‘A woman who has done something’

 

A photo from 1967 shows Migrant Queen Annie Guiterrez, of McNeill, Texas, as the previous year’s queen, Miss Maria Gonzalez of Saltillo, Mexico, pins a corsage on her. Pictured (from left to right) are Lali Acuna, chairman of entries for the contest; second runner-up Miss Rachel Sarmiento of Ruskin, Fla.; the queen; Miss Gonzalez; first runner-up Miss Delfina Valencia, of Harlingen, Texas; and Raymond Gonzalez, who was master of ceremonies for the queen contest and the talent contest night.

A photo from 1967 shows Migrant Queen Annie Guiterrez, of McNeill, Texas, as the previous year’s queen, Miss Maria Gonzalez of Saltillo, Mexico, pins a corsage on her. Pictured (from left to right) are Lali Acuna, chairman of entries for the contest; second runner-up Miss Rachel Sarmiento of Ruskin, Fla.; the queen; Miss Gonzalez; first runner-up Miss Delfina Valencia, of Harlingen, Texas; and Raymond Gonzalez, who was master of ceremonies for the queen contest and the talent contest night.

Growing up, many of us have been taught by countless stories and Walt Disney films, that there are certain prerequisites one has to have in order to become a queen. Judging by appearance these requirements include that said person has to be: a female, in most cases have light colored hair, speak English, and have blue eyes and white skin.

However, as we mature, most of us (but not all of us) come to the realization that our world is, and has to be, a lot more diverse than a fairy tale suggests. Beginning in the mid-1960s, a Manistee woman spearheaded a contest that spotlighted the beauty and talents of the area’s migrant population. Through the contest, that woman grew to not only become an advocate for migrant workers but also became an educator, a writer, a disc jockey and as a friend of hers put it, “a woman who has done something.”

THE STRAWBERRY FESTIVALS

While Manistee County’s connection with strawberries stretches back to the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the early to mid-20th century that the area’s production of the fruit became a major industry. In 1958, the Michigan Strawberry Festival was dedicated to strawberry growers, pickers and eaters, and was first celebrated in Copemish, located in the northeastern portion of the county, during that year’s Fourth of July holiday.

In this January 1970, photograph originally published in the Manistee News Advocate, Lali Acuna (pictured in the front row, second from the left) sits as a member of the National Strawberry Festival Board of Directors.

In this January 1970, photograph originally published in the Manistee News Advocate, Lali Acuna (pictured in the front row, second from the left) sits as a member of the National Strawberry Festival Board of Directors.

The festival continued in Copemish through 1965, however, the following year, with interest in the Manistee National Forest Festival waning, it was decided by members of the Forest Festival Association to change the theme of the festival from the forest to strawberries.

An article published in the Manistee News Advocate on April 14, 1966, also mentions an incentive changing the theme of the festival:

“Use of the National Strawberry name will enable the festival to take advantage of $750 from the State Department of Agriculture to promote the festival this year and it is anticipated that such funds will rise to some $2,000 in future years.”

The same article also makes mention of the county’s yield of strawberries as well as the number of migrant workers who picked and tended the strawberries for local orchards:

“Opinions were expressed that use of the strawberry name would make Manistee County known as the strawberry capital of the nation and recognize the rapidly-growing new agricultural industry here which involves growers, processors, and their employees. Manistee County has the highest yield per acre for strawberries of any county east of the Rocky Mountains and some four to five thousand migrant workers will be in Manistee County at festival time, growers estimated.”

Along with the usual list of activities, the Strawberry Festival included a strawberry judging contest as well as a beauty and talent contest, which was held for young women, who had the chance to win the title of the National Strawberry Festival Queen.

Delfina Valencia from Harlingen, Texas, was crowned Migrant Queen in 1968.

Delfina Valencia from Harlingen, Texas, was crowned Migrant Queen in 1968.

While this contest was for local girls it was decided that like the Michigan Strawberry Festival, the National Strawberry Festival would continue to celebrate “strawberry growers, pickers, and eaters” so with this in mind, a contest strictly for the young women of the migrant population was included as an event in the festival. In addition, a talent contest, showcasing the talents of the area’s Hispanic population would also be a feature of the newly deemed summer festival.

LALI ENTERS

If there is ever a movie made about the migrant queen contest, this is the part when Lali Acuna’s (formerly Lali Guillen) backstory would be introduced and she would enter the scene.

“I really became involved because first of all my ex-husband and I came here as migrant workers in 1960, and we worked picking strawberries and cherries,” recalls Lali Acuna.

“He was 21 and I was 20 and we came from Corpus Christi, Texas. Both he and I were high school sweethearts, and we graduated the same year. We both had jobs upon graduation and then we didn’t have jobs and then couldn’t find work. About four or five months down the road I became pregnant, and we were very young and very naive.

“His parents for some reason decided to come back here (Manistee), they were here in the late-1950s, and because like us, they had financial stress,” continued Lali.

A float carrying the queen and her court was one of the entries in the Grand Parade during the National Strawberry Festival on the Fourth of July in 1968.

A float carrying the queen and her court was one of the entries in the Grand Parade during the National Strawberry Festival on the Fourth of July in 1968.

For a couple of years Lali and her ex-husband, with twin sons in tow, continued to go back and forth from Manistee to Texas but eventually settled in Manistee permanently when a year-round job was offered at the Jebavy-Sorenson Orchard.

“After some time had passed, I said to my husband that I am not going back to work in the field. My mother made it a point that we go to school and we’re both high school graduates,” recalled Lali.

“I said, ‘I’m going to town and I’m going to apply everywhere I can think of.’ So in the short form, I became the first American-Hispanic woman to work in downtown Manistee. That was 1965.”

Lali began her career working at the Manistee Quality Discount Store managed by Glen Hayden and later was employed at the Ben Franklin store, which was managed by Dave Carlson.

THE MIGRANT QUEEN CONTEST

“One day I had read or heard on the radio that there was going to be a Migrant Queen Contest in downtown Manistee,” said Lali.

“I came and brought my twins with me and Ray Gonzalez, who was a teacher at Manistee High School and was of Puerto Rican descent, was trying to create this atmosphere to elect a migrant queen. He saw me walking down the street, and of course I was very young and weighed a lot less than I do today,” laughed Lali.

An official National Strawberry Festival document from 1968 explained the Migrant Queen contest in both English and Spanish.

An official National Strawberry Festival document from 1968 explained the Migrant Queen contest in both English and Spanish.

“He said, ‘C’mon we’re gonna get a migrant queen.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can’t be eligible for that because I am a married woman.”

For the first migrant queen contest in 1966, there were only two contestants. However, between 1966 and 1967, the reins of the contest were passed to Lali who decided to do things a little differently.

“I began to take over (the queen contest) and became chairperson of the contest. I started to go to the camps to introduce the contest to these girls and their families.”

Continues Lali, “It wasn’t like it is today where an 18 year old can decide for themselves what she wants to do because I’m 18. These girls had to have parental permission, and I had to present myself to them so they could trust me with their girls and that I wasn’t going to let them run wild or be inappropriate.”

GROWTH OF THE CONTEST

Because of Lali’s background and her willingness to go “door to door” she was able to attract more contestants to the Migrant Queen contest as the years passed. An editorial published in the Manistee News Advocate on July 8, 1968, provides details on how the contest had been built up:

“Mrs. Lolly Guillen has built the Migrant Queen contest to one of the most popular festival events and her many miles of driving and many hours of interviewing young women here to pick strawberries deserve recognition.

“At the first National Strawberry Festival three years ago the Festival Association had much difficulty publicizing the contest because of the language barrier and only two young women entered. Last year Mrs. Guillen built the contest up to 12 entrants and it retained the same

1972 Migrant Queen Irma Mendoza, of Pharr, Texas, (left) and Lali Acuna (right), chairman of the Migrant Queen Contest, were treated at lunch at Old Town Restaurant. Also pictured is Mrs. Bonnie Lenz, a waitress at Old Town.

1972 Migrant Queen Irma Mendoza, of Pharr, Texas, (left) and Lali Acuna (right), chairman of the Migrant Queen Contest, were treated at lunch at Old Town Restaurant. Also pictured is Mrs. Bonnie Lenz, a waitress at Old Town.

number this year.

“Few of us realize that young women entering are picking berries all day, are not living in permanent homes with private bathroom facilities to make dressing easy, and do not have the facilities for arranging their hair and readying themselves for the contest that permanent residents would.”

In 1969 there were 18 contestants in the contest. While many of the young women were from Texas; there were also entrants from Florida, Mexico and Ohio. Lali later became a member of the Board of Directors for the National Strawberry Festival, which she says, “…was an enormous deal.”

Looking at the old photo of herself sitting with the entire festival board, Lali laughs and says, “I think I look like I’m half petrified. Well look at who’s here … all Manistee names really.”

Like similar contests, the Migrant Queen was selected from the group of contestants. In addition there would be a first runner-up and second runner-up, who would ride with the queen during the grand parade on the Fourth of July. The winners would also receive a monetary gift as well as several other gifts donated by local businesses.

Even though attempting to instill a different culture in an area that is made up of people largely of Caucasian-European descent is no easy task, the citizens and businesses of Manistee supported Lali and the contest by donating money, gifts, hair stylings, and formal dresses (a task largely overseen by Mrs. Joseph Coe) for the contestants.

“Everyone treated me with the utmost, utmost professionalism and care of what I was doing and with their gifts. I give credit to the people of Manistee … the community. To the growers, the business people, to families to whoever that took these things I was doing for this ‘invisible-visible population’ as I called it.”

Lali continued to oversee the contest (which later included a queen’s ball) for the next several years with it ending in 1973. The Strawberry Festival itself continued until 1976 with the summer festival switching back to the Forest Festival in 1977.

An editorial was published on June 23, 1969, about Lali and the Migrant Queen Contest.

An editorial was published on June 23, 1969, about Lali and the Migrant Queen Contest.

OTHER OCCUPATIONS

As for Lali, she became employed by the State of Michigan for their seasonal migrant education program. “They needed a teacher’s aide and I went to work for that program. I was a recruiter and went to the camps to recruit children so that there was a school available for them (during their stay here).”

With a chuckle, Lali also recalls her short-lived career as a local disc jockey.

“Ed Kenney at WMTE decided again that they get some kind of grant with this station because of the migrant population we had at that time. They would put on Spanish music then they could get this grant,” she said.

“I would come in there and they would say to buy any kind of album you want and they bought let’s say 10 albums, and then I would come and record that with Ed and they would play it on Saturday nights at 10 p.m. so that nobody local would be upset they were playing Spanish music and so that was one of the other things,” laughs Lali.

Lali later moved back to Texas for several years but then returned to Manistee. She also worked at the Family Independence Agency and was a board member for North West Michigan Health Services Incorporation where she helped take care of the health needs of migrant workers. She has also written articles for The Catholic Weekley about the area’s migrant population and has promoted Hispanic culture throughout the area.

“Now, at this time I like the words ‘farm workers’ or ‘harvesters of fruit’ more … migrant has become a dirty word,” added Lali.

Today, Lali continues to call Manistee her home.

“I have good memories of this town. Excellent memories and this is the best place that my ex-husband and I ever could have raised our sons. I have also met a lot of people of different levels and lifestyles.”

In 2002, Melissa Kruse, the daughter of Lali’s friend, Linda, was in need of a topic for a college paper that was supposed to be about “a woman who has done something.” Linda, in turn, told her daughter to, “Talk with Lali”.

While it’s needless to say that that paper was eventually written about Lali, what’s even more apparent after talking with her is that she is not only “a woman who has done something” but she is also a person who stands as a timeless reminder that a queen can be anyone.

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Posted by Mark Fedder

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Musuem. He can be reached at (231) 723-5531 ormanisteemuseum@yahoo.com.

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