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Cesar Chavez ‘never saw anything like’ organizer Janis Peterson; services set for fearless UFW organizer & pioneering education innovator

Services for Janis “Jan” Peterson, who passed away on September 20 at age 69, are set at 10 a.m. on Sunday, October 14, at Lion’s Roar Dharma Center, 3240 “B” St., Sacramento, Calif. 95816. Jan is being remembered as a fearless union organizer, a pioneering education innovator, a mentor, a wonderful mother and grandmother—and “always a fighter for justice.”

“My mom did not talk much about herself,” says daughter Alegría De La Cruz. “She talked about the farm workers she worked with.”

Yet Jan won 33 straight union elections, mostly in the fresh tomato fields of the Stockton-Patterson area in 1975, during the early months of California’s historic Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Some of the voting was held during strikes. Many workers were undocumented. Jan didn’t lose a single election. All the while, she was pregnant with her first child, Alegría.

By the mid-1980s, Alegría was a fourth grader and Jan was coordinating United Farm Workers’ California field offices from union headquarters at La Paz in Keene. Cesar Chavez took time to speak with Alegría about her mother. Alegría knew her dad, Roberto De La Cruz, as a veteran UFW organizer. “But I want to make sure you know about your mom,” Cesar told the little girl, “because you don’t have the pleasure of seeing her as I did.”

Alegría recalls Cesar holding his pointer finger horizontally to indicate Jan was “this high,” reflecting her elfin stature. “Y así de flaca,” using his pinky finger to show how skinny she was. “Yet she spoke Spanish like a farm worker,” Cesar said, “She would stand up on an empty box in the middle of a field to be heard and all these workers would follow her out on strike. I never saw anything like it. I want you to know that is your mom—and what a really great organizer she is.”

Decades later Alegría remembers “feeling that was such a gift, that he remembered my mom like that—and that he made sure her children got to know her like that, too.”

Jan Peterson was born June 5, 1949, in Long Beach, California, to Laurette and Jerome Peterson. Her older sister, Jennifer, said she was “always a fighter for justice from a young age.” Her last two years of high school were spent at anti-Vietnam War protests.

After high school, Jan completed a year of college in 1968, at the University of California, Irvine. Her life changed while laboring in the dish-room of the UCI student cafeteria. Money was tight, so she got the job to pay room and board. Jan quickly bonded with the Latino workers. She learned about the natural beauty of the southern Mexican countryside, the food, culture and language. “While it was Spanish that I learned, more importantly [it was] what it means to love your country and your people with a deep profound pride.” Jan also learned “something that stayed with me for the rest of my life—what it means to teach what you love.”

While at UCI she collected food for the grape strikers in Delano. Jan ended up at a UFW gathering in the Santa Barbara Mission where plans were being laid “to send teams of people all over the country to boycott grapes,” Jan said. “Cesar was writing down the names of cities on the chalkboard in front of the room. I looked up at the cities scrawled on the board and understood something fundamental was changing my life.” She was assigned to the Vancouver, Canada boycott. Jan had also been accepted at UC Berkeley and was scheduled to transfer there in January, but chose to continue organizing with the UFW instead.

Jan soon began organizing in the midst of the massive Salinas Valley lettuce strike; 10,000 farm workers walked out of the fields in 1970. Through her work with the UFW, Jan met Roberto “Bobby” De La Cruz, a former Gallo winery striker and fellow organizer, in 1974. They became life partners, and had four children together: Alegría, Arnulfo, Anamaria and Alejandro. Jan and Roberto separated in 1988.

Jan returned to the Central Valley in the first months after the state farm labor law took affect in September 1975. Hundreds of union elections were being held across California. Jan won dozens of them. One was at the Vista Verde tomato ranch in San Joaquin County. She and other organizers were visiting farm labor camps, taking legal access under the law to notify workers about the upcoming balloting. At one camp Jan was physically assaulted by a farm labor contractor foreman working for Vista Verde.

The Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) general counsel issued a formal complaint, arguing that under the law Vista Verde was responsible for all the labor law violations of its contractor. The case was eventually appealed to the California Supreme Court, which, in a landmark decision, established the principle that growers are strictly liable for the labor law violations of their labor contractors.

Decades later, Alegría De La Cruz, by then an attorney and an ALRB regional director, read through the case and saw her mother in the middle of the high court ruling that set important legal precedent for the entire state of California. “It is so important to remember we stand on the shoulders of people who fought for us,” Alegría says. “As a farm worker kid and a Chicana lawyer, seeing my mom’s organizing create legal protections for farm workers was really meaningful.”

Jan organized into the late months of her pregnancy, and then moved to the Agbayani Village, a home for retired Filipino organizers. Most of the Filipino residents at Agbayani Village, many veterans of the 1965-1970 grape strike, had no families and were delighted to help bring a new life into the world. Jan’s first child was born at the Forty Acres clinic in March 1976. A son, Arnulfo, followed in 1978. Jan remembered the workers wanted to name the baby “Contrato” De La Cruz, because they were in the middle of a major contract negotiation.

The family continued to move with the corrida and organizing, and Anamaria was born in Bakersfield in 1980, and Alejandro in 1983 in Freedom, California. Once Jan became a mother, she moved from the fields into administration and strategic duties, helping run union field offices through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, as well as continuing her education in the local community or the Cal State campus in the area where the family was organizing. Back in La Paz, Jan worked as a Montessori teacher and continued working towards her bachelor’s degree. Jan was proud that she never lost a transfer unit in the path to her degree, which spanned more than five colleges, until she graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Boston in 1988, during the time was ­­the family was assigned to organize the third grape boycott there in 1986.

Jan excelled in higher education, earning her Master’s degree in Education at Harvard University in 1990, and embarking upon a new career as an administrator and education innovator. At the Latino Health Institute (LHI) in Boston, Jan worked as an educator, trainer, advocate and administrator in the field of HIV/AIDS education, prevention and awareness. After LHI, she moved to an organization called Neighbors for a Better Community. Jan recognized large numbers of area immigrants had medical backgrounds but were working at jobs that were inconsistent with their high levels of education and professional experience. Jan, moving quickly to implement a new Massachusetts law increasing rights for non-English speaking people, created programs at Cambridge College to facilitate the transfer of non-U.S. university credits, so people could work as medical interpreters in the region’s burgeoning biotech and hospital sectors. Jan’s work at this level was grounded in the creativity and sensitivity she showed as an organizer, focused on listening to people who know best what they need. She influenced how higher education institutions throughout the nation recognize immigrants’ skills and education so they can work as respected professionals.

During this time, Jan proudly raised and educated her four children, all of whom have been inspired by her path in their own way. Her daughter Anamaria is a musician; her son Alejandro is an educator; her son Arnulfo is a union leader with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); and her daughter Alegría is a lawyer. Each one is dedicated to their families, community building, teaching and organizing.

Jan came home to California in 2004, to set up Cambridge College—California.  She retired in 2006, becoming a loving grandmother and a community educator. She excelled at helping people solve problems, and was active in immigrant communities wherever she lived.

She lived her last year in Sacramento with the same energy and brilliance she demonstrated throughout her life. Jan passed away unexpectedly on September 20 due to complications from a previous surgery to remove cancer from which she had been in remission when she passed away.

A memorial service is scheduled from 10-11 a.m. on Sunday, October 14, at Lion’s Roar Dharma Center, 3240 “B” St., Sacramento, Calif. 95816.

Jan’s writing about her experiences with the United Farm Workers can be found here:

Jan is survived by her mother, Laurette Springer; her sister, Jennifer Seely; brothers Jon and Michael Peterson; her children, Alejandro De La Cruz, Anamaria De La Cruz, Arnulfo De La Cruz, Alegría De La Cruz; and seven grandchildren. Her granddaughter, Milagros De La Cruz, her suegra, Jessie Lopez De La Cruz, and her father, Jerry, are waiting for her with open arms. ¡Que viva Jan!