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The Struggle for Social Justice in the Monterey Bay Area: The Transformation of Mexican and Mexican American Political Activism, 1930-2000


The Struggle for Social Justice explores how Mexican and Mexican American agricultural workers in the Monterey Bay area of California became labor, civil, and voting rights advocates and acquired political power in the region from 1930 through 2000. Important strikes in 1934 and 1936 began to build power among farm workers in the region, but collusion by growers with local law enforcement undercut this organizing. From 1942 through 1970, roughly the span of the Bracero Program that brought guest workers from Mexico, there were no strikes in Monterey Bay fields; wages stagnated and growers in Salinas and Watsonville reaped huge profits. But many braceros stayed in the U.S. and honed their political organizing skills. The 1970 lettuce strike brought Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers to the region—a key organizing moment for immigrant Mexicans and U.S.-born Mexican Americans in the Monterey Bay area.

Organizing around civil rights causes shaped leaders like Mercedes and Cresencio Padilla, former immigrant farm workers, who founded a chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Unlike LULAC elsewhere, this LULAC chapter had a heavily immigrant membership and focused on larger civil rights issues. In 1985, a strike was called among cannery workers in the Monterey Bay area. LULAC and other civil rights organizations, along with the Mexican American population, supported the strike, leading to significant gains for the workers. This strike, one of the longest in American labor history, was the first time that women took a substantial leadership role in labor activism in the region. Subsequently, the community used the political momentum built by this strike to partner with the Mexican American Legal and Education Fund (MALDEF) to take their fight for voting rights and electoral representation into the legal system. MALDEF and its lead attorney, Joaquin Avila, secured landmark legal victories in with Gomez v. City of Watsonville and Armenta v. City of Salinas, forcing a shift from at-large to district elections and paving the path for the successful election of the first Mexican Americans to city councils in both cities.

Previous activism by local civil rights leaders had laid a foundation for political empowerment. Avila and MALDEF finally secured legal protections that enabled the Mexican and Mexican American population to attain major political power through the election of candidates who represented their interests.

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