During the 1960s, while in college, I first became aware of migrant farmworkers. Reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath along with seeing Edward R. Murrow’s documentary, Harvest of Shame, put me in touch with both migrants and immigrants. Steinbeck’s novel was written in the 1940’s. Murrow’s documentary was broadcast the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, CBS REPORTS presented what would become one of the most important documentaries of all time, about the plight of the men and women who had provided the holiday feast. They were America’s migrant farm workers. It was intended, the producer said, “To shock the consciousness of the nation.”
It surely shocked me! I had never heard of migrants! These experiences also angered and saddened me! Following college graduation in 1966, I spent my first summer with the migrants in Bay City/ Saginaw, Michigan along with two other Sisters of Charity.
The first Spanish word I learned was Huelga! (strike!) In all, I spent six summers in Bay City/Saginaw. We visited the camps introducing ourselves to unforgettable families living in terrible conditions, offering ESL, medical care, recreation opportunities, child care and got involved with the grape and lettuce boycotts. One summer I taught US history to a young girl- Annie Hernandez-so she could get her 8th-grade diploma. I taught regular high school in Cincinnati, OH and began raising awareness and involving students, speaking in parishes about the working and living conditions and the boycott, along with standing in picket lines and distributing informational flyers. One hot summer day while leafleting in front of the Cincinnati Convention Center during the AFL-CIO national convention I met George Meany, the president! He asked questions about our activity and concluded I knew what I was doing, we shook hands while he commented: “Carry on!” I also spent a summer with the migrants in Findlay, OH.
When I taught in Dayton, OH in the 1970s we had a farm worker week and invited Dolores Huerta to speak at our school. Dolores is the VP of the United Farm Workers Union. We, students and some faculty, fasted in solidarity with Cesar, had fundraisers and our school principal matched the funds. We sent over $400 to Cesar and received a personal letter from him in return!
One summer two of my students from Cincinnati spent time in migrant ministry with me. It had a major impact on their lives. Thirty-five years later I heard from one of these students who again told me of its effect on her life!
In the summer of 1974 a former professor of mine asked if I would be able to teach ESL to a Vietnamese family of 7, political refugees, he and his wife had sponsored. The family lived in their basement. The oldest son, who was in President Diem’s navy, was killed. The news came one day when I was teaching English. Immediately both families knelt for prayer. Additional SCs got involved teaching and acting as guides on field trips. As the months flew by and the weather became colder I asked Mom if she could crochet hats and scarves for Christmas. For weeks when I stopped by to see her she reminded me of Madame Lafarge! Amazing accomplishment – she finished them in 5 weeks!
During the 80s a highlight occurred when I invited Cesar Chavez to a major Sister of Charity meeting at our College – Mount St. Joseph. He spoke to a thrilled audience!
His powerful memorial picture hangs in my office along with a UFW flag from the first picket line in which I participated – 1966. I purchased this picture while going to graduate school in Cambridge, MA (1990s) at a prayer service when Cesar died. Cesar’s brother spoke at the service. The picture of Cesar is made up of migrants that compose his face, shirt, and the fields; a powerful testimony of a powerful and gentle, nonviolent human being. I am grateful for having been in his presence a number of times throughout the years described above.
In 1984, following a sabbatical in New Mexico at the Mexican American Cultural Center, I volunteered at the Casa Romero, a sanctuary close to the U.S./Mexico border. It was here I met many political refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and economic immigrants from Mexico. Some came dripping wet from the Rio Grande in the middle of the night, others arrived exhausted and dusty during the day, some needed serious medical care, many needed to learn conversational English while still others looked for a hideaway temporary home.
The decade of the 80’s was a horrendous time; a large factor being the impact of President Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America. During this decade I had the privilege of traveling to Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua where I literally came “up close and personal” with the conditions and dangers the people were fleeing. Upon my return from Nicaragua, I received an invitation from Secretary of State George Schulz to attend a conference. Out of about 300 from the business community, a few of us had come from justice and solidarity groups but not permitted to speak. Our Central America Task Force also planned programming which included U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White.
While working for LCWR in the mid-90s I encountered Iranian political refugees who had become US citizens. Participating on a panel on International Women’s Day I addressed religious fundamentalism in the United States. Other panelists came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, U. S. and Canada.
Over 500 people attended, mostly Iranian. Everyone I personally met had had one or more family members murdered by the Iranian regime, a fundamentalist theocracy. Leadership from that afternoon at George Mason University is known as the Women’s Freedom Forum. Organizational structure was established; I eventually became the VP of the board. Soona Samsami, an Iranian woman, continues as the outstanding spokesperson. She and I have done a number of presentations together, notably at the National Call to Action Conference and the National Women-Church Conference. Soona also came to Cincinnati to as a panel participant at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
Harvest of Shame and Grapes of Wrath continue to be part of us today in an expanded story. The challenges continue to include our brothers and sisters from other lands into our own. True, this is a different time with different scenarios. However, peoples’ struggles for life and dignity are worldwide. For example in our world today 32,000 persons are displaced every day. 50 million people in today’s world have been uprooted ( 1 million Syrians are living in Lebanon, a country of about 4 million), 86% of refugees are living in the developing world – average amount of time a refugee spends in exile is 17 years.
SCs and Associates today work with migrants, immigrants and refugee in Ohio, Colorado, Texas, and Florida. As I write this the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati have the privilege of temporarily hosting 11 members of the Abdullahi Sharif family in the Farmhouse on the Compound. They are originally from Somalia but lived in the refugee camp in Ethiopia for the past decade. Catholic Charities (the official resettlement agency) is looking for a permanent home in Cincinnati for the family.
Locally, Maribel Trujillo Diaz, mother of four, has been deported to Mexico. Her family continues to be threatened and appeals continue to unite her with her children and husband.
The political climate in our country continues to be divisive so the need for immigration reform is urgent. The following stand was taken by the SCs of Cincinnati 10 years ago:
We, Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, support the pastoral letter of Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States, Strangers Together on the Journey, which acknowledges that the current immigration system cries out for change. We recognize the rights of all our immigrant/refugee sisters and brothers. We believe the resolution of immigration/refugee issues must be viewed through the lens of economic analysis. Therefore, we call for change in unjust immigration policies and unfair trade agreements by our nation, and we will continue our direct outreach to immigrants and refugees.