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Arrowhead Ranch Past: Arizona Undocumented Workers Went On Strike 39 Years Ago
In a three-part series, KJZZ will explore the strike, the history of an Arizona activist who learned from Cesar Chavez and how the ideology of the 1970s is alive in local organizations today.
Agriculture was a key industry long before Maricopa County transformed into one the nation’s most populous regions.
Undocumented citrus workers went on strike 39 years ago Monday in the West Valley’s Arrowhead Ranch.
At the time, citrus groves eclipsed the desert now covered by houses, strip malls and a hospital.
Beneath those trees, undocumented migrants lived and toiled in squalid conditions. They reportedly made less than $1 an hour.
“People treat livestock better than farm workers at that point,” said Don Devereux, a journalist turned labor organizer.
After investigative reporters found migrants living in shacks made of orange crates, Devereux helped found the Maricopa County Organizing Project (MCOP) in 1977.
“Our first target, because it was the most powerful ranch in town, was Arrowhead Ranch,” Devereux said.
Anti-union legislation had helped push big-name organizers like Cesar Chavez out of Arizona a few years before.
“So our plan was not to be a union. Our plan was to fake them out, if you will, by being a civil rights organization,” Devereux said.
MCOP did something new. They laid the foundation for the strike in Mexico, telling workers in places such as Querétaro, Guanajuato and Nayarit what they could gain from organizing.
On Oct. 3, 1977, when the harvest was at its peak, undocumented workers walked off the job at Arrowhead Ranch.
Tucson attorney Jesus Romo was another organizer. He said the Border Patrol showed up that same day.
“They came in with helicopters, trucks, you name it,” Romo said.
Some workers sought refuge within the trees that covered Arrowhead Ranch’s thousands of acres.
“It became the largest institutionalized game of hide-and-seek I’ve ever seen,” Devereux said.
The strike made local and national news, in part because the Goldwater family owned a stake of Arrowhead. One Washington Post headline declared: “Illegal Aliens Have Been Striking in Arizona Citrus Groves.”
“Nobody thought the undocumented workers would have the cojones to go out and do that,” Devereux said, using the Spanish slang for having courage or boldness.
A first of its kind strike
Romo said the workers stuck with the plan, even as the Border Patrol continued deportations.
“These are people who were willing to sacrifice everything and to risk everything to go to another country where they knew they would be mistreated,” Romo said.
The strike ended in about three weeks. Negotiations ensued. The sides reached a contract in 1979. The deal established a pay scale for different kinds of citrus. And guaranteed workers at least the federal minimum wage.
It also promised work supplies, clean drinking water and sanitation.
“The Arrowhead Ranch strike represents the first strike, that we know about least, in which undocumented workers explicitly demanded their rights while asserting that they were in the country without proper authorization,” said Ana Raquel Minian, a history professor at Stanford University who is writing a book about undocumented migrants in the late 20th century.
MCOP leaders didn’t forget what motivated people to illegally migrate. The contract set aside 10 cents of every dollar a worker made for economic development projects in Mexico. Minian said the money helped pay for a large irrigation project, pig farm and a rig for building wells.
“All these projects led Mexican families, which had been completely dependent on wages earned by migrants in the United States, to begin dreaming about making their livelihoods together in Mexico,” Minian said.
Organizers said many of the workers did stay and help build the stucco subdivisions of Arrowhead Ranch.
Orange trees in the road medians and a small grove near Arrowhead Abrazo hospital hint at the landscape's past.
Daniel Pezzullo was there on a recent weekend taking pictures for his Instagram and catching up with a friend.
“It’s really pretty like when the sun’s shining through the trees right now and like all the oranges are on the trees,” Pezzullo said.
He had never heard of the ranches or the history made there almost 40 years ago.