Raynaldo Phillip Valdez | Credit: Courtesy

My Dunn Middle School students and I had the privilege of interviewing Raynaldo Phillip Valdez as part of an oral history project back in 2003. Grandpa Ray, as he became known to all of us, endured hard work, poverty, and hunger throughout his life, but he never shied away from an opportunity to be of service. At the time of this interview, his two grandkids were students at Dunn, and he helped us out with everything from camping trips to archeological digs, working in the campus garden every Friday. His childhood struggles might have defeated a lesser spirit, but Grandpa Ray’s kindness and optimism are an inspiration, and his life is illustrative of a fundamental but sometimes forgotten story of the West and California.

Grandpa Ray was born in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1941, the 13th of 18 kids. His mother, who was from a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, died in childbirth when Grandpa Ray was 8 years old. The family managed to stay together, moving from place to place, living under a tree for a while. “We didn’t have no mom, no one to keep an eye on us. Sometimes my dad would leave to follow the railroad track, wherever there was work, so we were alone with no one to keep us in line, but we never got in trouble — there was no one to make trouble with.”

Grandpa Ray started working when he was 7, thinning sugar beets, which was difficult and tedious work, especially in the winter, hands stinging with cold. He missed too much school to ever catch up, and finally quit in 7th grade. It was hard to make friends, anyway. “The white people didn’t want to hang around with us, so we used to play by ourselves,” he said. “We didn’t mind; we were used to it.”

Raynaldo Phillip Valdez | Credit: Courtesy

Getting used to it and not minding were usually good coping strategies for Grandpa Ray, but there was no way to downplay an empty belly. It’s ironic that the gatherers of food so often went without any, but hunger was a constant part of life. Grandpa Ray had two siblings who died of malnutrition.

The family traveled by flatbed truck to different towns in Colorado, California, Arizona, Utah, and Oregon. “You pick peaches, cherries, and pears,” he said, “and then after the fruit, go into the regular crops … like potatoes, carrots, sugar beets.”

They carried nothing but clothing, blankets, and a couple of pots. They would drive all day and pull over before sundown someplace with a river or ditch so they would have water to cook with and drink. “In those days, I used to drink the water right from the ditch,” Grandpa Ray told us. His sisters made tortillas, fried beans, potatoes … whatever they had.

As soon as the sun set, it was time to quiet down and go to bed, but Grandpa Ray didn’t mind — if you work all day, you’re tired. “My dad was very strict,” he said. “He never hit us, but we knew he meant what he said. And he taught us to respect everybody, no matter who it is. It don’t matter if they were mean to us. He’d always tell us, just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you gotta be smart-alecky or dirty or anything like that. That got nothin’ to do with it.”

The family arrived in California near San Bernardino during a period of incessant rain. There would be no work until the rain stopped, but Grandpa Ray gratefully remembers a group of Mexican workers who gave them tacos. “As skinny as I was, I ate 15 tacos! And they brought us more, until work picked up and we could buy our own food.”

Grandpa Ray was 16 years old when he came to Lompoc, traveling by himself. He worked there for about two months, and then went to Santa Maria, where he met his wife, Juanita. “We got married when I was 19,” he said. “Her parents didn’t think we could make it, but we ran off and got married in Chico, came back to Santa Maria, and we been here together ever since.”

Life taught Grandpa Ray that siblings could lean into each other for support, that kindness appears in unexpected places, and there are ways to avoid internalizing meanness. Despite decades of grueling work, loss, and struggle, he spoke to us without a trace of bitterness. “We had some rough times,” he said, “But it was a good childhood that I had.”

And because it was a gift not given him, he learned the value of an education. “Nowadays, you don’t get an education, you gonna end up in the field,” he told our students then. “Think about it. You guys have it made! You got everything.” In the years since this interview, he has seen his grandchildren graduate from Stanford and UC Santa Cruz.

Today, Grandpa Ray volunteers at the church food bank in Santa Maria, distributes leftovers to neighbors, takes old veggies to feed local goats and chickens, and refuses to waste food. He finds comfort in knowing that his freezer is full, and he is always telling people to take what they need. “He appreciates life, his home, his health, and his family,” his daughter Geneva reports. “His neighbors look out for each other and share what they have, often leaving baskets of plums, strawberries, or chilis at the front door with no message.” No one goes hungry in Grandpa Ray’s domain.

For a transcript of the complete interview, go to this link: livingstoriescollective.com/interviews/2016/5/16/raynaldo-phillip-valdez.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.