In the fall of 1968, four college kids, myself included, drove a brand new white Pontiac from South Bend, Indiana, to a tiny agricultural town on the Texas-Mexico border called Rio Grande City. It was the days of the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, and though the local crop was melons, not grapes, a strike had somehow been organized in that godforsaken town on that godforsaken border.
When our professor-friend Ernie heard about this action, he sent the four of us down there to check it out and support the farm workers. He supplied the Pontiac from his dad’s car dealership.
“Try to learn something,” he said, smiling, “and try not to wreck the damned car.”
So we drove day and night all the way from South Bend to the Rio Grande. Four white college guys with empty wallets, heads full of big ideas and nothing better to do. Quite often whoever was driving would fall asleep at the wheel, and the car would swerve onto the rough median and wake us all up. We referred to this as “graveling.” For food, we bought big bags of cheap hamburgers, which we called “gut bombs.” The car became the White Whale. We laughed and slept and joked and sang as we rolled along; we were happy and free, and more important, we were on a mission from God.
At some point we stopped for gas in Austin, Texas, and wound up resting there on the state university’s campus. It was a balmy evening, and hundreds of students, beautiful young men with golden hair and blue eyes and beautiful young women with long, shapely legs, were lolling around dreamily on the cool grass.
It occurred to me that this was heaven, and if we succeeded in our mission, we would get to loll in that cool grass for eternity.
We never did make it back to that cool grass. Instead we got back in the car and drove through another night, graveling and gulping down gutburgers and sleeping in snatches.
In the morning we pulled into Rio Grande City, a dot on the map of southern Texas just barely hanging onto the north shore of the river. Whoa, the middle of nowhere, someone said, which was where we were. A crossroads in a vast, empty expanse of dusty ranches and cactus spines and rattlesnakes. A grange hall, two or three empty storefronts, a few houses, and that was it.
Dazed and dirty, we walked to a neglected park and sat on a bench watching a column of fire ants bumbling across the dirt. There was something menacing about them, primal and violent. Some of them carried carcasses of other, smaller ants. Sitting there, you could feel the stultifying heat building up, minute by minute.
Then they found us. A small group of Latino children, brown grade-school kids, the boys with shiny black hair and wide smiles, the girls with toddlers on their hips, the whole bunch of them wearing plastic sandals and baseball caps. They said nothing, literally took us by the hand and led us across the street to what I thought was a grange hall.
Inside it was cool and clean, and we were greeted by a group of Latino men who welcomed us warmly and told us briefly how the strike was going. It was not going well for the workers, and you could see the stoic sadness welling up in their eyes. Heads were shaking and there was some silent staring off into the future, then one of the men said we could talk all day, but he was going to show us what was going on.
This man, I’ll call him Jorge, simply walked us back to the White Whale and asked for the keys. Best to go see before it gets too hot, he said, then he drove us, very fast, first to a ranch and then to the river, a huge plume of dust rising up into the sky behind us, so that anyone could see us coming for miles and miles and miles.
We finally arrived at a modest house, and Jorge motioned us toward it, while he stayed in the car. A very polite woman met us at the door and directed us to a room where a tall, stocky, sun-blasted man was sitting at his desk. He was formally dressed in a Western snap-button shirt and a spotless white cowboy hat, and he introduced himself, without standing up or offering his hand, as the owner of the ranch we were standing in.
After he asked who we might be, we launched into boilerplate college-kid talk about how he really ought to negotiate with the farm workers for a fair wage et cetera.
He tolerated this for a minute or two, then abruptly stood up behind his desk, silencing our rant with the sight of the pistol in his belt. “You boys look here,” he said. “All I know is I got to get them melons picked. You’ll be leaving my house now, and I wouldn’t be coming back if I was you.”
So that was the end of our interview with the rancher. His wife politely closed the door behind us, and we shrugged our shoulders at Jorge as we got back in the car.
“Somehow, I don’t think he came around to our way of thinking,” I said. “Not surprised,” said Jorge. “Next stop, the river.”
With that, we sped off down the dirt roads, kicking up more dust, Jorge gunning the car as if we were cruising the interstate. He, too, seemed to be on a mission from God.
In a matter of minutes we arrived at the river. I guess I’d been expecting a wide expanse of deep water, but when we got out of the car we were standing before little more than a shallow creek overarched by a modern, iron footbridge.
A highway patrolman stood facing us in front of the United States side of the bridge. With his khaki uniform and his knee-high boots and opaque sunglasses, he had the look of an anonymous soldier standing guard, the shotgun cradled in his arms answering any questions.
Behind the highway patrolman, a silent, steady stream of Mexican men walked over the bridge and filed into trucks waiting to take them to the melon fields to pick the melons. It was as simple as that.
We stood and watched, stunned by the heat and the violence. After a few minutes Jorge said, “That’s enough, you’ve seen it,” and then he drove us, in a furious silence, back to town, faster than I thought anyone could possibly drive on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
That night we slept in sleeping bags on the floor of a small stage at one end of the hall. We were, after all, minor actors in a short, sad play, a tragedy with no audience, really, that spooled out in the desert over a few hot days.
In the end, the strike was easily broken, the melons got picked, and the farm workers were paid nothing. It wasn’t in any newspaper, it wasn’t on TV. Nobody except the people in that small town would ever know about it, but we knew about it.
The next morning, our hosts saw us off with the best breakfast I have ever eaten in my life. There were warm tortillas the women shaped from tiny balls of dough, pressing them and tossing them from hand to hand and baking them on a large, flat grill, and fresh fried eggs and green salsa and grits and butter and good coffee. We were very moved by such a generous gesture from people who had just lost so much, and when we were ready to leave, people lined up and shook our hands and thanked us, grateful and amazed, it seemed, that someone from the larger world had witnessed their struggle, had seen their lives as proud and brave.
“Well,” Ernie asked when we got back, “learn anything?”
“Yep,” somebody said, “we did. If you want to help people getting a raw deal, be smart about it. If you’re not smart about it, you’re just going to hurt them even more. What could be dumber than convincing those poor people to stage a strike right on the border, with millions of workers waiting to walk over that bridge and pick those crops? Dumb, dumb, dumb!”
“Well, that’s very good,” said Ernie, “Don’t be dumb, ha! You get an A-plus for that. But you know what?”
“I bet those farm-worker folks were glad to see you, all the same.”
“Yep, they sure were. “
“And I bet you won’t forget them.”
“Nope, I bet we won’t. Oh, and sorry about the car.”
Jim Pellegrin, a retired physician and former volunteer in the Council for the International Lay Apostolate, lives in Point Reyes Station, California, with his wife, Sally Jones, as well as a rooster and four hens. He dedicates this story to the memory of Rev. Ernest Bartell, CSC, ’53, teacher, mentor and friend.