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Maurice Jourdane Headshot

Linda Ronstadt, the San Diego Chargers, Braceros and the Cortito

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The fan at a concert or football game and the farm worker stooped in the field, might doubt that there is a thread tracing Linda Ronstadt, the San Diego Chargers, Braceros and the tool used in the hot dusty fields.

In 1942, a severe shortage of laborers available to carry on California's pivotal role of producing food for the country, farm workers were Imported into the United States from Mexico as Braceros. For little pay, they stooped in the fields from dawn to dusk to bring food to our tables. The first Braceros went to Stockton, California, to harvest sugar beets. During the following years, the Bracero program expanded to importation of nearly 500,000 in 1956, and a total of four million Braceros before ending in 1964. Each year, the Braceros were returned to Mexico when the season ended.

While toiling in the hot fields, Braceros used the short-handled hoe or cortito to weed and thin the crop. They needed food and housing. Stockton-born Alex Spanos, now owner of the San Diego Chargers, the son of a Greek immigrant who operated a bakery in Stockton, returned from military service, to work for $40 a week n his father's bakery. Soon, Spanos and his wife Faye began making and selling bologna sandwiches to hungry Braceros. When Stockton growers complained to Spanos about their need for more workers, Spanos recognized that more workers meant more business selling bologna sandwiches. Spanos travelled to the Imperial Valley and gained additional workers for the Stockton growers. When Spanos' sandwich business grew, he expanded to provide Braceros additional food and housing. Spanos saw the need for housing, began developing, and soon the astute businessman was wealthy enough to become owner of the San Diego Chargers.

To show respect for the historic work of the Braceros, erected in the Port of Stockton a statue of a stooped farm workers using a short handled hoe.

Until San Jose State University professor Maria Alaniz and federal court judge Felton Henderson told Latina Linda Ronstadt, recipient of eleven Grammy Awards, Academy of Country Music award, an Emmy Award, an ALMA Award, and numerous United States and internationally certified gold, platinum and multiplatinum albums, !(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/)!, the story of the farm workers' struggle to ban the cortito that crippled hundreds of thousands of farm workers, forcing them to spend long days stooped in hot fields, the Stockton stature remained a lonely figure without designation on why it was there or what it stood for. Linda Ronstadt changed that.

About the time the Bracero program was ending, Cesar Chavez was commencing his struggle to improve the lives of farm workers. I was a new lawyer in Soledad, California. One night, playing pool, a farm worker Sebastian Carmona told me he had a disabling back injury from stooping all day in the field with the cortito, a hoe with an eight-inch handle. At the urging of former farm worked Hector De La Rosa, I joined him in a field near Greenfield thinning sugar beets with the cortito. I left the field in such pain that I swore to abolish the short-handled hoe. De La Rosa reminded me that the short hoe was the symbol of growers' power and had replaced the masters' whip as the means of keeping workers stooped. A year later, the day after Cesar Chavez was released from jail in Salinas for struggling to nonviolently improve the lives of farm workers, he asked me to stop stoop labor. Over the years that followed, attorney Marty Glick and California Rural Legal Assistance with whom I was employed, obtained evidence describing the suffering stoop labor caused farm workers, doctors' statements explaining how stoop labor leads to permanent back disability, and evidence that the normal hoe is used in other parts of the country to do the same work done with the short hoe in California.

After five years of hearings across the state and argument before the California Supreme Court, Governor Jerry Brown outlawed the short handled hoe in California. When the Supreme Court ruled for the farm workers in Carmona's lawsuit, Carmona handed me his short-handled hoe and said "Gracias, Abogado. No necesito este, mas" (Thanks, lawyer. I don't need this anymore), I nearly cried.

On March 31, 2012, Cesar Chavez birthday, I fought back tears when Stockton Braceros unveiled the statue Spanos erected and Linda Ronstadt placed a dedication in Stockton rain that reads,
" In honor of the Braceros, soldiers of the field, who toiled in San Joaquin County. With profound gratitude for their indelible contribution to the living of our community. (Bracero Program 1942 - 1964.

With deepest appreciation to Maurice Jourdane who, as an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance led a relentless and ultimately victorious legal battle to abolish the short-handled hoe. Carmona v. Division of Industrial Safety, 13 Cal2d 303 (California Supreme Court 1975)."
On this nineteenth anniversary of the death of Cesar Chavez, thank you Alex Spanos, thanks you Linda Ronstadt, thanks you Cesar, and thank you millions of farm workers who suffered stooped in the torrid fields to bring food to our table.