Henry Vargas (born 1929)
Written by Alysse Burnside and Catherine Babikian
Henry Vargas was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1929, eight years after his parents had fled Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. In Iowa, his father worked for the Rock Island Railroad, while his mother, Esperanza Perez, raised the children and managed the household in their boxcar home. “West Fifth and Iowa, there’s a place that’s called the Crescent Macaroni, it used to make cookies and crackers and all that,” Henry remembered. “Behind that, there was about four families that I can recall, and they had boxcar homes…all of them that were back there worked for the Rock Island Railroad.” Henry and his siblings frequently gathered at the kitchen table in their boxcar home, listening to their parents’ stories about life in Mexico—one of their greatest sources of entertainment.
A few years later, the family moved to Davenport's Cook’s Point barrio, where the rent was low and they could have enough land to raise a garden and keep goats and chickens. But tragedy struck when Henry’s father was killed by a drunk driver in the winter of 1941. Henry helped his mother keep the family together:
I had three brothers go to the service so that only left me. . . . So it was up to me to help my mother because she had to go out and work. She worked at a produce company, very labor intense. I just couldn't see her coming home with her hands all bleeding from working in that. So I'd had it, I quit school.
As a Mexican youth, Henry faced ongoing discrimination. “The police used to chase us off the streets,” he remembered. “I know I’d walk home at night and they’d pull me over and they’d say, ‘Where you live at?’ I says, ‘Down here at Cook’s Point.’ [They said] ‘Get home, you better get home.’ So that attitude never escaped me, where they were always kind of being picked on in a sense.”
After the war, Henry left the Arsenal to work at John Deere Plow in Moline, Illinois. He joined the Farm Equipment Union—FE Local 150—and received a crash course in political activism and parliamentary procedure. That education became crucial in 1952, when the city of Davenport evicted the residents of Cook’s Point to make way for industrial development. The eviction brought Cook’s Point residents in contact with activist students, faculty members from St. Ambrose College, and two African American civil rights leaders, Charles and Ann Toney. Together, they worked to change the inequities they faced in their daily lives. “We seen what the NAACP could do,” Henry recalled, “and we struggled to find an organization, a national organization that could represent us.”
In 1959, Henry helped establish just such an organization—the Davenport chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC Council 10. Elected Council 10’s first president, Henry represented LULAC on Davenport’s first Human Relations Commission in 1962, and collaborated in the passage of Davenport’s first fair housing ordinance in 1968. The same year, Henry, along with other Council 10 members, formed the Quad City Grape Boycott Comittee, which was instrumental in bringing the national boycott of California table grapes—led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta—to the Quad Cities. With his daughter, Rita Vargas, Henry regularly picketed outside local supermarkets in support of the grape boycott, an action that brought him into conflict with local police.
The [policeman] said, “You’ve got to get out of here, you can’t picket in front of this place. I says, “We’re not moving off this parking lot.” So about six squad cars come up for two of us and the police told us, “You know, if you want to picket, you’re gonna have to get out there along the highway. You can’t picket on the parking lot.” This is what they called a secondary boycott, because you’re affecting the other businesses there. So he says, "Either that, or you’re gonna go to jail." Well, I looked at the young kid [that I was picketing with], and I says, “I don’t want to throw you in jail. It’s too hot, for one thing, and what am I gonna tell your parents?”
At the same time, Council 10 joined with other Iowa LULAC councils and migrant agencies to secure passage of Iowa’s first migrant worker legislation. When members of LULAC Council 10 visited the homes of migrant workers in the Muscatine area, they were appalled by the living conditions, which reminded them of their own experiences growing up in Cook’s Point. “It was deplorable,” Henry said. “All we wanted ‘em to do was give ‘em decent housing! They [the farmers] would move ‘em in and put ‘em in chicken houses and everything else. And some of us had lived in Cook’s Point. So we thought, it wasn’t right. So we thought it was something we had to do.”
Looking back on a life of advocacy, Henry reflected on the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness . . . you cannot live in darkness.”
(Oral history interviews with Henry Vargas conducted by Janet Weaver for the Mujeres Latinas Project, September 26 and October 3, 2006)