Bustamante, Jorge. Ernesto Galarza’s Legacy to the History of Labor Migration. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Center for Chicano Research, 1996. Examines Galarza’s role as advocate for Latino immigrants.
Galarza, Ernesto. The Burning Light: Action and Organizing in the Mexican Community in California. Interviews by Gabrielle Norris and Timothy Beard. Berkeley: University of California, 1982. Constitutes a series of interviews of Galarza and his wife conducted in 1977, 1978, and 1981.
Gomez, Laura E. From Barrio Boys to College Boys: Ethnic Identity, Ethnic Organizations, and the Mexican American Elite. The Cases of Ernesto Galarza and Manuel Ruiz, Jr. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Center for Chicano Research, 1989. Explores the transition of key figures in the Mexican American community from immigrant to middle-class status and the resulting shifts in identity formation.
Meister, Dick. “Ernesto Galarza: From Barrio Boy to Labor Leader/Philosopher.” Leabhrach: News from the University of Notre Dame Press, Autumn, 1978. Gives an overview of Galarza’s accomplishments.
Meister, Dick, and Amme Loftis. A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers. New York: Macmillan, 1977. Discusses Galarza’s activities as a union leader.
Revelle, Keith. “A Collection for La Raza.” Library Journal, November 15, 1971. Points out Galarza’s impact on the Mexican American community.
Activism and Intellectual Struggle in the Life of Ernesto Galarza (1905-1984)
with an Accompanying Bibliography by Richard Chabran
first published in: Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 1985, Vol 7 No. 2, 135-152
Download a printable version
Ernesto Galarza was a man of stature. He was a man of conviction and action. He was recognized both within the Chicano community and, as witnessed by his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, internationally. He knew his mission in life and pursued it with a rare precision and determination. Yet Don Ernesto was also a humble man of letters. This small tribute in no way pretends to be comprehensive; our intention is to provide an outline of his life and work and provide a glimpse of the person behind these actions.
Don Ernesto often opened his speeches to congressional committees and foundations by stating that he was of Mexican origin. He was born in Jolocotan, Nayarit, Mexico on August 15, 1905. His early years were spentin that small village where he was always attuned to the rhythms of life and nature. Perhaps the rhythm of the countryside was the well-spring to which he would consistently reach as an older child and adult.
These important early moments were to be changed by historical forces already at work. The rise of the Mexican revolution signaled the movement of many families north to the United States; Ernesto, his mother, aunt, and uncles were part of this movement. His family finally settled in Sacramento, California, where Ernesto assisted his family during the harvest season as a farmworker while he attended Lincoln Elementary andSacramento High School. As a youth he became involved with the labor movement, as the following account of his experience in the Sacramento valley while picking crops demonstrates:
. . . because he had gone to school to learn English, the Mexican workers asked him to protest over polluted drinking water that had taken the life of one baby in the camp and was making others sick.
(Arizona Republic, June 24, 1973).
Although he had not initially planned to further his education, he was encouraged by a teacher to attend Occidental College. He received a scholarship to attend college and returned to Sacramento during the summer towork as a farm laborer and cannery worker. During his senior year at Occidental, he traveled to Mexico on a study abroad program. While in Mexico, he gathered information for a senior thesis which was later published as The Roman Catholic Church as a Factor in the Political and Social History of Mexico (M. Galarza, personal communication, December, 1984). After graduating from Occidental, he attended Stanford University where he received his Master's degree in History and Political Science. After his graduation, he married Mae Taylor in 1929. They eventually had two children.
From Stanford, Ernesto attended Columbia University where he had received a fellowship to complete his graduate training. While pursuing his coursework at Columbia, he worked as a research associate for the Foreign Policy Association. Several of his reports were published. Between 1932 and 1936 Don Ernesto and his wife served as co-principals and then as owners of Gardner School, a private school in Jamaica, Long Island known for its commitment to progressive education.
By this time, we can clearly see major areas of motivation had already been formulated and acted upon. Don Ernesto's goal was to improve the living conditions of working-class Latinos. He saw education, research, and organization as the principal vehicles to accomplish that goal. He saw education not as an end unto itself, but as necessary to pursue his larger goal. He saw the need to change established educational philosophy and curriculum in schools. These motivating forces, goals, and vehicles remain constant throughout his later work..
While working at the Gardner School, Don Ernesto finished his graduate coursework. It was then time to choose a dissertation topic. During a discussion of why he chose the development of electricity in Mexico he stated:
I would select one industry that showed promise. that seemed to be developing in Mexico along the pattern of modern industrial organization, . . . one industry in which 1 can isolate and observe the capitalist process of production getting started in Mexico. (Burning Light, 1982, p. 35).
In 1942 the Fondo de Cultural Economica published what would be his dissertation La Industria Electrica en Mexico. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Economies in 1947.
In the interim, Don Ernesto was hired by the Pan American Union as a research associate in education. The Pan American Union was created in the 1900s as an organization which would promote unity, peace, and economic trade among the various American nations. (In 1948 it was reorganized and became part of the present Organization of American States.) In 1940 the Pan American Union had created a Division of Labor and Social Information and appointed Galarza as its chief. During his residence with the Pan American Union, he wrote numerous reports on various aspects of Latin America. Two which stand out are his work on Bolivian tin workers and Mexican farmworkers in the United States.
Standing on principle, Galarza resigned twice while at the Pan American Union. The first involved the tin workers in Bolivia. The Bolivian government in 1942 had passed fair labor legislation which would require higher wages and better working conditions. Galarza charged that the U. S. State Department had tried to influence Bolivia not to sign these laws. The ambassador to Bolivia, Galarza alleged, bad argued that the rise in the cost of production would endanger the production levels of war supplies needed for World War II. Galarza charged that what was really occurring was that the State Department was representing the interests of U. S. companies in maintaining a high profit margin. Galarza's charges caused a major scandal in Washington. The State Department denied any involvement. After negotiations which included President Roosevelt, Galarza was asked to return to the Pan American Union. A few years later the President of Bolivia was assassinated while Galarza was in Bolivia. Galarza again charged State Department involvement. This time he was not convinced to return to the Pan American Union. He 'vas offered a handsome contract by Harpers to write up this scandal. He accepted their offer but they decided not to print the story because it was too explosive (M.
Galarza, personal communication, December 1984).
Galarza's other major area of interest while at the Pan American Union was Mexican workers in the U. S. The Bracero Program had been established and he saw it as a means of exploiting Mexicans working in the U.S.for the benefit of agribusiness. He lobbied against it but lost. By the end of his stay 'with the Pan American Union, he had lost faith that the Union could produce the kind of changes he felt were necessary. He could not see himself staying in a position just to have a job.
After leaving Washington, he was recruited as the Director of Research and Education for the National Farm Labor Union (Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and California) and established his home in San Jose, California. Galarza's first assignment with the NFLU was to assist strike director Hasiwar in the strike against the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation in Arvin, California. London and Anderson (1970) note his initial efforts in this regard:
He was the very model of diplomacy, staying in the background while . . . Hank Hasiwar continued the activities already in motion. When Galarza eventually became his own strike director, Hasiwar returned the consideration with a loyalty rare in organized labor (p. 18).
In 1950 he led the tomato strikers in Tracy and in 1951 the cantaloupe pickers in the Imperial Valley. Galarza's NFLU efforts were not limited to California. In 1953-54 he assisted in organizing sugar cane workers and strawberry pickers in Louisiana. When "right to work" laws were instituted as strike breaking tactics in Louisiana he fought against them While these laws effectively halted the strikes that Galarza was organizing, his efforts forced a revision of the laws. To his dismay, 'when the laws were revised they were restricted to agriculture and supported by organized labor. He considered this a betrayal of farmworkers by organized labor and protested to organized labor for supporting such reactionary legislation.
During the 1950s, Galarza became a familiar face in congressional hearings where be exposed the abuses of the Bracero Program and the socioeconomic status of Mexican Americans. His attacks on the Bracero Program accelerated. He realized that "unionization was futile while the Bracero Program remained" (Acuna, 1981, p.261). The National Farm Labor Union was renamed the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU) in 1956. By that time, Galarza had become discouraged by the symbiotic relationship between agribusiness, government bureaucrats, and organized labor and decided to fight against it. London and Anderson (1970) note Galarza's strategy:
Galarza undertook simultaneously, to destroy the alliance between towers and government bureaucrats, and to shake organized labor out of its complacency . . . He had neither large numbers of supporters. nor finances, nor friends in high places. His weapons were highly personal: the shield of research and analytical thought. the sword of the written and spoken word His basic tactic was to document the flouting of laws the abuses, the corruption, the debasement, the scandals inherent in the Bracero system and to publicize his findings as widely as possible (p. 123).
In late 1955 Galarza received money from the Fund for the Republic to write a report on the Bracero Program. This report, Strangers in the Field, bad immediate impact. Government officials in favor of the Bracero Program sought to discredit Galarza by attacking some to the specifics of the report. The report however was given national press and 'vas a serious blow to the Bracero Program.
It received widespread publicity, even in media, such as the Los Angeles Times, which no one had ever accused of pro labor prejudice. The booklet went through two editions and 10,000 copies. Condensation of much of the same material appeared in at least three national magazines (London & Anderson 1970, p. 130).
The success of this report was the basis for a $25, 000 award to the NAWU to assist in the organizing of workers. Galarza used the funds to develop other organizers as he states here:
I looked upon it as a demonstration project I wanted to prove that Galarza wasn't the only potential organizer in California. Over the years, 1 would estimate that 1 have found at least two hundred people in this state (California)-field workers who would be first-rate organizers given the chance (London & Anderson, 1970, p. 130).
Later, in 1959, organized labor passed over Galarza when appointing a chief for the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). While he initially continued to work 'with the new AWOC, his perspective andbeliefs differed in many respects 'with those of the new leadership as London and Anderson (1970) note:
Ernesto Galarza did not accept the proposition that any farm labor union at all is preferable to none . . . He was not interested in the kind of union which produces dependent, manipulable people, even if they are well-paid and well-fed. He was interested in a union which would help people become more autonomous, more responsible, better able to make decisions for themselves (p. 135).
By 1959, he left AWOC and in 1962 began writing Merchants of Labor, an analysis of the Bracero Program. In either late 1963 or early 1964, Galarza was appointed chief Counsel for Labor in the U.S. Congressional Committee on Education and Labor. Galarza investigated the Chualar accident in which 32 Mexican laborers were killed when a bus collided with a train. Galarza's report was later published under the title Tragedy at Chualar. During this time, Galarza was busy fighting a law suit by the Di Giorgio Corporation against the AWOC for showing an old film Poverty in the Valley of Plenty. At the time Galarza 'vas not even associated 'with AWOC but he had been named in the suit. He fought the suit and won, but was not awarded any damages.
In 1964 he completed Merchants of Labor. The first printing was self-published. He moved to Los Angeles where he worked for one year as an Economic and Opportunity Agency officer. This move was significant in another respect: it signaled his work with Mexican American urban populations. Don Ernesto would focus his organizing efforts on the Mexican urban working-class population for the remainder of his life. Another major activity at that time was teaching in colleges and universities. He was a professor at the University of Notre Dame, San Jose State University, and the Universities of California at San Diego and Santa Cruz. He often referred to himself as a migrant academic. He once said of tenure, "If I stay here much longer than three quarters, I'll feel that I am sinking roots into a cemetery" (Burning Light, 1982, p. 34).
The academic atmosphere allowed Don Ernesto to continue writing principally on farm labor. He authored Spiders in the House and Workers in the Field (1970), Barrio Boy (1971), Mexican Americans in the Southwest (1969), and Farmworkers and Agribusiness (1977). Like most of us, he recognized the alienation between university life and the community, but unlike many said "I contend that the solution of the effort to overcome that alienation is ours and not the community's" (Burning Light, 1982, p. 37). He also spent time as a consultant to many organizations such as the Ford Foundation as an expert on Mexican American affairs.
Galarza's community work continued in Oakland where he compiled a report on the economic status of the Mexican American community there. This report served as the building block for the current Spanish Speaking Unity Council which is a community development corporation in that area. In approximately 1966, his concern for the urban plight of Mexican Americans was drawn to Alviso, a small Mexican community north of San Jose. Alviso had become a community threatened by the metropolis. The expansion of San Jose, Santa Clara, and Hayward eventually began to affect Alviso. The small town became attractive to business interests which joined with the City of San Jose in an effort to relocate existing residents and build new marinas, apartment complexes, a trade mart, light industry, new transportation routes, and tourist facilities" (Galarza, from Vialpando interviews, 1975, p. 8). In 1968 an annexation election was held and Alvisians narrowly voted in favor of annexation to San Jose. Many residents had received misleading information. Galarza, along with several other committed professionals from the Bay Area who wanted to save Alviso, instituted the Alviso Study Team. After some preliminary research, they helped establish an ad hoc committee of residents which took on the task of developing a strategy to fight annexation. Although the ad hoc committee was unsuccessful in contesting the election, the City of San Jose was forced to honor many of its promises to the residents of Alviso. While the story of Alviso is continuing, there is no doubt that Galarza played a key role in organizing the citizens of that town against urbanization.
Teachers often visited Galarza to discuss the educational problems of students. Besides acting as a formal and informal consultant, Galarza began writing books for children. He called these the Colleccion Mini Libros. He was trying to fill a need voiced by many teachers. All but one of the books in the collection were self-published. Another of Galarza's major efforts concerning education was the establishment of the Studio Laboratory. The Lab's primary mission was to develop alternative education methods for students. Its major effort was to work with teachers to develop new curricula. Don Ernesto was convinced that teachers had to be retrained in order to become more sensitized to student needs. The Lab was funded by both private and local public sources including the San Jose School District. The Laboratory was considered too progressive for the district which initiated its own bilingual education program with other districts that became known as the Bilingual Consortium. However, the Consortium received federal funds 'while the Lab did not. This signaled the end of the Studio Laboratory. Galarza and those who had 'worked with the Lab decided to monitor the new Consortium. He charged that it was being unresponsive to the community and student needs and was more interested in getting more funds than in the education of youth. Galarza, together with concerned community members, developed the Community Organization to Monitor Education (COME). COME exposed the lack of community input in the Bilingual Consortium and its use of ineffective methods and curriculum. Galarza, with the assistance of COME, published Temas Escolares, a kind of white paper on the Bilingual Consortium. Galarza detested the way bilingual education had been co-opted. He also detested the manner in which a few Latinos became Co-opted into the bureaucracy. In Occupied America, Rodolfo Acuna assesses the significance of this struggle:
More tragic was the network of brokers that bilingual education created. Often grants were awarded to friends rather than to pro-grams that had the resources to train bilingual teachers. A classic example was the elimination of Dr. Galarza's bilingual institute by the funding of a parallel consultant firm . . . Galarza's experience exposed the basic problem of Anglo-American education The granting depends more on the wrapping than on what is in the package. (1981, p. 398).
Ernesto Galarza was a prolific writer. His publications number well over 100 items and include over a dozen books, scores of articles, reports, government hearings, and literary works. These cover the areas of Latin America, farm labor, literature bilingual education, urban sociology, education, and Chicano Studies. His works are cited in virtually all major works on Chicanos and are represented in all major Chicano bibliographies. Yet Galarza's impact on Chicano society was much larger than his writings. He was known as an activist, scholar, and organizer. He was a model to many who sought to improve the conditions of working-class Chicanos in the U.S. His initial work with foreign policy issues in Latin America provided the base for his well-known work on farm labor. His organizing of farm workers later served as a base for organizing urban centers like Alviso and San Jose. His interest in literature combined his ties to nature as well as his belief in the need for relevant education. There is a consistent pattern of values and ideals- a strong humanistic orientation and a dream of a better world- in much of his writings. Those of us who had the pleasure and honor of working with Don Ernesto Galarza also witnessed his intellectual vigor, his sense of action, his belief in change, his life of praxis, his humanity and humility.