Juan Cadena (born 1935)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Juan Cadena was born in Luling, Texas in 1935, and grew up in San Marcos, thirty miles south of Austin. His father worked as a blacksmith; his mother worked in the home, rasing him and his nine siblings. In 1946, his family moved to central Michigan to work in the sugar beet fields. Juan finished ninth grade in Saginaw, Michigan, and then worked in the fields full-time until enlisting in the military in 1959. When he returned to Saginaw five years later, he took a job with Darin & Armstrong Construction Company.
When he learned of the nationwide boycott of California table grapes in 1968, Cadena began organizing local boycott efforts in Saginaw. “I went to this meeting [about the boycott] and they had a bunch of gringitos allí running this thing,” he says of his initial involvement with the campaign. “I said, wait a minute…they can’t care more than us. [So] I started telling the Mexicanos for somebody to take over the boycott because I thought they had more experience.” His fellow Chicano activists encouraged Cadena take the lead.
In 1971, Cadena and his wife Marta moved to Muscatine, Iowa, to take the position of Director of the Muscatine Migrant Committee, becoming its first Latino director. He secured additional funding for the program, and worked with Sister Irene Muñoz to organize mobile dental and health clinics.
I had my hands full just running the migrant program…I had people who said, we’ll give you some services for the migrants if you bring them in on a Thursday. I said, no, no, no. That’s like bringing cows and a bunch of livestock to the veterinarian. If you want to give me twelve spots or one spot or whatever you want to do free, you give me the spot and we’ll make the appointment. The migrant will go and sit there waiting like everybody else between Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Hefner or whatever.
Along with Ernest Rodriguez, Ila Plasencia, and other Chicano activists, Cadena served on the board of directors of Iowa Governor Robert Ray’s Spanish Speaking Task Force, a committee established to investigate and bring to light the status of Iowa’s Latino population. “They did all that on their own,” observed Marta Cadena. “They didn’t get paid a cent or anything like that. They felt it was important that there was something on the state level that addressed issues dealing with Hispanos.”
The committee’s report, Conóceme en Iowa [Get to Know Me in Iowa], provided an objective assessment of the history, population, education, and employment of Iowa Latina/os and the obstacles they faced. Its policy recommendations led to the establishment of the Spanish Speaking Peoples Commission in 1976—later known as the Office of Latino Affairs.
Spanish Speaking Iowans have been a relatively silent and invisible minority. They have been so because no one has wanted to hear or see, because the ears and eyes of state and local governments have not listened and because they have chosen not to look…they have been and continue to be victims of a racist and economically exploitative system. Anglo Iowans have seen and continue to see Chicano Iowans as scab laborers rather than citizen material, migrant workers rather than permanent community folk, backward and dependent people rather than “ambitious” and “hard working,” foreigners rather than Americans, Catholic rather than Protestant, “colored” rather than white…Despite the difficulty encountered by Chicano immigrants to Iowa, they have survived and their culture is still alive. (from Conóceme en Iowa)
“There’s still racism…hopefully, not todo el tiempo,” Juan says of the world today. “We’ve got to live in the same world.”
(Oral history interview conducted by Iskra Núñez for the Mujeres Latinas Project, July 2, 2005)