Cynthia Bell sat under the big white tent at the Forty Acres in Delano until late afternoon Saturday, gossiping and remembering with her union sisters until the event staffers in yellow shirts came to fold up their chairs.
It had been years - decades - since she’d seen some of them.
But that didn’t matter. Meeting at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Delano Grape Strike was like having a family reunion.
Scratch that. It was a family reunion, Bell said.
“It’s very emotional,” she said. “You’re seeing people you haven’t seen in 30-40 years and it’s like you just saw them last night at a party.”
Bell remembered the little gatherings strike workers and organizers would have in the scant hours they had to themselves back when the grape strike was new and he United Farm Workers was young.
“We didn’t have much money so we’d have a little potluck and somebody would get some beer,” she said.
Bell worked for the UFW as an organizer. Her job was to get into the grape vineyards before the workers got there and wait for them to arrive.
“We’d get there so early we would see the coyotes running through the fields,” she said.
They’d stay out at the fields all day, talking to the workers on breaks and trying to get them to agree to join the union, to join the strike.
Bell said they’d fight for a phone number or an address.
Then, after the work day was done, they’d visit workers in their homes.
“We worked 18 hour days,” Bell said. “But Cesar (Chavez) made you feel like it wasn’t work — it was our mission.”
Bell was 19.
Bell is a retired union organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
But she said the toughest job she ever had was working for the UFW.
Those early workers lived for la lucha - the struggle - and fought to protect workers day and night.
Cesar Chavez taught them well, tactics that other labor unions weren’t using, Bell said. He made them read and quizzed organizers to make sure they were picking up the concepts he wanted them to use in the field.
And if they got it wrong?
“He’d say, ’Is the door open,’” she said, tapping her head.
Bell thinks back fondly to the days she worked in the fields, bringing in workers to the union, arguing, fighting and having adventures.
As she sat under the tent at the Forty Acres Saturday she remembered the day she got a tip that a labor contract had stashed away a bunch of workers in the middle of nowhere. They were living in freight containers and weren’t allowed to leave.
In those days labor contractors would send workers to the grower’s fields and either not pay them or charge them fees for basic needs so that the worker ended up owing the contractor when the work day was done.
She and her friend Lupita were sent out into the field, driving one of the beat up Plymouth Valiants that Chavez had bought from government surplus to be union cars.
The search was long.
“We finally did find it. Seven or eight containers. They were cooking over fires on the ground,” Bell said.
But as soon as the Valiant pulled into the camp a supervisor’s pickup truck came barreling in.
The supervisor jumped out and asked them what they were doing. They knew the jig was up, Bell said. Everybody knew the Valiant was a union car.
“If we hadn’t been driving the Valiant he would have never known,” she said. ”He chased us out of the property with dust flying everywhere.“
But Bell also remembers stories of quiet justice.
Tales of clashes with growers and Kern County Sheriff’s deputies are replete in UFW lore.
But Bell remembers a late night adventure that ended a different way.
She got a call that immigration officers had been called down on a labor camp by the contractor, who was looking to get rid of a few ”troublemakers“ in the ranks — Bell’s kind of people.
She put her young daughter in the Valiant, she said, and rushed to the area, guided in by a friend.
When she got there Sheriff’s deputies had rounded everyone up.
One deputy told Bell there were ”only a couple of them,“ she said.
Then he surprised her.
”He said, ’take them,’“ she said.
The friend who’d shown her to the camp couldn’t believe it.
But Bell didn’t blink. She put the workers in the Valiant and drove off with them.
The friend took them home with him and, the next day, drove them to Forty Acres to join La Causa.
The deputy, Bell said, ”knew what (contractors) were doing was injustice.“