This week, we honor and remember the life of Rafael Rodriquez, a Mexican immigrant that pioneered and advocated for the current rights and benefits for vineyard and farmworkers. His life and work changed things for the better. The following excerpt was taken from Paul Franson’s NapaLife. Rafael Rodriguez’s obituary in the Napa Register can be found here.
A remarkable man died this week at 101. Rafael Rodriguez was profiled as a parable for the last 50 years of the valley itself in Napa, James Conaway’s study of the valley published in 1990. His experiences weave through the book, receiving as much attention as valley notables. The photo is of him in 1946, from Napa.
Rafael was born in Mexico City to a poor family but educated in a technical institute. He immigrated to El Norte during World War II when the United States needed farm workers to replace those who went to war. At one time, Mexican workers weren’t even allowed to touch the grapevines in the valley.
Rafael first worked in the fields in Watsonville, then moved to Napa Valley, where he worked for a nurseryman named Salvador Emmolo. Emmolo taught Rafael to prune and graft vines and drive a tractor. Rafael later got a job at the Inglenook ranch and vineyards, and his new family moved into a house on the property in 1952.
In 1964, owner John Daniel sold Inglenook to United Vintners, who turned management of the 100-acre Inglenook vineyard in Rutherford over to Rafael. He later managed the 250-acre Beaulieu vineyard as well.
Rafael later became a member of the St. Helena School Board and de-facto leader of the local Mexican and Mexican American community as vineyard owners sought to provide stability and benefits to improve the lot of farmworkers as an alternative to unionism.
He worked part-time leading tours of the vineyards and grounds at Inglenook for Francis Coppola.
He also traveled to France, Spain, and Italy as part of a mission to learn new ideas from Europe — while advising Old World growers on techniques like field pruning they mainly had forgotten.
He came here when it was inconceivable that a Mexican immigrant might serve on the local school board, part as its president. Some things do change for the better.