We knew that we had to make the detour to visit San Jerardo, a cooperative housing community built by and for Mexican American farmworkers, located on the outskirts of Salinas, CA. We had met there at an AFSC summer work camp when we were 16 years old. When we had arrived in July of 1977, there were 40 barracks at the site of the San Jerardo cooperative. The site had been used at various times as housing for rubber plant workers, bracero farmworkers, and had also been the site of a Japanese internment camp during World War II. One of the barracks had already been renovated, and was the home of Sixto Torres and his family. Sixto was the host of our work camp, and he was the driving force behind the creation of this housing cooperative. Another former barrack was set up dormitory style for volunteers like us, with cots and a working kitchen. The rest were in various stages of deconstruction.
The summer was transformative in many ways: during our six weeks, we successfully stripped the sheetrock off a number of the barracks, and cleared out lots of weeds and debris, making way for the next stage of the construction work. But it was also a transformative stage in our life education: we lived alongside Chicano farmworkers and their families, learning about their lives, labor conditions, and struggles, and joining in their community celebrations. We shared meals with community organizers who visited our work camp to educate and engage us in discussions about the history and current political activism.
Now here we were, two women in our late 50’s, traveling one from each coast to meet up in CA for a backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness. We realized how close Salinas was to our driving route; a perfect opportunity to see San Jerardo, 40 years later. We entered the gate around dinner time. We parked and admired the parallel streets of lovingly cared-for gardens and homes. It was quiet. We walked over to a middle-aged man getting out of his pickup, and Amy inquired in Spanish if the Torres family was still in residence and explained why we were there. He immediately took us to the home of one of the longest-term elderly residents who luckily was home and welcomed us into her yard for conversation. Soon another woman arrived, a woman our age. She remembered us as she’d arrived the same summer, a new bride at the age of 15 and who had lived in San Jerardo ever since. The four of us talked. They told us about the waiting list to live in San Jerardo. They showed us photos of their children, all college graduates, one a nurse. They told us how having such affordable housing enabled many farmworkers to raise their children as successful professionals who no longer had to work in the fields. They gave us a tour of the thriving daycare center, and the community room. We admired their beautifully cared for homes, and luscious gardens.
We wandered the streets in the twilight before departing ~ smiling with enormous joy at seeing this beautiful and successful project and the happiness of these lucky women who’d lived such full lives in this tight community. We were also smiling at our own sweet memories of using sledgehammers and crowbars to break down walls, of joining the few families for dinners and dancing on long summer nights after a long day of work, and of our 40-year friendship that had started in this sweet place.