How One Couple Makes a Difference in a Town

Makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Kilburn Aerial view of Woodlake in the 1970s

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.

makes a difference
Photo courtesy of Marsha Ingrao – harvesting grapes

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.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Kilburn High School Walkout asking the school to hire more Hispanic teachers at Woodlake High School in 1971 One of the core subject area Hispanic intern had been fired.

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.”

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Kaweah Commonwealth The local pool hall and bar

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.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Kaweah Commonwealth A clean slate – volunteers begin to paint a mural in place of graffiti.

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.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Manuel Jimenez The mural completed by high school volunteers

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.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Kilburn, Student walked out rying to  change things.

“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.

You never noticed, Manuel explained to the complainers. “I never went to school for a whole week. I had to miss one day every week. We had to work. In the mornings before school, we had to go work. I don’t expect you to know those things but because we grew up differently. We’re different culturally.”

To make his point he said, “No one was unfriendly. But look at the clubs in the old yearbook albums. Even though we were fifty percent of the population in 1969 and back, we were not in the pictures of activities. We were not in the clubs. We did not exist. We may have been acquaintances but we were not friends.”

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Kilburn 1975 Woodlake High School Yearbook picture

A week later, the entire police force showed up at the bar while the kids continued to paint. They handed Manuel a cease and desist order to remove the sign within ten days.

But it wasn’t a sign; it was a mural, a collection of painting done by Woodlake students. Parents became concerned that their kids were going to get in trouble. The couple assured participating friends and neighbors that nobody did anything illegal.

The police also threatened the owner of the bar. He didn’t know what to do. They served him papers as well. Young Manuel asked him to hold on.

For Manuel, the battle lines between the city officials and his band of student painters were drawn. Grandson of an early labor organizer in the 1950s, long before Cesar Chavez came on the scene, Jimenez took action. He called California Rural Legal Assistance. His timing was perfect. A City Council meeting was scheduled three or four days before the cease and desist order was to take place. They invited a famous muralist from San Francisco to attend the council meeting and speak to the issue.

The artist testified, “The mural is great. I love it. It’s traditional in America. It should be left alone.”

Those words did not deter the Council’s resolve to rid the Woodlake of the offending mural. Primarily, they disliked the large picture of a farm worker resembling Cesar Chavez at the core. However, they also objected to some short sayings which were written in Spanish. Finally, they lodged a complaint about a small flag saying ‘Strike!’ and another sign asking for peace and respect for their rights.

The City Council pronounced, “It will be gone in two days. This meeting is adjourned.”

Up to this time, the attorney from California Rural Legal Assistance had not said a word. As the meeting adjourned, he stood up to speak.

“By the way, you may say the mural on the bar wall is a commercial sign. It’s clearly not a sign. This is clearly a violation of the kids’ first amendment rights. You don’t like the contents of the mural. However, if you do not go back into session, and change the order then on Monday morning we are going to federal court and file a lawsuit against the City of Woodlake. So you have one opportunity to go back into session. If not, you will be served papers.”

The Council immediately reopened the meeting and went into closed session.

After ten minutes the Mayor returned.

“You can have your mural.”

And the Mayor turned and walked off.

Meanwhile, Manuel and Olga both worked and supported their family while Manuel attended the nearest University. Ultimately, he earned a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences from Fresno State University in 1977. Shortly after his graduation, the North American Farmers Cooperative, an organization of 300 small-scale vegetable and fruit producers based in Fresno, named him as their senior agronomist.

After a rough beginning, one might think that Woodlake hated Manuel and Olga Jimenez and the couple reflected those feelings back at the City Council. That was not the case.

makes a difference
Guest of the 2017 Berry Festival walks in the Woodlake Botanical Gardens.

Following that near incident, the young college couple found properties and began gardens and beautification projects around the town. They grew vegetables to give away or sell for their projects. At one time they had four gardens.

“We wanted to give local youth a chance to do something other than watch TV, hang out, or get into trouble,” Manuel said. ” John Elliot. The Kaweah Commonwealth February 9, 2015

Throughout the 1980s Jimenez’s job led him to help the Hmongs in Visalia learn how to farm in the city. They had several farms, one off Akers and one off Lover’s Lane. Language differences made communication difficult but Manuel modeled productive farming methods for the Hmong community.

The couple’s hearts were still in Woodlake. In the later 1980s, kids complained that Woodlake was ugly. They wanted to leave. Manuel and Olga got a group of kids to work, and they planted flowers in all the tree wells around the trees that lined the main streets in Woodlake. They planted flowers that spelled Woodlake on the bank of the levee around Bravo Lake.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Kilburn aerial view of Woodlake, CA in the 1970s

“Woodlake doesn’t have to be ugly,” he told the kids. “When you are at home, do you pick up the trash, or do you contribute to it? They learned. The community learned to take pride in the gardens.”

At first, no one wanted to let them farm on their property because of the liability of having kids work. Then Proteus let them tie into their insurance. After the insurance issue had cleared up, community members invited Manuel’s group to plant flowers on their property. Manuel recalled that Leonard Hansen let them farm on the corner of Bravo and Valencia.

They also had use of Watchumna Water District’s property that was almost one city block about two acres where they grew vegetables. By selling the vegetables, they raised money to farm their properties. At one time they had four gardens dispersed around Woodlake.

makes a difference
Google map of Woodlake, CA 2017

While he established himself as an expert around the country, Manuel and Olga, together with another Woodlake High School graduate, Woodlake Valley Chamber of Commerce President, Rudy Garcia formed the Woodlake Pride Coalition. In 1999 they received a modest tree grant for city beautification and the dream of the Woodlake (Bravo Lake) Botanical Gardens began.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy Linda Hengst Groundbreaking of Woodlake Botanical Garden

Around that time the Southern Pacific Railroad was selling the right away of the property beside the levee. Woodlake City Planner, Greg Collins applied for a “Rails to Trails” Grant. Manuel told City Manager, Bill Lewis he would put in the garden if the city bought the property. The city bought the entire property, about a mile long, 13.9 acres for $70,000 and provided water and insurance.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Marsha Ingrao 1,500 plant rose garden

Lots of companies donated plant material because they knew Manuel. Woodlake Botanical Gardens received over 150 varieties of stone fruit from fifteen nurseries. Everything came from all over the country.

In spite of the small grant Garcia earned for Woodlake Pride, they were often short of money. Once they mapped the town to go door to door to ask for donations to put in the irrigation system. They told the kids what to say, and started at about 8:00 in the morning.

From time to time they had larger donors to Woodlake Botanical Gardens. Everett Krakoff owned Woodlake Olive Plant. He liked what we did with the kids. His timing was always perfect.

“You guys need some tools? You need anything else? He bought hoses. Do you have a checking account? Open another for the kids so you can treat them.”

For his birthday he had his daughters write checks to Woodlake Pride.

What Manuel Jimenez has lacked in funds for his many projects through the years, he has been heaped with honors.

For his work both on the job and in Woodlake, Jimenez has received numerous awards. Among them was the first-ever Tom Haller award at the California Farm Conference in 2008.  Jimenez was named the 2000 Citizen of the Year in Woodlake.  He was one of three recipients of the California Peace Prize in 2011.

making a difference
Photo Courtesy of Marsha Ingrao Manuel and Olga Jimenez and student member of Woodlake Pride

Jimenez went on to become a  “world-renowned farming authority, all while living in and serving his hometown – the small, rural community of Woodlake, Calif. (As) the University of California Cooperative Extension advisor, who worked with small family farmers in Tulare County for 33 years.”  Jeannette E. Warnert. June 24, 2013

Less than two years later the city of Woodlake honored Manuel and Olga in a mural highlighting their work.

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Kaweah Commonwealth Mural on the corner of Valencia and Naranjo in Woodlake, CA honoring the work of Manuel and Olga Jimenez.

City officials, community members, family, and friends gathered Friday, Jan. 30, in the parking lot of the Shell station at Valencia and Naranjo to unveil Woodlake’s newest mural. Colleen Mitchell-Veyna’s latest mural masterpiece that now adorns the west side of an adjacent commercial building pays tribute to Manuel and Olga Jimenez, co-founders of the Bravo Lake Botanical Gardens, California’s first agricultural botanical garden. John Elliot. The Kaweah Commonwealth. February 6, 2015  

makes a difference
Photo Courtesy of Kaweah Commonwealth Close up of Olga and student workers

Recently, Jimenez worked with the City of Woodlake to secure a grant to improve the safety, infrastructure, and aesthetics of the garden. The plan for $1 million grant also included new restrooms, drinking fountains, and fences, improvements to the Miller Brown Park. Since the grant’s approval, the city completed upgrades to the Miller Brown Park restrooms and the other city amenities.

However, Woodlake Pride has not received the help Manuel anticipated from the grant monies to make improvements to Woodlake Botanical Garden. He has spoken to the City Manager, Ramon Lara, and the City Commissioners, about his modest requests. To date has not been awarded any of the grant monies for his projects.

makes a difference
Woodlake Botanical Garden

If you would like to show your support for the Woodlake Botanical Gardens, please leave a comment on the Woodlake Valley Chamber of Commerce or the Woodlake Pride Facebook pages, or directly in this comment section before June 30.

If you would like to give to Woodlake Pride, click here.

 

Author: Marsha

Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, author, blogger and retired teacher/consultant. Read more about me here. http://wp.me/P7tP3I-2

18 thoughts on “How One Couple Makes a Difference in a Town”

  1. In 1967 I was graduating from WUHS. Throughout my life in Woodlake I never witnessed racism. We were all friends. We played together at recess and at P.E. and were in band and chorus together. Carmen Jiminez was always what I considered a GOOD friend. I never witnessed this big gap that is written about here. It came much much later I think. And when I look at my yearbook I see lots and lots of involvement of Mexican kids. We were NOT divided. We all lived and loved together during that era.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sheena. The yearbook pictures I showed were from 1975. I did not have one available from the 1960s. This is how they felt at the time in 1971. Maybe not everyone felt that way, but Manuel and Olga told me that the students that they worked with expressed that feeling in their art.

      Like

      1. We were a poor community. There was never a lot of wealth. My family came to Woodlake during and after the Dust Bowl. We were not always treated well. We had cousins who came and lived in The labor camps. We would join them in the oranges, lemons and olives. We worked right alongside our school mates. We lived alongside our Mexican friends. We certainly understood what it felt like to be at the bottom of the pecking order. Iam so thrilled to see the beauty as Woodlake looks so nice to me right now. All it takes is a few people like the Jimenez ‘s!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, Sheena, same when I was at WUHS, but things changed in the 70s. I was away at the time, but when I returned to Woodlake, I heard about La Rasa, the militant Mexican group. Fortunately, the social climate changed in the 80s even though there were attempts at doing things separately, e.g. Cinco de Mayo celebration at the football field while western week activities were going on at Miller Brown Park. I’ve not studied this; so I don’t know enough about the beginning and ending of the “social movement” to say any more.

      Like

      1. Monica was one of the people I interviewed when I researched the book, Images of America, Woodlake published by Arcadia Books. Thanks for contributing to the knowledge bank of Woodlake, CA, Monica. 🙂

        Like

  2. Beautiful story; I’ve been lucky to meet Manuel a few times on my visits there. This whole story would make an interesting documentary.

    I would like you to check for typos: You have Ceasar Chavez at least twice, and “Old Jimenez” once (should be Olga).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am thrilled with this blog by Marsha Ingrao. I’ve had the privilege of sitting on the Board of Directors for Woodlake Pride, Inc. for 2 or so years. Prior to that I have watched the evolution of all that Manuel and Olga have done for our community and been nearly overwhelmed and actually given to tears once or twice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for sharing, Monica. You have been so involved in the community. Your family’s history runs way back to the 1800s. You have witnessed many changes over the years. Since you’ve been back, it’s been great to see what you have accomplished, both as a former Woodlake Chamber of Commerce President and Woodlake Pride Board member. As a local business, you contribute to the economy of the community as well as it’s moral fabric and stability. Thanks again for sharing.

        Like

    1. Why, hello, Badfish. I’ve missed you. I need to come visit you and see what you are putting out into the cyber world these days.

      Carol and I had so many laughs together reading your posts out loud.

      But about getting along. In Woodlake, for the most part we can, and do get along. But things were changing everywhere in the United States in the late 60s and early 70s. There was a war on poverty. Civil Rights, which had been pushed aside in the South, had come back to light. It was complicated. The time was ripe for upheaval.

      I did not sense from Manuel that there was a huge amount of animosity between the two groups. One group was just used to getting their way, and Manuel, a very smart young man, knew where to turn to get help. The mayor overestimated his power. Manuel went over his head.

      I didn’t live here then, but had I been here, I would probably been as oblivious as most white people that were living here then as to what was going on in the minds of the Hispanic population at that time. I came along in the late 1980s. I went back to school here and took some culture classes as part of my teacher education program. What one of my Hispanic professors taught made no sense to me. He loved me because I was white and had an open mind, but I did not have the experiences to grasp what he was trying to tell me. Now, thirty years later, I understand it somewhat better, but not without getting called a gringa and a typical middle American. (I was so insulted but that was what I was.) Now I accept that I am white, and white is different. Other people do not have the same mindset as I do, and they are not ALL wrong. 🙂

      The interesting thing about Woodlake is that both sides of the issue in this case had long standing roots in the community. As soon as the issue resolved, Manuel kept working, with the city’s blessing to continue to beautify the community in various ways.

      Wow, sorry for the long-winded response! I have missed you! 🙂 How are your thongs this summer?

      Like

Your babbling is music to my ears. Please leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s