Staring into History

The 27-year-old just stared at the photo of the young girl. Jose Barreto’s mother is 50; he had never seen a picture of her as a child. Now through a combination of chance and history and complicated threads, he sat in an El Centro kitchen, looking back four decades at a picture of a 10-year-old girl.

In the summer of 1975, a 21-year-old photography student named Mimi Plumb went to the Salinas Valley during one of the most exuberant and pivotal periods of organizing by the United Farm Workers. The California Agricultural Labor Relations Act had just become law, and elections for union representation were starting in the fields. Mimi was swept up in the excitement as she watched history unfold. She took hundreds of photos over many months. Then she put the negatives in a box and went on with her life.

Forty years later, she rediscovered the trove of photos, and her curiosity and passion were rekindled. She had taken almost no notes, written down only a handful of names. Who were these people? What had happened to them? Those questions led her to contact me, and eventually brought both of us to the Imperial Valley home of Mario Bustamante and Gretchen Laue, where we spent hours showing dozens of photos to a group of farmworkers and organizers who had worked for the UFW decades earlier.

Our goal had just been to put names to the faces. But as soon as we began sharing the photos, it became clear they were a window into a much larger, important story. Partly because of the memories they evoked, partly because of the transformational nature of that era, and partly because we were showing people photos of loved ones they had not seen in decades.

Mario peered at every photo, scanning the crowds in hopes of catching a glimpse of his father, a lechuguero who was buried in 1977, his coffin draped with the UFW flag. Mario had no pictures of his father. Finally, there he was: Salvador Bustamante, in his trademark hat, perched above Cesar Chavez at an organizing meeting in a labor camp. The loquacious Mario fell silent.don chava At times people were speechless, but more often, the images triggered a flood of memories and stories about their experiences with the UFW and the way it changed lives.

In a decade of looking through thousands of photographs of the UFW campaigns, I have never seen pictures quite like these. Mimi was not interested in the leadership, though she had plenty of photographs of Chavez. Her photographs captured farmworkers building their union – day and night, in meetings and at marches, singing, praying, shouting, and voting.

In a way, her failure to take notes has been a great blessing. Had she taken careful notes and filed away the photos, Mario Bustamante would never have seen the photo of his father, and Jose would never have seen the picture of his mother as a little girl.

Jose Barreto looks at ….

..this photo of his mother, Isaura, as a young girl in 1975.

..this photo of his mother, Isaura, as a young girl in 1975.


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