This past weekend the United States lost Jessie De La Cruz, one of the early leaders of the United Farm Workers whose historic DeLaCruzmovement for farm worker justice won national recognition of the widespread abuse of farm workers and immigrant laborers by the corporate food system in the United States. Cruz was one of the UFWs’ first female organizers, and she remained committed to movements for Justice on California’s farms until the end of her life.

Growing up in a family of Mexican migrant workers, De La Cruz understood the, then, emerging corporate food system  in a way that only a farm worker can. She witnessed and suffered grueling labor, squalid living conditions, poverty-level wages, and brutal exploitation faced by farm workers in a way that only a farm worker can. The exploitation of farm workers in the Southwestern United States was partly made possible by the exclusion of farm workers governmental protections offered to industrial laborers and from the system of racial and ethnic exclusion long practiced in the region. Facing this exclusion in school after school and community after community, De La Cruz knew that is was only farm workers themselves who were going to change the conditions in the fields.

De La Cruz did not become an organizer, however, until her 40s. She joined the UFW in the early 1960s, inspired by Cesar Chavez and his growing organization. Soon after, De La Cruz began organizing workers, picketing public meetings, and demanding justice for farm workers. She is best known for leading a successful campaign to outlaw the use of the short-handled hoe, an implement whose 24-inch handle forced workers to bend over at the waste for extended periods, leading to painful and debilitating back injuries, but her commitment did not stop there. She continued teaching English to farm workers, serving as an advisor for farm worker rights to municipal and state administrations. De La Cruz was active until her retirement in the early 1990s.

Recognition of De La Cruz’s life is an acknowledgement of both the suffering of rural people and the transformative power that they can wield when organized for dignity and justice. Her life is a lesson not just in the United States, but to farmers all over the world whose experiences demonstrate that the corporate food system abuses and exploits on a global in scale.

Hear Jessie tell her story in her own words: