By Maria E. Garcia
In Part I the activist path of Linda and Carlos LeGerrette connected them with United Farm Worker efforts in Keene California in the early 70s. Part II provides more details about their work with César Chávez and the UFW, how the couple faced personal crises and their abiding commitment to community service here in San Diego.
César Chávez approached Carlos and Linda about going to La Paz, where he had moved the United Farm Workers’ headquarters in 1971 from Delano. “On 187 acres in the small Tehachapi mountain town of Keene, Chávez began building a community of fellow union members and volunteers who worked with him full time for social justice.”
La Paz was housed in a former tuberculosis sanatorium. Linda and Carlos’ room was in what had been the kitchen. This made it more spacious than the other rooms and was soon a meeting and social place for those working there. Linda remembers they had candles, a stereo and a double sink that served as their daughter Tonazine’s bathtub. They were paid $5 a week.
They developed life-long friendships and a very close relationship with the Filipino community. For those of you that are not familiar with the farm worker’s strike, it was initiated by the Filipino workers. There was a law that prevented certain ethnic groups from marrying Anglos. In the 1920s and 1930s, many of these marriages were ruled invalid. This law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967; however, it had been a taboo for so long that even in the 1970s you did not see many Filipinos intermarrying. As a result, many of the men were single and alone.
Linda said there was always food on the stove and that the men were very nice to them. Great relationships were formed as a result of their time at La Paz. Dan Morales, another activist, met his wife Ann while she was a nurse at the Delano Village.
Linda says she learned about herself while at La Paz. Among the lessons were finding out how much she enjoyed a challenge. She was appointed National Director of the Farmers Resource Center, the non-profit side of the operation. Her training was on the job. It consisted of providing service, not developing policy. Linda says César had so much faith in your ability to do the job that you believed it and did not want to let him down. She also adds that they weren’t aware of what they didn’t know so they proceeded with great confidence.
Another lesson they learned was what cold weather really was. Growing up in San Diego they were not prepared for the problems they would encounter weather-wise: ice on the car windows, leaking roofs, frozen pipes. In spite of these problems, they were soon on a fast track to learning what their new assignment would require.
Linda’s responsibilities grew and changed as needed. Among her duties was overseeing the Day Care Center. This was the social service side of the community which developed and changed daily. Linda’s mom lived with them at La Paz. She helped with the task of cooking for everyone. Linda says her mom’s support and help allowed them to be involved in many of the issues they tackled. Linda’s mom would live with them for 35 years.
The fine art of car repairs
Carlos duties as “trouble shooter” enabled him to handle a variety of duties. He soon found himself responsible for the transportation department. They had a variety of vehicles which seemed to break down on a regular basis. Cars were crucial for the farm workers’ operation. Carlos developed a transportation plan that included a method for repairs. He recommended that all the cars they purchased would be the same make. All the cars were Plymouth Valiants.
Carlos said that getting a penny out of César took an act of God. He was able to convince César that each car would have a $250 allotment for car repair. Any amount above $250 dollars would require pre-approval prior to repair.
Delano and most of the Central valley were controlled in some manner by the growers. The growers did not own the automotive repair/gas stations, but their influence was felt at every turn. The farm workers needed to have discounts on some of their purchases. This was especially true about car parts.
Carlos placed a call to Sol Price, and Sol sent Carlos the catalogue so he could select the items needed. The items would be sold at wholesale to the organization. Mr. Price did add the stipulation that they would have to drive to San Diego at least once a month to pick up the purchased items. Linda and Carlos were only too happy to have the opportunity to “come home” once a month and see family and friends in the course of picking up the purchased items. One day César walked in and saw two pallets of anti-freeze and had a fit about finding “money on the floor.” Carlos responded that it had been sold to them at wholesale by Fed Mart.
Carlos had a very good friend, Malvin Trejo, who was a master mechanic. This made him very valuable to the organization. Beside the cars, the fleet included four Greyhound buses. Carlos also ended up with the responsibility for accounts payable, a duty César was not particularly fond of. The formula was basic: if the bill was not paid the previous month, you paid them the current month. If, and only if there was any money left over, you paid additional bills.
Practicing non-violence on the lines with Huelga and Boycott
Carlos said the most valuable lesson he learned from César was non-violence. Richard Ybarra and Carlos worked security for César. One day they were in Coachella. There were two opposing sides, César on one side of the street and the Teamsters on the other. César was being called every name in the book. They called his mother every profanity you could think of. César stayed focus and completely ignored the name calling and did not respond. Carlos said that at that point he figured if César could do that under these circumstances, he too could practice non-violence.
That particular day Carlos figured it would be wise to bring César’s two guard dogs to help protect César. The watch dogs were German Shepherds appropriately named Huelga and Boycott. The dogs were left in the station wagon with the back window rolled down. Both Heulga and Boycott were trained to attack on command. Things were escalating and Carlos decided it would be a good idea to have the dogs at César’s side. As Carlos reached the car the dogs’ ears went straight up and Carlos turned around to find one of the teamsters standing behind him.
His first words to Carlos were along the lines of “I got you now, ain’t nobody here.” Carlos said, “I don’t want any problems but if you want some —–.” The teamsters watching how the dogs were reacting, turned around and walked back to their group. Carlos then took the dogs and placed them next to César. At first César didn’t notice the dogs had been put on the line. When he saw the dogs he turned to Carlos and asked why they were there. Carlos replied, “I thought we might need them.” César understood exactly what that meant.
In 1973 Linda had a miscarriage and the follow-up exam revealed that she had a very rare form of cancer. The message the doctors gave her was to go home and get her things in order. Linda and Carlos were raising their daughter Tonazine, and she was being told her mother would not live to raise her.
They returned to San Diego. Linda went through chemotherapy at USC Medical Center. She lost her hair and was constantly nauseated. Their financial situation was so dire that they had to go on food stamps. Friends rallied around them. César would bring Linda books on nutrition and non-traditional medicine. Johnny Lopez, a dear friend, would come by and make sure the rooms were really clean, that the table tray was not only clean on the top, but on the underside as well. Johnny was constantly demanding that the hospital follow the most basic procedures for cleanliness to assure that Linda had a healthy environment.
Another friend, Richard Saiz, did a documentary about oncology and the routine that should be followed. Carlos became her full-time caregiver. Years later when Carlos developed cancer, Linda became his caregiver. Even today, Carlos follows a very strict food diet. Together, Carlos and Linda have conquered cancer.
Both Linda and Carlos are very thankful that Linda’s mom lived with them, not only for the help she gave them, but for the lessons that they say their daughter and grandchildren learned from having several generations in the same house. The basic concept was that your elders are to be respected and cared for.
In 1983 César Chávez gave Linda the assignment of speaking to Sol Price about removing grapes from Fed Mart stores. Fed Mart was Mr. Price’s store prior to his Price Club venture. Linda went to the Fed Mart offices in Kearny Mesa to meet with Mr. Price. They spoke about grapes for about ten minutes, and then had a conversation about life for the next 45 minutes. Mr. Price agreed to remove the grapes. Both Linda and Carlos consider César Chávez and Sol Price as their mentors. Most of us would be thrilled to have one of these men as our mentor; they were blessed to have them both.
During Jerry Brown’s first term as Governor from 1975 to 1983, Carlos worked for him in the area of community relations. Carlos was once again a trouble shooter. This assignment required his presence in various parts of the state. His focus was often on issues that affected the Latino community.
Once they returned to San Diego, Linda decided she wanted to work independently in real estate. After so many years in which she and Carlos worked together, it was time for her to venture out on her own. One day she realized that she may have been the one working in real estate, but Carlos was lending his support to help her achieve her goals. Though she is glad she was on her own, she also realized that they worked well together.
A phone call from Sol Price would again change their lives. Mr. Price’s question was very simple, “What do you want to do”? From that conversation The Priceless Express was born. The concept was rather simple. The customer would call them and place an order of items they wanted delivered from the Price Club.
When Linda and Carlos left that meeting with Mr. Price, their old Datsun car would not start. They had just formed their own company that involved delivering items and did not have the necessary vehicle to proceed with this new venture. Carlos called around and was able to find a truck. He describes it as a red, UPS type truck. Since the truck did not run, it was given to them and they found someone who was able to get it running.
In the beginning they would take the order, run to the Price Club to purchase the items, deliver them to the customer, and then rush to the bank to deposit the check to cover the check they had just written at the Price Club. They owned this business for seven years before they sold it to Sol Price.
Remembering César Chávez through Community Service
On April 24, 1993 César Chávez died. There was the obvious sadness that social activists everywhere felt. Of course, because of their personal relationship with César, Carlos and Linda were especially saddened. There was a move to make César’s birthday a state holiday and California has the distinction of being the first state to establish one. The bill for this recognition was authored by Senator Richard Polanco and signed by then Governor Gray Davis on August 12, 2000.
The basic idea was that the César Chávez Holiday would be a day of community service. The long-lasting effect of one day of service was evaluated. Carlos and Linda felt very strongly that whatever effects came from this day of service had to be long lasting. Carlos came up with the idea of starting the César Chávez Clubs.
In 2001 the state provided fifty-thousand dollars as seed money to start a César Chávez Club in San Diego. Linda and Carlos were offered the opportunity to start clubs all over the state of California, but felt that in order to be successful, it had to be a hands-on program.
The César Chávez Clubs focus on ten values: non-violence, respect for life, tolerance, service, knowledge, sacrifice, innovation, determination, celebrating community, and helping the needy. Every effort is made to relate the ten values with what is happening currently. Today, there are 58 César Chávez Clubs throughout San Diego County.
A yearly breakfast known as Las Mañanitas breakfast is held to raise funds for the Chávez Clubs. This year’s event had an attendance of over 1000 people. The focus is always on the student. Their granddaughter Natalie, who was born in 1991, has taken a leadership role with the clubs and has become a crucial member of the team. The Clubs are a family affair with grandson Joseph, who was born in 1994, recruited as photographer and aide for any duties that need to be accomplished. Their daughter, Tonazine, can always be seen trouble shooting or fulfilling any assignment needed to assure success.
Linda and Carlos love travel, the theater, dancing and continue to work on political campaigns. In general, most of their support has been for Democratic candidates, but they have supported some Republican candidates. In 2008, there were two lawn signs for the presidential race, the Obama sign was Carlos’ choice, the Hillary sign was Linda’s. This year they both support Hillary.
In October Mr. and Mrs. LeGerrette, will celebrate 50 years of marriage. Their life has had many pitfalls, smiles and tears, but through it all they have been together. A lesson for all of us as we watch Linda and Carlos is that life is not always smooth sailing and obstacles are part of life. You just don’t give up.
The complete Latinos in San Diego series here.