Lessons from Watsonville

Photo by Russell J Young

Milagro Theatre’s production is based on a cannery strike in a California farming community. (Photograph: Russell J. Young)

When you love watching movies as much as we do, it’s easy to keep doing the same thing. Thankfully, we broke out of our routine and went to see a play on Sunday afternoon at Milagro Theatre in Southeast Portland.

Good decision.

Lori and I saw “Watsonville: Some Place Not Here” — a play written in 1996 about a cannery workers strike in Watsonville, California, from 1985 to 1987 — and came away vowing to do more of the same. I love the intimate space, where you can find an actor literally right next to you in the aisle, and I enjoy supporting Milagro (Miracle), which after nearly 35 years bills itself as the Northwest’s premier Latino arts and culture organization.

This particular play appealed to me because it was based on real events in Watsonville, a small agricultural town of 25,000, southeast of Santa Cruz, and featured Mexican and Mexican-American laborers. As teenagers, both of my parents worked in the area, picking crops with their farmworker families.

Though my folks didn’t work in the Watsonville canneries, I’m sure they could relate to the struggles of those who went on strike on Sept 9, 1985, to protest cuts in wages and benefits — and stayed out for 18 months, despite tremendous financial hardships.

What could I take away from a play steeped in the Mexican culture and based on real events 30 years earlier? Plenty, it turns out.

milagro scene

A scene from “Watsonville: Some Place Not Here” (Photograph: Russell J. Young)

From an artistic perspective, there’s lots to appreciate.

— The play, written by the feminist writer Cherrie Moraga, an artist in residence at Stanford University, weaves together economic, political, social, cultural and religious themes while interspersing more than a little Spanish into the mostly English-language script.

— The ensemble of nine actors demonstrate great versatility,  ranging across emotional terrain including anger, humor, courage, cowardice and, above all, passion for a just cause. Particularly poignant was the role of Juan, played by Osvaldo “Ozzie” Gonzalez. Juan is an ex-priest whose doubts about God led him to break from the Catholic Church, but who nevertheless is looked to by many of the others for spiritual and moral leadership.

— The creative set design is also pretty remarkable. With just a few rolling tables and chairs and an upright piece whose two sides doubled as a refrigerator and a workers’ time clock, the cast was able to create different scenes and moods in a matter of seconds.

SC Sentinel - Watsonville

A non-union worker uses a club to lash out at strikers in November 1985. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel file photograph)

From a historical perspective, there’s much that resonates.

— A majority of the 1,500 striking workers were women, and about one-third were single mothers whose children depended on their income to survive. Many of the workers were undocumented, as well, which put them at great legal risk. (In the play, a character playing the role of a union representative tips off federal authorities to conduct a raid, reasoning that any deportations will result in a reduced labor force and persuade employers to settle the strike. What an ass.)

— In Watsonville, one out of every seven people was a striker or a dependent of one, according to social service agencies. During the strike, most workers lived on $50 a week from labor groups and many were evicted or lost their homes. Some sent their children to live with relatives. Sales dropped in many of the city’s businesses and more than 150 people were arrested as violence flared, according to news reports.

— Workers walked off the job when their employers — the two largest frozen food companies in the United States — threatened to lower their base pay from $6.66 an hour to $4.75 an hour. About 18 months later, the companies agreed to $5.85 an hour plus benefits.

Read the Los Angeles Times’ account of the dispute, a year into the strike

Read the Santa Cruz Sentine’s account of a 30th anniversary meeting after the strike

The play’s director, Elizabeth Huffman, marveled at the strikers’ resilience in the face of poverty and racial discrimination: “The workers mounted an extraordinary resistance knowing that it would create an economic hardship that few of us could endure today…but they did it because they had to.”

“This story,” she adds, “is unfortunately timely as our country remains shockingly divided on these very same issues over 20 years later.”

I can’t imagine surviving the stresses on finances, family and faith that these brave workers had to face. Organized labor has had few successes to point to in the 30-plus years since these cannery workers stood up for themselves.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel a measure of ethnic pride is knowing that these Chicanas and Chicanos stood up for themselves and ultimately won back much of what their employers had taken away.

This is the final weekend to catch the “Watsonville” play. For more information and tickets to the Friday or Saturday night performances, click here.


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