Grace Arceneaux: Mexican-American Farmworker and Community Organizer, 1920-1977

15662003, 200 pp., 13 illus.

For the complete text [PDF] of Grace Arceneaux: Mexican-American Farmworker and Community Organizer (Escholarship) Includes complete audio (streaming or download) for the oral history. Note: Due to editing by the narrator, there may be some differences between the audio recording and the transcript. Please quote from the transcript as the record. Audio will be found under "Supporting Material."

Grace Palacio Arceneaux, a Mexican-American resident of Watsonville, California, was interviewed in 1977 by Meri Knaster, an editor at the Regional History Project, as part of a series of oral histories documenting local agricultural and ethnic history.

Arceneaux was born in San Martin de Bolaños, Jalisco, Mexico, in March 1920. She came with her family to San Juan Bautista, California, in 1923 during the havoc of the Mexican Revolution. The family lived on a little ranch and eked out a living farming and doing field work. Her mother died in childbirth when she was a young girl, and shortly thereafter her father died, leaving Arceneaux to care for her nine brothers and sisters. As she said, she always had a child to carry on her hip, wherever she went.

Not only did her parents not speak English, they did not want it spoken in the house; Arceneaux and her siblings translated for their parents, for their father's business deals and jobs. She attended school through the fifth grade and returned to school many years later, when she was in her forties, to obtain her high school diploma at Watsonville night school, and earned a degree at Cabrillo College. Knaster wrote in her notes of these interviews: “All those years of no schooling are not manifested in either her manner of speaking or vocabulary-- she's a very articulate woman.”

After her father died, Arceneaux hired out her family as a unit, working in the fields around San Juan Bautista whenever possible, and doing whatever else was available, keeping the county from separating her siblings and putting them in foster homes. Because of serious, recurring bouts of tuberculosis, she spent several years in sanitariums and was no longer able to do fieldwork due to the permanent damage to her health.

Her narrative is rich in recollections of local history, of the Mexican and Filipino communities and their customs and inter-relationships. She was married at one time to a Filipino farmworker and so became a member of that community, as well. She also discusses the life of field workers, harvesting garlic and various other crops, and the role of labor contractors in agriculture. The period she spent among Filipinos is rich with details about a side of Watsonville life that is not well documented-- Chinatown, gambling, and prostitution.

Her spirit of grit and determination shines through her descriptions of chronic hard times and poverty as she worked unremittingly to raise her siblings and to make a life for herself. Her life story shows how she made the transition from illegal immigrant farmworker to middle-class social activist.

She speaks movingly of her marriages, work life, her precarious financial situation, and the importance of her Catholicism, as she her evolved from an unquestioning Catholic into her own self-defined understanding of her religion as it embraced activism and equality.

As a mature woman she returned to school, and discovered the world of books and ideas, and gained confidence in her abilities to speak and think critically about the condition of her community, and its political and cultural marginalization. This in turn led to her involvement in community issues during which she became one of the first Mexican-American women in the Pajaro Valley to fight for bilingual education, outreach services for poor women, victims of domestic violence, and those seeking to gain educations for themselves.

Knaster noted many small, telling details of Arceneaux's life when she interviewed her in her home in Watsonville. She wrote: "there is a nice back yard, where she hung laundry on her clothesline after one interview. We met in the kitchen, a remodeled expanded, large room, with a view of the yard through sliding glass doors, a room full of light, spacious. Grace always kept her hands busy-- she's one of those women whose work is never done because she does so much and is so industrious, never wasting a moment. She would wash and dry the dishes, pair socks that she had removed from the dryer or fold cloth napkins. Another time she worked on a quilt she had gotten from someone who had died. It was too big for their bed so she removed the trim and sewed as we talked."

Knaster noted that in the background of the tape recordings you can often hear a tea kettle whistling, or water running as she washes dishes, as Grace's voice moves back and forth according to the activity she is engaged in. Sometimes she would get up from the kitchen table to demonstrate something-- how she used to work in the garlic fields, or how she would carry a little brother or sister on her hip. She would unabashedly let tears flow when relating especially emotional episodes in her life, lifting up her glasses as she wiped away the tears.

Knaster characterized Arceneaux as a wonderfully warm, sharing, open person, and extremely informative as well. Despite the hardships in her life, her narration is not bitter or resentful. As her conversation reveals, she has a realistic understanding of ethnic and gender discrimination as it is manifest in the Mexican, Anglo, and Filipino communities, having experienced them herself as a single woman, a Mexican, and later as the wife of a Filipino with a Filipino/Mexican child. Her observations of ethnic and class distinctions in the agricultural communities of San Juan Bautista and Watsonville are a real contribution to the social history of this region.