Photo Courtesy of Lisa Kilburn Aerial view of Woodlake in the 1970s
The Back Story for Woodlake Pride and the Woodlake Botanical Gardens
The year was circa 1971. According to life-long residents Manuel and Olga Jiminez, Woodlake, CA was a rough little town. The city demographics were about fifty percent Hispanic farmworkers, for the most part living in poverty, and 50% white farmers and merchants.
The tension between farm workers and farm owners had mounted in those days in Central California because of the grape strikes that had begun in 1965 led by Cesar Chavez. Students of Woodlake schools, children of both farm workers and farmers, attended classes together but were not close friends. Although they participated in the same schools and got along, the two groups of students did not interact socially.
New high school graduates, now attending College of the Sequoias, Manual Jiminez and his new wife, Olga wanted to make a difference. They brainstormed and then flew into action. Both came from families with 14 siblings, so they had a lot of help. They organized neighborhood kids to carry out their plans to beautify Woodlake.
“We fixed the toys and picked up trash, cleaned up graffiti, and the city told us, ‘If you don’t have liability insurance, we don’t want you working on city property.’
So we did it on the weekends. We figured we’d ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”
There was a bar in town with a wall painted with graffiti, four letter words, and pictures of needles. Manuel asked the owner if he and his group of student helpers who could paint a mural over the graffiti on their wall. The owner readily gave his permission.
The Woodlake crusaders found an artist from Fresno State to get them started. Then the couple recruited kids from the high school to help paint a mural on the offensive bar wall. While there was an overall picture, the kids painted their own paintings to create a collage.
Manuel and Olga’s loosely organized group had completed 2/3 of the painting when a police car pulled up in front of their project on the privately owned bar wall.
“You’re breaking the law. You’re going to have to remove the sign,” the patrol officer demanded.
Manuel answered, “You mean the graffiti that was there before was ok, but this is not ok?”
“No, you have to remove it.”
Manuel answered, “By the way, we’re not going to remove it. You’re going to have to bring me a document that shows me that this is illegal.”
People came up and said, “Why did you do this, Manuel?”
Manual answered, “I don’t understand why you ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ Have you not gone through that part of town and noticed the graffiti, the bad stuff that was on that wall?”
People complained, “But why? You’ve split the community. We always did everything together. Can’t you change this or that on the mural, maybe replace something that might offend someone?”
“No. Maybe if you had asked while they painted it. The kids painted their feelings.”
Few of the white non-farming community members thought about different life experiences that the Hispanic children had compared to those of their own children. Hispanic families left Woodlake in May and came back in October or later. They picked apples in Washington, berries in Oregon and other crops in northern California.
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