Early Civil Rights Activism
By Janet Weaver
In the 1960s, the working-class basis of much of the membership of Iowa's first LULAC councils differentiated them from councils in the Southwest, which were typically made up of middle-class professionals. Even the LULAC leaders in Des Moines, who often held professional positions, carried forward a strong connection to their experience as the children of farmworkers, coal miners, and railroad workers. In Mason City and Davenport, LULAC members belonged to progressive unions in packinghouses, cement factories and foundries; some held elected offices in their unions.
Highly respected in his community, Jesse Vargas coordinated a successful organizing drive at Riverside Foundry in Bettendorf, where working conditions were notoriously bad. He was elected president of his union, UAW Local 377. A fellow Anglo union member remembered Jesse as "the kind of guy who felt that people were being cheated and we needed help and the only way we were going to get help was through the union." As a leader of the local labor movement, Jesse encouraged Mexican Americans to become more active in local politics. As a result, by 1959 the leadership of the Scott County Young Democrats was decidedly Mexican American. Jesse served as president, his brother Henry chaired the membership committee, Ernest Rodriguez chaired the publicity committee, and John Bribriesco served as treasurer. All had grown up in the Mexican neighborhoods (barrios) of Cook's Point and Holy City in Davenport and Bettendorf.
In 1959, LULAC Council 10 member John Bribriesco of Bettendorf was unanimously elected vice-president of the Quad City Federation of Labor, which represented 88 local unions and 63,000 workers in four towns on either side of the Mississippi. In this period, Mexican Americans were often excluded from leadership positions in predominantly white organizations, including many unions. Born in Bettendorf in 1922, John was the son of John and Trinidad Bribriesco, immigrants from the state of Michoacán in Mexico. Bribriesco had been active in the local labor movement for many years and had helped organize several AFL-CIO affiliated local unions. At the time of his election, he was vice-president of Local 105 of the Aluminum Workers union at the ALCOA plant in Davenport.
Through the emerging network of midwestern LULAC councils, Iowa leaders broadened their vision for tackling longstanding problems in their communities through political advocacy. At a national LULAC Supreme Council meeting held in Albert Lea, Minnesota, on April 25, 1960, midwestern LULAC leaders discussed the plight of migrant workers in Minnesota. During a two-hour discussion, Minnesota state director Raymond Delgado reported that he had successfully drawn the attention of his state legislators to "the problems these people face" and that they would investigate further. Such meetings helped lay the groundwork for efforts to improve conditions for migrant workers employed in Iowa agribusiness in the 1960s.