And they claimed that that wasn’t it that they shipped me for - they said they
needed a good wrapper over there - I said, “Well, shoot you guys are just passing the
HS: Sure. Do you remember a particular time when you had a beef that the union came
to bat for you? Do you remember any example?
JS: Yeah. This foreman came up to me - he wanted me to sign some papers and I said - and I
read the papers and the papers stated I - he was a general foreman and the papers stated:
“I do not want this man back in my area again.” And I told him, I said, “I’m not gonna
sign those papers.” And he said, “You will sign them or I’m going to have you fired.” I
said, “Well, you fire me if you can.” I said, “You can’t fire me. I got a lot of time.”
“Well, we’ll see about it.” So I got in touch with the union, see. The union came over
there and the big shots from San Francisco came over there and then the only way that
they could resolve this, they said, “Well, John, this is - the union supports what you’re
doing and the union is for you a hundred percent and I’ll tell you what we can do, we can
get you a good raise if you accept being shipped to Vallejo.” Which is - Vallejo is not too
far from Petaluma. And that’s how they’d resolve things like that. But then I got more
money by going to Vallejo and it wasn’t that far away. But you see how they could
manipulate things? I wasn’t satisfied with the way they done it, but what else could I do?
HS: Right. Did you ever know why the guy wanted you moved? What was his thing?
JS: Well, for one thing he wanted me a lot of times to work overtime and he wouldn’t pay me
for overtime, and he said - see, they’ve got a thing going at PG&E that if you work over
eight hours you get a meal and you get overtime, see. And if you work eight, nine - and if
you worked ten hours - say you worked eleven hours - that eleven hour was double time,
see. And he didn’t want to do that, see. He wanted to save his neck and so that’s the way
it was. But that’s true. You work eight hours and if you work one minute over eight hours
you get a meal, and say you work eight hours and a half - well, that half hour is time and
a half. And then if you work, say, over ten hours that’s double time, see. But a lot of the
foremen they don’t want to abide by that because it gives them a bad mark, see?
Everybody’s - you know - you understand how it goes. That’s the way it is.
HS: What did you do after retirement? What have you done with yourself? What do you
do after you’ve retired?
JS: Well, I just kinda, you know, stayed at home and I do a lot of writing - I like to write - I
write to a lot of people that I’ve known and you know they’re still in Pixley and Tipton -
there’s a lot of people that I’ve known since I lived there. And of course a lot of them
have died, you know. And what people lives there, they still know me, I know them, they
remember me, and I write to them and we write letters, exchange letters and things like
HS: Your parents lived the rest of their lives until they were quite old in Pixley?
JS: In Pix - not - in Tipton.
HS: In Tipton. Okay.
JS: Yeah, they passed away in Tipton. They’re buried in Tipton and that’s one of the reasons
I left Tipton. Too many - you know, everything I seen in Tipton would remind me of my
parents, so I got away.
HS: Yeah. How old were they when they passed away?
JS: My mother was ninety-seven and my dad was ninety-eight. Never was sick. I guess they
died of old age, you know. The medical examiner said there was nothing wrong with
them, they just passed, you know, from old times. They’re buried in the Tipton Cemetery.
They’ve got a cemetery in Tipton. They’re buried there.
HS: Well - boy, I sure appreciate your letting me come up here to talk with you.
JS: Well, I mean, that’s all about the stuff. It’s true, you know, I mean, it happens. It goes
everywhere. I don’t care where you worked - if you were a Mexican person, you’re
going to have some problems. Maybe not in a direct way, but they’ll shun you in a lot of
ways. I don’t know why that is. And I know it, see. I can tell the minute somebody either
likes me or don’t like me, you know. I get a vibration from you.
JS: So a lot of people pretend that they like you but deep down inside they don’t.
[End of interview]
[End of Tape 2, Side 3 (A)]