Grapes of Wrath: Paulina Cabrera’s 1968 Summer

My aunt Paulina Cabrera and her mother Maria Dolores flirtingly pose and proudly display a bunch of green grapes. It’s 1968, and Paulina has just turned fifteen. She wears a yellow skirt, which she made two weeks before this photo was taken. Maria, known to her family and friends as Lola, is also wearing a special outfit. Both took the photo to commemorate their first day in California and their migration from Tepatitlan de Morelos, Jalisco to Firebaugh, California. Tonia, Paulina’s cousin, took the picture. “Sonrie!” she shouted, as she took a snapshot of the beginning of a mother and daughters’ first summer picking grapes.

Paulina was born in 1953 and was the third youngest of ten children. She turned fifteen just two weeks before departing for the United States. Miguel, her older brother and my father, threw her a big party. For Catholics and Hispanics a quinceñera is a coming of age tradition, one which marks a girl’s entrance into womanhood. This is often a very costly party, and Paulina was lucky Miguel was working and making a decent amount of money from working in the United States. Moreover, parents give quinceñeras more privileges. This young lady could not wait until she turned fifteen, since it meant she could date, make her own decisions, and migrate to the United States. Paulina’s older sisters migrated to “Los Estados Unidos” (the United States) and often mailed photographs and letters. When they returned from the US, they brought American money, jewelry, knives, and gifts for their younger children. This teenager wanted to experiencing migration so she could buy her own clothes, shoes, and records. In Mexico, Paulina worked as a domestic in the homes of upper-class families. However, she often was not paid and worked for leftover food or scraps of fabric, which she used to make her clothing. “This summer would be my summer,” she thought to herself. She asked her mother Lola if she would accompany her to the US. Despite being fifty-nine years old, her mother agreed. As a housewife, Lola was responsible for her children, but luckily, they were old enough to take care of themselves. This mother and daughter duo took a train from Guadalajara to Tijuana and then a Greyhound bus to Fresno, California.

In Fresno, Lola’s sister Cuca and her daughter Tonia, who was just a few years older than Paulina, picked them up. This new immigrant was thrilled to see all the buildings in the city, suburban homes with their green lush yards and freeways with many cars. Nothing was even close to back home. The excitement grew when she saw acres upon acres of vineyards, white cotton fields, and rows of green vegetables. As the car drove into the small town, this new migrant began feeling a little disappointed. She had imagined a huge city with skyscrapers, hotels and freeways, but instead arrived to a rural town with a population of 3,000 people, mostly Mexicans, and with very few houses. It felt like Mexico. Their neighborhood consisted of about a dozen small houses. Cuca lived in one of these homes with her daughter and husband. The homes were equivalent to what we today call studio apartments: one room contained the kitchen, living room, and restroom.

As soon as she got out of the car, Paulina jumped off and asked Tonia where she could see grapes. Lola settled into the house, while Paulina and Tonia went in search of grapes. The girls came back with two huge bunches of green grapes. Paulina was so joyous because she had never seen or tasted this green fruit. They were delicious! She asked Tonia to take a picture of them. She knew this was a day worthy of a snapshot. It would help her remember her very first day in the United States. This new immigrant knew this photo would become a keepsake, a family treasure that future family members, including myself, would encounter in an old album and pass down for several generations. Paulina was so excited that she wasn’t able to sleep; a million things crossed her mind. She finally dozed off around two AM, but was woken up by Tonia yelling, “Time to get up sleepy head!” and the honking of a car horn. It was only four AM and her second day in the United States, but already it was time to get to work. Paulina, her mother, as well as a few other people got into the big van. During a recent conversation, she reflected on this day:

I remember the van being very smelly. It sat probably twelve people but
somehow they managed to fit about twenty of us. I was smiling and
everyone was so serious with a handkerchief covering their faces, just
exposing their eyes. It was very crowded so we had to stand.

Paulina was feeling very sleepy and also a bit nervous. It was a fifteen-minute ride and they arrived in the middle of a vineyard.

On her second day, this new migrant became a field worker and joined countless Mexicans who have labored in California fields. She would experience first-hand the hardship and rough conditions that agricultural workers have long endured and continue to tolerate. She looked at the seemingly never-ending rows of grapes, which, despite their iconic status in California, are not indigenous to the state. They were brought to California by the Spaniards during the late 1700s.[1] They did not have easy access to wine so they brought what is now known as the mission grape, for purposes of mass production. These vineyards, however, were small and maintained by Native Americans. Not until later when Jean Louis (father of the grape industry) brought in desirable grape varieties in the 1850s did they begin to be mass produced.[2] More grapes meant more harvesting. Fields that went from a couple of acres to hundreds after World War II, when the California grape transitioned to a cash crop.

Picking grapes was only a temporary job, which paid low wages and offered few benefits.[3] They were often paid by “piece work”—whatever you got done was what you got paid. During the 1960s labor activist Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) fought for a union and better wages for the immigrant farm labor community. All the farmers wanted was a labor force that would not fight back, or try to negotiate working conditions.[4] They would pay these people miserable amounts of money and sometimes not even pay them at all. Paulina and Lola were not part of the UFW, but experienced similar working conditions.

Paulina and Lola had never worked in farm labor, but were willing to tolerate it because of their economic needs. After just an hour of working in the field, Paulina’s hands began blister; the sun burned her skin, and her arms tired of carrying countless tubs she had filled and carried to the bin. She was concerned about her mother, who was older, and wondered if she would be able to manage. After lunchtime, Lola sat down under a tree at the end of the row. The two new farm workers were exhausted but encouraged each other with a smile. For an entire day’s work they earned ten dollars and fifty cents.

In her letters home, Paulina assured her sisters that they were doing okay and told them about all the things she was going to bring back. Because it took letters a long time to arrive to Mexico, she often wrote up to five pages. “I didn’t even make enough the first month to pay my ride and lunch,” she giggled as she reflected on her letters home. “But,” she continued, “I was determined to take them at least fancy hair bows. We sisters are still super competitive.” She also wrote to them about her twenty-year old boyfriend Mauricio. Together with Tonia and her boyfriend they went to the dances at the Firebaugh Rodeo. She only received two letters from her sisters in Mexico, but they wanted to know everything, especially how their mother was doing. The letters conveyed how the sisters missed each other very much and couldn’t wait to see each other again.

After that summer, Paulina left for home with four times the amount of things she brought with her. This immigrant did not save much, but it was an experience she would never forget. She had her first boyfriend, her first paycheck, and her first experience as a farm laborer. Ironically, the photo of Paulina and her mother commemorate the transition of a new immigrant to an old immigrant, but also portray her newly found hatred for grapes. After completing this paper, I visited my aunt. I held up two bunches of green grapes and mocked her pose in the 1968 photograph. She laughed and said, “Ay mija, throw those things out.”

Michelle Cabrera is an undergraduate student at California State University, Fresno. This essay is part of our Unofficial Archives series.


[1] Krochmal, Arnold, and W. Grierson. “Brief History of Grape Growing in the United States.” Economic Botany 15, no.2 (1961): 117.

[2] Ibid, 117.

[3] Lamoree, Elizabeth. “Gambling on Grapes and California Missions.” Agricultural History 49, no. 1 (1975): 106.

[4] Ibid, 109.