Jessie De La Cruz, a tireless supporter of the farmworker movement, never faltered when it came to fighting for justice. Even in her 90's, she would often ask her son, Roberto De La Cruz, to take her to political rallies.
"She would want me to come by and pick her up," said De La Cruz. "She never wanted to stop. She was truly an incredible woman."
Mrs. De La Cruz died Monday Labor Day in Kingsburg. She was 93.
Born in Anaheim and raised in poverty, Mrs. De La Cruz would become one of the first female members and organizers in the United Farm Workers.
Friends and family say she was humble, respectful and courageous and had deep passion for improving the lives of the nation's farmworkers.
A joint statement by United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez and Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul F. Chavez said: "Jessie inspired thousands of people by drawing upon the same virtues Cesar Chavez (UFW founder) demonstrated, most notably her simple humility. She never sought the spotlight or public recognition for her many contributions, preferring instead to do the hard, grinding work on the front lines of the farm workers' struggle."
Mrs. De La Cruz was effective at connecting with workers because she was one of them. Mrs. De La Cruz spent years picking snap peas or cutting cotton in fields throughout the state. As a child, she spent more time in the fields than in a classroom.
Over the years, her family lived in Huron, and later settled in Parlier. At 19, she fell in love with fellow farmworker Arnold De La Cruz. The two married and raised five children while following the harvest up and down the San Joaquin Valley.
Her life would change in the 1960s when she met Chavez, who would encourage Mrs. De La Cruz to become part of the then-fledlging union.
Her granddaughter, Alegria De La Cruz, said her grandmother felt empowered.
"She would tell me stories about how excited she was that Cesar made it clear from the very beginning that the union was for everyone, including women," said Alegria De La Cruz, supervising attorney for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. "She never forgot that."
Along with her husband, the couple became key players in the union's early days.
It was a role she relished.
Wife, mother and farmworker leader, De La Cruz was often on the front of the labor movement. When not organizing workers, she was testifying before political leaders on outlawing the short-handled hoe.
During the Vietnam War, when Roberto De La Cruz was serving in the Navy, Mrs. De La Cruz heard the military might be buying grapes during the union-supported grape boycott.
"She contacted me to tell me how to do a boycott on the ship," Roberto De La Cruz said. "I loved her for that."
Her legacy has been well documented in books, news articles and in a 1998 mini-series titled, "A Will of Their Own." Brazilian actress Sonia Braga portrayed her.
Valley native and author Gary Soto profiled Mrs. De La Cruz in the book, "Jessie De La Cruz, a Profile of a United Farm Worker."
"What drew me to her was her physical and spritual strength," Soto said. "She was dedicated to farmworkers and the UFW all the way to the end."
Along with her work with the union, Mrs. De La Cruz taught English to migrant workers and served on the executive board of the California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides legal services.
Roberto De La Cruz, area director for the Service Employees International Union, said his mother was most proud of her grandchildren, their accomplishments and the role she played in the union.
"She was happy that she was able to provide a voice and was able to represent farmworkers," Roberto De La Cruz said. "She never forgot where she came from and what it meant to be a worker."
Funeral services for Mrs. De La Cruz are pending.
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