Interviewer: Matt Venegas, grandson
Interview Date: November 26, 2011
Experiences: U.S. Air Force, Cannery work, Teamster Representative
California’s history is such a vast topic that involves so many people, it is hard to not know someone who has taken part in it. This paper focuses on the story of one of those many people. All the following is from an interview with Richard Espino, my grandfather, on November 26, 2011 except as noted.
Born April 3, 1933 Richard Cecena Espino was born in Dinuba, California. Richard has fond memories of Dinuba, a small agriculture town, 180 miles south of San Jose. He remembers playing ball in front of their house with his brothers after school till dark and hanging out with close friends. Richard’s family consisted of six brothers and four sisters. His father was a “comical” man with a friendly personality. Richard cannot even remember a time when his father was truly angry. On the other hand, his mother was a quiet woman and communicated more often with her daughters than her sons. Although they were a large and poor family, Richard says that the relationships between the family were “very good” and that his parents almost never argued.
In the interview, Richard mentions that his house was a “tiny shack”that consisted of 3 small bedrooms and a small kitchen. He also spoke of a wood stove that his family used to cook their meals and heat the house during the winter.He talked about how he would have to help his father chop wood while the others played, something he did not enjoy. He also reminisces on times when his father would take him quail hunting, a more fun filled event.
Richard’s living conditions and early life were neither fancy nor glamorous. He shared a room with his five brothers and only had mattresses on the floor to sleep on. The only people to have a room to themselves were his mother and father. He would never have friends over on the weekends since their home could not accommodate more people than what it already had. Instead he, his brothers, and his best friend Manuel Diez would go to the local high school and plays sports all day. Although baseball was his personal favorite, he also enjoyed basketball and football. Since they could not afford a ball, they would make a ball out of old rags and tape. Also they would have to make their own toys out of various items they could find. They were so poor, Richard never had a birthday party but he does recall the time that his mother gave him a dime to buy himself a cupcake, his only “real birthday party” as a child.
As Richard grew up, things changed. His childhood friends were drafted into the Korean
War and the others just went their separate ways. Girls became a priority and work
became an even bigger one. He would pick cotton and any kind of fruit that grew locally.
There was plenty of fruit to be picked, making that Richard’s main job from childhood
to early adulthood. He remembers the heavy lifting of the watermelons and tossing
them to another worker and going home with a sore
body. But life did not consist of all work and no play. Richard and his friends would go to dances and local carnivals which is where he met his wife to be of 58 years, Carmen Lopez.
Richard remembers that night very clearly. In the family, there is much speculation
this meeting and eventual life long relationship came to be. In the interview Richard is quoted as
saying “I’ll tell you the truth” followed by a slight chuckle. He remembers that the high school
carnival was on a Friday and he, as young men do, went to look for girls. As Richard and his
friends walked around the carnival, he saw Carmen walking around as well with her nieces and
sisters. He approached her and asked her if he could walk with her. Carmen “didn’t say no” so he “hung in there” and asked her if she would like to go out with him. But, as was customary then, she told him that he needed to ask her father’s permission. Sure enough, the next day, Richard was knocking on her door. He introduced himself in a polite manner. According to Richard, Carmen’s father liked him right away, often calling him “caballero” or gentleman. After that, they began dating and eventually married on May 6, 1953. They went on to have four sons and two
All seemed well in the lives of the new couple. But many of Richard’s brothers and friends had been drafted into the Korean War. On June 25, 1950 “at 11 a.m. North Korea announced a formal declaration of war and what is now known as "The Korean War" officially began.” (korean-war.com) Richard did not want to join the army but knew that his services were required. In 1952, Richard signed up to join the United States Air Force. Shortly after he was sent to Parks Air force Base, a large facility in Pleasanton, California. “It was built as a Navy Base during World War II, and was commissioned Jan. 19, 1943.” (militarymuseum.org) “After closing in 1946, Camp Parks sat unused until the Air Force established a basic training center in 1951 and became known as Parks Air Force Base.” (militarymuseum.org) Richard enjoyed his time at Parks. He got “three good meals” and was able to go home on the weekends to visit Carmen, who was now expecting their first child. One memory Richard has of Parks involved the only other Mexican man at the base. Richard remembers that before the privates were allowed to leave the base for the week- end, the sergeants would check the barracks and the privates themselves to make sure every- thing was clean and in tip top shape. All the privates lined up for his flight ready to be inspected and ready to go home. But they wouldn’t be leaving. According to Richard, “this fat Mexican” had a dirty shirt on and as a result no one was allowed to leave. “They punished all of us. We just stayed there and cleaned up all around the barracks.” Luckily this was not a reoccurring event. Having no other way of getting back to San Jose, Richard would hitch hike all the way back home to see Carmen and hitchhike back to Parks. Later he was transferred to Hamilton Air Force Base, south of Novato, California. He was not at Hamilton for long.
After about a year and a half of service, Richard and Carmen’s first child, Richard Junior, was born. But Carmen became ill and would often have seizures. Being a stay at home mom with nobody to help her, raising a child alone was very difficult. Richard became very worried and would go to the church located at Hamilton Base and pray. During a visit at the church, a chaplain asked what troubled Richard. He explained the situation at home and how Carmen was very sick. The chaplain was troubled by this as well and told Richard that he “should be home”. Richard remembers that the chaplain “gave me a letter saying that I should be discharged and I should be home taking care of my family. So I was discharged.” Richard was a free man and would be hitch hiking back home for the last time.
Shortly after his discharge from the service, Richard and Carmen moved to San Jose in 1957 with his brother Daniel and rented a small house. Afterward he got a job with a construction company. On the side, he would work in the fields picking cotton and fruit for extra money. His stay at the construction company was not a long one. Richard was on a job site pouring cement. As he worked the pin that held the cement shoot in place broke, swinging the shoot towards him and striking him directly in the chest. Severely injured and unable to work, Richard was forced to stay at home and heal. Although he received state compensation, he knew it wouldn’t last. Roughly a year after the accident, a court settlement was reached awarding Richard enough money to buy the house that he still currently owns and lives in after 44 years. Richard considers buying the house “the best thing I ever did”. Still in need of money and work, Richard found a job at a local cannery where he worked for many years. After working at the cannery for a year or so, he was promoted to a shop steward. Being fluent in Spanish and English, Richard was the perfect man for the job. After a year of being the shop steward, Gill Garcia, the president of the Teamsters local 679 at the time, visited Richard at work. He was impressed with Richard’s abilities; he showcased at the cannery and asked him to leave the cannery to work for the Teamsters. With better pay and the opportunity to work for a very respectable union, Richard talked it over with his wife. Both of them agreed that it was the smart thing to do.
Richard worked for the Teamsters from the early 1970’s to 1995, the year of his retirement. These years in Teamster history are considered the “Glory Years”. “The Teamsters grew in size and power from the late ’50s to the late ’70s. Unions grew and workers prospered as the middle-class reaped the benefits of the New Deal, the post-war surge and collective bargaining.” (teamster.org) Richard remembers the interview very clearly. He stated that there were three or four other men that were also to be interviewed for the job. He was last to be interviewed. He was interviewed for fifteen minutes and then “they got into got into a little conference, the people that were there, and said ‘We got our man!’”.
Richard explained his role and duties as a union representative. His job was to “defend the people.” He continues on by saying “for example, if a person got mistreated, if a person was unjustly terminated I would have to go in there and be like a lawyer for him. I would have to go out there and find out what happen and this and that and take it to court. There would be two of us union members and two of them, and we would talk about it and see what happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we use to win.” This job, that involved helping others and making sure that workers were being treated right and fairly, was a job that Richard was very passionate about. “I loved that job. That was the best job I’ve ever had. I really enjoyed it because, first, I enjoy helping people…and then I was getting paid for it! I felt like I couldn’t go wrong!”
I asked Richard to pick a personal favorite moment out of his many years with the
Teamsters. He answered with the following story: “I was there for about two weeks
and then, they didn’t know what I could do, they didn’t know how I could talk. So
they sent me out with this other guy who was retiring. They sent him with me to defend
this guy. So I went out there and they terminated this Mexican because they said,
'Insubordination, he didn’t do what he was told to do.' So it turns out this guy was
telling me. First, he says, ‘We work in this huge wrecking yard and all these huge
caterpillars and you can’t hear very good and you have ear plugs so I can’t hear nothing.
I try to go with what they say but I really don’t know what they say.’ So I went up
there and I’m defending him and the guy that was with me, he was listening to me because
he was going to report what I was saying. So I went out there and I defended him and
I got him his job back and he was all happy because I got him his job back. After
I told him (the employer) I’m leaving now but, if this gentle man here tells me that
you are harassing him because he can’t speak English and you
fire him, I’m going to come back but this time I’m going to bring my lawyer with me, and they said ‘No, no ,no, no you don’t have to worry about that!’ I think I kind of scared them a little because I talked to them a little rough. So when we got back to our place of business, to the local, right away he went to talk to the main boss, he did; the guy with me, his name was Frank. I remember him saying ‘Oh this Rich, he’s bad he’s bad!’ I went to another room and…I had been there two weeks. A total of two weeks. The following day I got a two hundred dollar raise!” Richard laughs to himself after this story and looking back on this moment in time. “That’s on top of my list” he said, “that’s one of my main ones.”
Another notable moment in Richard’s career was when he went to defend a man in Gilroy. This man would often come in drunk or hung over. Richard himself said that he “wasn’t a good employee.” He went to the head of the company and told them “You guys believe in second chances. Let’s give him a second chance.” Richard successfully had the company agree to pay for the man to go to a rehab clinic. “I hadn’t seen him for about a year. So I came back one day to the same place and he seen me and went and gave me a big hug! He was still working there! He got his job back! And then he tells me ‘Rich, you’re the best guy in the world. If it hadn’t been for you I would have been fired.’ He told me that he had moved to a new town and made new friends because his old friends weren’t really his friends. He told me his wife was nothing but a big headache. He also told me that he didn’t drink anymore and he told me that he was a different person. He told me ‘If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t of made it.’ I told him no, I just advised you. You had to do all the work yourself, which was the truth! I still remember that because, I helped somebody in a big way.”
Sadly though, Richard could not do this forever and at the age of 62 retired from the Teamsters. I asked him how he felt about his career with the Teamsters. Richard smiled and responded “I’m very happy with my performance while I was there. Little things made it fun.”
Although these personal memories and stories may seem like a very small piece to the whole, it is stories like this that helped shaped what California is today and how people are treated today. My grandfather helped hundreds if not thousands of people in his time with his work. I can honestly say that I believe he truly enjoyed what he did. My grandfather has led an extraordinary life, rising out from the poor neighborhoods of Dinuba to becoming a successful business man and family man. There is nobody like my grandfather and nobody will ever replace him.
Espino, Richard, Grandfather (San Jose, California; 26 November 2011)
http://www.militarymuseum.org/CpParks.html; November 27, 2011
http://www.korean-war.com/TimeLine/1950/06-25to08-03-50.html; November 27, 2011
http://www.teamster.org/content/glory-years; November 27, 2011
De Anza Class: History 10
Instructor: Anne Hickling
Interview Date: November 26, 2011