Gilbert Padilla is a former member of the Community Service Organization that moved to the Central Valley with Cesar Chavez in 1962 to begin the National Farm Workers Association. He is also the primary inspiration for my book, From the Jaws of Victory. I began my education of the farm workers movement by talking to former members in the Coachella Valley, all who praised Gilbert and credited him with advancing the movement.
I found him in Fresno living with his wife, Esther Padilla, another giant of the movement. Together, they hosted me many times in their home that stands just a block away from where the famous Armenian American writer, William Saroyan, lived. We also dined several times at Basque restaurants throughout the Fresno area. I recorded several hours of oral history with both of them that contributed to the archive I worked with. In conveying their experiences, some of which were painful, Gilbert and Esther bravely confronted issues that many wish to forget. For example, they participated in the “Monday Night Massacre,” in which volunteers at La Paz were purged. Gilbert was also present at the National Executive Board meeting in which veteran organizer, Philip Vera Cruz, was essentially purged. Of the latter, Gilbert admitted, “What we did to Philip was ugly, ugly…. That’s all I can say…just plain ugly.” He remembered Vera Cruz as “a very honest human being, I mean really honest, up straight [and] very democratic.”
In spite of these uncomfortable memories, Gilbert always urged me to tell the story of the union, as he put it “warts and all.”
That story involved many moments of heroism for both Gilbert and Esther. For Gilbert, this included being the main catalyst for the rent strike among angry farm workers living in a rundown Tulare county housing facility. Jim Drake, co-founder of the movement and now deceased, reported Gilbert’s role: “One day the Tulare County Housing Authority arbitrarily raised the rent on the condemned, tin shacks from $19 to $22 per month! I drove down to the camp not knowing this, and there was Gil under the water tank, standing and shouting on top of a car. By the time he got down, he had started the rent strike–300 families joined!” Gilbert went on to manage the merger with AWOC during the grape strike, build the first effective boycott on the west coast with Jim Drake and Dolores Huerta, and oversee the creation of the United Farm Workers union.
I admire Gilbert and Esther for what they achieved in the movement. I am also impressed with their courage to tell their stories and be critical of themselves. I will be forever grateful to them for their honesty, courage, and hospitality. Sadly, Esther Padilla died this spring. I will miss her.