The Naranjero Blues

Emilio Martinez could have been Orange County's Woody Guthrie (and he still might be)

His shot at a music career seemingly over, Martinez joined a just-forming citrus workers' union and quickly become the representative for Anaheim pickers in a countywide comité central (central organizing committee). The comité included members of Orange County's incipient barrios: Santa Ana's Delhi, Logan and Santa Nita; Anaheim's La Fabrica, Colonia Independencia and La Conga; Placentia's Atwood, Yorba and La Jolla; and many more. More than just preparing for what they knew would be a hard fight against the county's powerful citrus industry, the comité also helped workers struggling with hunger, joblessness and the mass deportations of Mexicans that the Hoover administration instituted in the 1930s.

The repatriations shook Martinez. "On Santa Ana Street [in Anaheim], the train would fill with crying kids," Martinez remembered in his 1989 interview. "Men and women who didn't want to leave, I'd tell them, 'Stay—they're not running us out with stonings.'" In 1935, he penned a song titled "Corrido del Relief" to describe the Mexican community's hatred of Hoover and gratitude for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ended federal funding for repatriations upon becoming president in 1933:

Repatrió a los mexicanos
Cerca de trescientos mil
No sabiendo que algún dí­a
De algo habí­an de servir

Elisa Carr, Maria Daniel and Emilio Martinez Jr. have kept the elder Emilio’s memory and music alive
Keith May
Elisa Carr, Maria Daniel and Emilio Martinez Jr. have kept the elder Emilio’s memory and music alive

Cuando se separó Hoover
quedamos muy convencidos
¿Qué se hizo por la gente
de los Estados Unidos?

Apareció Roosevelt
Como el sol con resplandores
Tomó su administración
Y contó sus senadores.

Al mes de ser Presidente
El soñó un sueño profundo:
Todos tenemos derecho
de vivir en éste mundo.

(Hoover repatriated the Mexicans
Close to 300,000
Not knowing that one day
They would be good for something

When Hoover left office
We were convinced:
What did he do for the people
Of the United States?

Roosevelt appeared
Like a resplendent sun
He assumed his administration
And relied on his senators

After a month as president
He dreamed a profound dream
We all have the right
To live in this world.)

It wasn't his first corrido—he had already written odes to his hometown of Jalpa and Tijuana, as well as love songs. But a public performer was born, and Martinez the Musician prepared for what Martinez the Activist might do next.

*     *     *

For years, Mexican citrus workers had bitterly complained about the harsh working conditions ?in Orange County's groves. Growers paid pickers 2 cents per box and charged them for the gloves, bags, hats and scissors needed to properly pick oranges, plus the transportation on trucks that took workers from their homes to the trees. In early 1936, the comité central drafted petitions seeking help from community organizations for a strike they wanted to avert but were planning if negotiations with growers for higher wages stopped. They approached the Catholic Church, schools, government agencies; none responded. With little other recourse, almost 3,000 citrus workers walked off the job on June 11 and began the Citrus War.

The subsequent battle between the huelguistas and the county's growers, sheriff's department, district attorney's office, and hundreds of freshly deputized guards remains one of the most brutal and least-documented episodes in Orange County history (see "Gunkist Oranges," June 8, 2006). In the strike's first weeks, Martinez serenaded the picket lines with protest songs-some Wobbly standards in Spanish, but most his. The sheriff's department arrested Martinez along with hundreds of his fellow Mexicans on trumped-up rioting charges. About a month and a half later, a judge released Martinez and almost all of the other imprisoned strikers against the wishes of the district attorney, arguing that if the men stood trial, "We might as well dispense with our Bill of Rights."

While in custody, Martinez wrote "Corrido de la Huelga" (Corrido of the Strike). Only the following verses exist:

Adiós, California, adios
El estado de las flores
Que vivan los unionistas
Y que mueran los esquiroles

Mucho, mucho se ha dicho estos días
Que estos muchachos son comunistas
No se crean de lo que dicen
Son frases de los capitalistas

Si acaso le da vergüenza
Retirense del empaque
Vayan a hacer su mochila para
Que toma el traque

(Goodbye, California, goodbye
The state of flowers
Long live the unionists
And death to the scabs

Much has been said these days
That the strikers are communists
Don't believe what they say
These are the phrases of capitalists.

If by chance you get embarrassed
Move away from the packinghouse
Get your backpack ready so
You can take the train out)

After the strike, the union remained intact and returned to its secondary purpose as a mutual-aid association. Two years later, members met their toughest test with the Great Flood of 1938.

On March 3 of that year, the Santa Ana River jumped its banks and flooded almost a third of Orange County, mostly north of its course. Thirty-eight people died in the county's worst natural disaster (see "The Tragedy of It All," Sept. 15, 2005); of that figure, three-quarters were Latino children living the Placentia and Anaheim area. The comité quickly put together dances and fund-raisers to assist families in need. Martinez, for his part, began writing. A couple of days after the flood, he wrote a 20-stanza dirge titled "Corrido de las Indunaciones del 3 de Marzo de 1938" (Corrido of the March 3, 1938, Flood). Its lyrics exemplified the best aspects of the corrido tradition: expert storytelling, vivid details, a natural flow and gut-wrenching emotion. Consider verses 9 through 11:

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