By CAT SIEH
The Union Democrat
Living in a trailer on a lot between a Pentecostal church and the home of the town prostitute, Del Berg was fairly certain the FBI wouldn't come knocking.
" They hesitated coming to the black community," he says of the Modesto-area neighborhood he lived in in the mid-1950s.
Reclining casually in his Columbia living room, 91-year-old Berg presumes federal agents who began questioning family and friends during that time may have been interested in his long history of social justice work including his membership to the Communist Party of the United States of America.
Berg's career in activism spans more than six decades from a 1930s stint as a volunteer fighter in the Spanish Civil War to his current participation in the campaign for a national health care plan.
Raised on a farm near Manteca, he has worked with trade and labor unions, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Political Association, to name a few.
A staunch proponent of land and labor rights, Berg insists he knew little about politics when he left the U.S. Army in 1937 to fight against Francisco Franco's nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.
"I didn't know a damn thing politically," Berg recalled. "We were just kids. We wanted to do something to help the Spanish people."
While awaiting his Army discharge papers and a position on the American volunteer force, the "Friends of Abraham Lincoln Brigade," Berg "licked stamps for two months" for the North American Medical Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, a support organization for the Spanish Republic.
"I couldn't help but begin to understand what was going on," he said. "Then I began to read about (the war in Spain) and hear about it. I began to understand what fascism meant to working people."
In 1938, after fighting in Spain for nearly eight months, a piece of shrapnel wounded Berg in his chest. At the Valencia convalescent hospital where he was recovering, Berg said a group of U.S. citizens met to form a Communist Party branch. That's when he became a member, attracted, he said, mainly by the party's labor and land values.
As an activist during the 'red scare' of the McCarthy era, Berg is still wary of the stigma attached to the label 'communist.' But he walks jauntily down stairs to the basement, where he proudly shows off a small library, including: "Working Class USA," "The Communist Manifesto," "The French Revolution," and "Lenin on the Woman Question."
"Del Berg is as American as apple pie," said Sotere Torregian, a Stockton poet and friend of Berg's. "He's been an activist for peace and justice and civil rights and he's still going strong. He's indefatigable."
Berg again fought fascism during World War II, serving in the South Pacific from 1939 to 1942, after being drafted. In the years after he returned, Berg worked as a farmer, then as a landscaper and cement worker in the Modesto area.
His struggles as a low-wage farmer weren't new Berg had experienced them while working on his father's farm in Oregon. The family moved there in 1933, cutting Berg's education short after his junior year of high school.
"We could understand that working people were working for nothin'," he said. "How could you help but be concerned if your relatives didn't have anything to eat?"
Pat Cervelli, active with the Tuolumne County Citizens for Peace, has known Berg for 20 years. "His roots are so humble, and he has really walked the walk," she said. "He is not an armchair intellectual. He has worked with the poorest paid, the most exploited people, and he's done those jobs that no one else wants to do, so he knows what it's like first hand."
In the mid-1950s, Berg began working with the Stanislaus County branch of the NAACP. At an initial meeting, Berg said he was the only white person who showed up. Under the group's rules, a black NAACP president must have a white vice president, and vice versa.
"They elected me vice president the day I joined," said Berg, adding that at the time, between farming seasons, he was broke. "They loaned me the $5 to join."
Even before joining the group, Berg said he helped an ad hoc committee sue Stanislaus County's then-sheriff, head deputy and jailer for assaulting a black prisoner held on a questionable bad check charge for nearly a year.
Berg was elected to serve the papers to the head deputy. "He had a pistol with a barrel that long," Berg said, holding his hands a foot apart. "He pulled it out from underneath the counter and plunked it down."
Regardless, Berg said he patiently took a seat, waiting for the sheriff himself to accept the papers.
Within a month, Berg said, the sheriff agreed to retire, and the head deputy and jailer were fired. "It was a victory for the black community," Berg said.
As a member of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, Berg said he was one of three farm workers who testified at Washington, D.C., hearings in the mid-1950s addressing farm labor conditions. He proudly recalls standing just feet from Elanor Roosevelt there.
In the months following the start of the Vietnam War, Berg said he helped reorganize and mobilize Democratic clubs in Lodi, Stockton and Modesto. He also organized delegations from Modesto to attend anti-war demonstrations in San Francisco.
In the early 1960s, Berg helped form the Stanislaus County Chapter of the Mexican American Political Association, a group that empowers Mexican-Americans to address abuses of farm workers.
In November, the Tuolumne County Citizens for Peace honored Berg with a plaque "for his lifetime dedication to Peace and Justice."
"He did a lot of wonderful things and he's still at it," Cervelli said. "That's why we gave him the award for staying the course. That's what is so inspirational, that he has not given up, and he hasn't gotten jaded."
Berg says in his line of work, such recognition is rare. "In this kind of thing, if you're looking for medals, forget it," he said. "You're the only one who knows if you deserve a medal or not."
These days, Berg says his hearing is going, making it difficult to participate in community meetings.
"You kind of wind down," he said. "I've got the inspiration, but not the energy." But his age hasn't kept him from becoming an active member of the California Alliance for Retired Americans. Berg is eager to discuss the privatization of Social Security, and the lack of a national health care system.
"Sometimes, if I don't do it," he said. "No one else will."
Contact Cat Sieh at firstname.lastname@example.org or 736-8097
Sierra Views is a weekly feature profiling various people and places of the Sierra foothills; every one and every place has a story. Have a profile suggestion? Call the editor at 588-4546.