Rodney Ohebsion

Roberto Acuna


Selections from a 1974 interview of Roberto Acuna. The complete interview can be found in the book Working.


According to Mom, I was born on a cotton sack out in the fields, cause she had no money to go to the hospital. When I was a child, we used to migrate from California to Arizona and back and forth. The things I saw shaped my life. I remember when we used to go out and pick carrots and onions, the whole family. We tried to scratch a living out of the ground. I saw my parents cry out in despair, even though we had the whole family working. At the time, they were paying sixty-two and a half cents an hour. The average income must have been fifteen hundred dollars, maybe two thousand.

This was supplemented by child labor. During those years, the growers used to have a Pick-Your-Harvest Week. They would get all the migrant kids out of school and have them out there picking the crops at peak harvest time. A child was off that week and when he went back to school, he got a little gold star. They would make it seem like something civic to do.

Wed pick everything: lettuce, carrots, onions, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes all the salads you could make out of vegetables, we picked em. Citrus fruits, watermelons you name itWed follow the seasons. After my dad died, my mom would come home and shed go into her tent and I would go into ours. Wed roughhouse and everything and then wed go into the tent where Mom was sleeping and Id see her crying. When I asked her why she was crying she never gave me an answer. All she said was things would get better. She retired a beaten old lady with a lot of dignity. That day she thought would be better never came for her. ...

I never did want to go to town because it was a very bad thing for me. We used to go to the small stores, even though we got clipped more. If we went to the other stores, they would laugh at us. They would always point at us with a finger. Wed go to town maybe every two weeks to get what we needed. Everybody would walk in a bunch. We were afraid. (Laughs.) We sang to keep our spirits up. We joked about our poverty. ...

I started picking crops when I was eight. I couldnt do much, but every little bit counts. Every time I would get behind on my chores, I would get a carrot thrown at me by my parents. I would daydream: If I were a millionaire, I would buy all these ranches and give them back to the people. I would picture my mom living in one area all the time and being admired by all the people in the community. All of a sudden Id be rudely awaken by a broken carrot in my back. That would bust your whole dream apart and youd work for a while and come back to daydreaming. ...

We used to work early, about four oclock in the morning. Wed pick the harvest until about six. Then wed run home and get into our supposedly clean clothes and run all the way to school because wed be late. By the time we got to school, wed be all tuckered out. Around maybe eleven oclock, wed be dozing off. Our teachers would send notes to the house telling Mom that we were inattentive. ... School would end maybe four oclock. Wed rush home again, change clothes, go back to work until seven, seven thirty at night. ... On Saturday and Sunday, wed be there from four thirty in the morning until about seven thirty in the evening. ... Id go barefoot to school. The bad thing was they used to laugh at us, the Anglo kids. They would laugh because wed bring tortillas and frijoles to lunch. They would have their nice little compact lunch boxes with cold milk in their thermos and theyd laugh at us because all we had was dried tortillas. Not only would they laugh at us, but the kids would pick fights. My older brother used to do most of the fighting for us and hed come home with black eyes all the time. ...

The growers dont recognize us as persons. Thats the worst thing, the way they treat you. ... They havent any regard as to what safety precautions are needed. The pesticides affect the farm worker through the lungs. He breathes it in. He gets no compensation. They dont investigate the cause.

If people could see--in the winter, ice on the field. Wed be on our knees all day long. Wed build fires and warm up real fast and go back onto the ice. Wed be picking watermelons in 105 degrees all day long. When people have melons or cucumber or carrots or lettuce, they dont know how they got on their table and the consequences to the people who picked it. If I had enough money, I would take busloads of people out to the fields and into the labor camps. Then theyd know how that fine salad got on their table.