My first job at the American Friends Service Committee was in 1965, when Self-Help Enterprises was being created. This was also my first real experience working with white people, as opposed to working for them, although at the tender age of nineteen, I still did not realize that. I have gone through many emotions – some even tearful – as I recalled my youth and my work while writing this article. As the daughter of a farmworker, I have been confronted with the typical things around racism, feminism, classism, etc., during my youth and into my adult life. It was, in fact, not too many years ago when I decided not to let those things rule my life.
One of my most memorable moments came when I was told, “You’re hired,” by the local AFSC program. This was the same year I graduated from high school. Girls like me, brought up in the traditional manner, did not typically land jobs usually staffed by white girls. But somehow, in most jobs I held, I was “special,” although nobody told me that. I was special because I could speak the two languages that were most needed in the area, special enough that some jobs paid me an extra $50 a month because I was bilingual. But enough of shining my own star!
The early days of the AFSC’s Farm Labor Program opened up the door to another possible future for me, one that overrode a lot of what was expected of a young Mexican girl from the “lower” working class. During my time at the AFSC office, I had the opportunity to break the unspoken rule about what kind of life was expected of me. I learned much about the ever-changing social atmosphere of our country, both by living it and by having the opportunity to join the civil rights movement. That opportunity took several of us associated with the program to Selma, Alabama. There we met up with people from around the country in the now-historic March on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Later, when my job with the AFSC ended, my boss Bard McAllister introduced me to Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and their efforts to unionize farm workers. I got an administrative job with the legal department of the United Farm Workers and with Cesar. The AFSC also played heavily in my decision to volunteer to help with the Delano grape strike. I learned later that that the AFSC contributed financially to Cesar Chavez to do his organizing work in the Valley. I have always been impressed with the efforts that the AFSC has put into promoting peace and spreading love around the globe – for 100 years now!
While working on the Delano grape strike, I met and fell in love with my prince, a roaming, guitar-playing, white man with the most beautiful blue eyes (and when he played that beautiful Martin guitar and sang “Mother McCree” or “Danny Boy” . . . I was his forever.) Little did we know that together we would eventually raise three children into adulthood. We traveled and lived all over the country. I got to know a lot of people and many different ways of living, from amongst Mexican farm workers to white middle class and also some “upper” class people. I’d say during all this time, I was fully embedded in both my own culture and this new culture that I was quickly learning to navigate around.
One of my favorite quotes by Mark Twain is this: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I like imagining that my travels, both under the AFSC when my door was opened and later in my life, have been my attendance in the University of Life – where I learned and still am learning to understand, be patient, and be tolerant of other cultures and other ways of living, even though I might not always agree with them.
By the time 1997 came around, I was hired again by the AFSC to assist with the old Farm Labor Program, now called “Proyecto Campesino,” a name that made it possible for the people we served to identify with the program. Eventually, I became the director of the program. The work was perfect for me since I could relate in two languages and had come to feel comfortable with people of many different backgrounds. Proyecto Campesino served our farm workers, immigrants, and non-English speaking community in many ways. At that particular time, we were conducting classes in citizenship and civic participation in sometimes as many as seven communities around Visalia.
All local AFSC programs that I know of have committees who meet on a regular basis to oversee the programs. Proyecto’s committee included several Quakers, people who shared the same desire for peace and social justice as I did, including our beloved Joy and Bob Marshall, and Beth and Bill Lovett. These Friends are long-time members of the Visalia Friends Meeting. I always like to think I started my life out with AFSC and finished up my career by retiring from AFSC. This led me to an increased interest in Quakerism. I started attending Visalia Friends Meeting and finally became a member about ten years ago. Today I serve as Clerk of the meeting.
It has not been easy, getting here to this point, learning to live amongst people of different backgrounds. My life has demanded a lot from me – tolerance, understanding, compassion, wisdom – all those things that many of us don’t start acquiring until our “later” years. This quote by bell hook resonates with me: “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” It’s like a beautiful dance, where the music is varied in genre, and whatever comes one’s way is the dance that one is meant to do. It’s been such a learning circle, and I am happy to say I survived, and that my life has proved true the popular saying, “¡Si, Se Puede!”
To the AFSC, Happy 100th anniversary! Thank you for the opportunities you have laid at my feet and the feet of others like me. I’ve said it before, many times to many people: I LOVE the AFSC! ~~~
Graciela Martinez is clerk of Visalia Friends Meeting (PYM).