Gleaning Stories, Gleaning Change

Portraits of Gleaners: Lupe Rivas

Lupe Rivas


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Childhood and Fields

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Lupe Rivas, 63, a pioneer of bilingual education in Bakersfield, grew up in Texas, the oldest of seven children. Her father was an auto body repairman, while her mother worked as a housekeeper. The family did field work, as well, traveling to Michigan as seasonal laborers. Her grandmother lived with them at the time.

Back in Texas, as the children grew older, they worked with their uncle in the fields during the summer. He was a contractor, rounding up laborers to work and driving the harvested crops to the buyers. Their father encouraged them to work, but never pushed them too hard.

Lupe and her siblings liked bringing back some of the vegetables or fruit they had harvested to share with the family, and sometimes found farmers who would let them pick in a field for themselves. One bag of strawberries they picked made a lasting impression.

To California, Then into Teaching

Her father had a compadre who touted California as the land of plenty, where the whole family could work in the fields and orange groves. So, when Lupe was 14, the family headed west toward Visalia. They settled in Bakersfield, almost by chance, because the car ran out of gas and they ran out of money. The family did all find work in the fields, but their father insisted that during the school year, the children all be in school. He and their mother had only a few years of primary education, and they wanted more for their children.

Lupe herself soon moved away from field work. She decided first that she would work in a store rather than the fields. Then, she decided on teaching and dedicated herself to bilingual education in the Bakersfield area. She's taught in many classroom situations, been a school principal, been involved in migrant education, and always looked out for kids.

Sharing the Experience of Work with Children and Grandchildren

Dr. Rivas took her grandchildren on an Ag Against Hunger glean to pick cherries. She wanted them to have the experience of being outdoors, helping others, and of bringing food they'd gathered themselves to their other grandmother and relatives.

When I asked her if her three children had had similar experiences, she laughed, "Oh, yes!" Without organized gleaning for them to participate in, she had to find a way to get them working in the fields with other field hands. It took some doing, and the experience was an eye-opener for her kids ... and for her.

That wasn't the only farm work experience for one of her sons. Her mother was still working in the Bunny Love carrot packing sheds in Bakersfield when Lupe's oldest son was 15 and thinking about his first car, so she got him a job in the sheds to start earning money for the car he wanted.

Lupe and her children also gleaned in the fields in the Bakersfield area. When she said they had "access to some fields," I asked her what "access" meant.

Muñecas de Pepino

Rivas's children learned English as their first language. But Spanish was the language in her home when Lupe was growing up, and her father was fiercely proud of the Spanish language. That did make it difficult for Lupe and the other children when they first attended school, where the use of Spanish was punished and "sink or swim" was the order of the day.

When Rivas sat down to write her life story much later, she started to write about "Mis Muñecas de Pepino," the dolls she and her sisters made of overgrown cucumbers in the field. But, she says, words failed her until she realized that during that period of her life, Spanish was her only language, and there she was trying to write that story in English.

Rivas's school experiences were powerful. They led to a life of activism, much of it related to children and schools, that continues today. Dr. Rivas is president of the California Retired Teachers Association of Santa Cruz County. She is politically active in Watsonville. She tutors children in a church that provides immigration services and meals for families. And she still does substitute bilingual teaching in the public schools.

Why Glean?

Rivas's reply to our standard question, "Why go gleaning?", was typically inclusive. She wove together her childhood, her mother's ability to use anything she was given, her own sense of giving back, and her efforts to bring other folks gleaning.

Radio Stories

Lupe Rivas's story "Muñecas de Pepino" produced for radio

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