And Other Slices of My Life

Unexpected Interviews

by Dee Newman

During the winter of 1970, while working on a federally funded research and demonstration grant for a five county community action agency in Southern Arizona, a colleague and I drove up from Tucson to Phoenix to interview Gustavo (Gus) Gutierrez, the head of the Arizona United Farm Workers Union.

One of the central elements of the project was to produced radio and television broadcasting material for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that would air on stations throughout the state of Arizona.

We were to meet Gus at the Santa Rita Center on East Hadley Street in Phoenix – the same historic meeting hall where Cesar Chavez would later have his 24-day 'Fast for Justice' in 1972.

After being escorted through the hall to the back of the one-story rudimentary concrete-block building, we entered a small dark room. Seated behind a desk was a large Chicano man with an affable smile. He immediately rose extending his hand and said, "Gus Gutierrez."

Emerging from the shadows to his left the figure of another man appeared. At first, all I could see was the light reflecting off his thick horn-rimmed-glasses. Extending his hand, he introduced himself as Saul Alinsky.

Yeah, that's what I said, Saul Alinsky. I was actually shaking the hand of the greatest community organizer of the twenty-century – the man that William F. Buckley had called a genius.

A year later, I and every young activist in the nation would be reading his book, “Rules For Radicals”, the primer on how to effectively, constructively, and non-violently bring about meaningful social change. As Alinsky once said:
"The ‘Prince’ was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. ‘Rules for Radicals’ is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."
Alinsky was not a Marxist or a Socialist. He was a Radical. He belonged to no organized groups, even those he helped organize. He loved American democracy. He spent his entire adult life trying to help others to organize in order to bring about social and political justice for all. On page 12 of  "Rules for Radicals" he wrote:
"Believing in people, the radical has the job of organizing them so that they will have the power and opportunity to best meet each unforeseeable future crisis as they move ahead in their eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition. Democracy is not an end but the best means toward achieving these values. This is my credo for which I live and, if need be, die."
Two years later on June 12, 1972, eight days after Cesar ended his ‘Fast For Justice’ Alinsky died of a sudden, massive heart attack, on a street corner in Carmel, California, at the age of 63. At the time I was living just up the coast in San Mateo.

The interview with Gus Gutierrez and Saul Alinsky made for a highly informative discussion. They both were very persuasive and charismatic characters, possessing powers of charm and intellect that enabled them to easily captivate one’s interests and attention with their knowledge and experience. Alinsky’s temperament though far less gentle than his protégé’s was laced with a dry humor.

Several times during the conversation Gus urged us to interview some actual farm laborers. He suggested that we might find a crew working on a large farm owned by the Boswell Company just west of the city. Accordingly, later that same day, Harry and I found ourselves driving around a huge complex, consisting of mile-long, rectangular subdivisions of cropland.

In the course of our exploration of the area, after a series of successful audio and video interviews with some farm workers, I noticed a lone figure, a man walking a plowed row. Thinking it would make, visually, a great shot, I ask Harry to pull over.

As I was setting-up my portable video camera from the open window of Harry’s VW Bug, the man turned and saw us. Suddenly, he began running toward his truck. My initial reaction of consternation soon turned to fear.

On reaching his truck he pull out a rifle. Cocking it, he leaned over the truck’s hood and aimed the lever-action Winchester in our direction.

“Harry! Get the hell out of here!” I screamed.

When I looked back, the man had jumped into his truck and was barreling down the parallel dirt road after us, dust flying up behind him.

At the first intersection, Harry took a right. The man, still in hot pursuit, turned right as well. Soon we were driving side-by-side. He motioned for us to pull over. We did as he directed. Moments later, after blocking our escape with his truck, he was standing by my open window with the barrel of his rifle inches from my face.

“Give me that camera!” He shouted.

Harry (‘the interviewer’), who normally was demonstratively unrestrained, sat mute, leaving me to single-handedly plead our case and persuade our pursuer that we meant him no harm.

Immediately I began to explain to the man our purpose and intentions.

“Give me that camera!” He shouted again.

I assured him that I had not taken any footage of him. Showing him the camera, I explained to him that I was unable to even turn the camera on before he began to run.

Though, not yet discernable of what, it was soon apparent that our pursuer (whose ancestry was obviously Asian) was more frighten than either of us.

As I began to ask him questions regarding his concerns, the rifle slowly lowered and his story was revealed.

Before the Second World War, the man’s family once owned farmland in the area. It was confiscated by the federal government during the war and his entire family was moved to an internment camp, the Gila River War Relocation Center southeast of Phoenix on the Gila River Indian Reservation. During the war the camp became Arizona's fourth-largest city, housing over 13,000 Japanese-Americans at its peak.

In 1944, the year I was born, he volunteered and heroically fought in the South Pacific, earning several metals, including a Purple Heart for being wounded in battle.

After the war his family’s land was never returned and was eventually sold to the Boswell Company. Years later, he got a job with the company, working his way up to become foreman of this large complex, encompassing the confiscated farmland his family once owned.

When he saw the camera, he thought he was about to lose everything again. He envisioned his employer firing him for allowing his image to be exploited by an adversary. By the time he finished telling his story we were both in tears.

1 comment:

  1. Dee, what an moving and amazing story. Thanks for sharing it. If only the full history of our country were actually known by its citizens would we be less apt to fall prey to the political pablum we feast on?