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Priest rekindles fierce loyalty to working class.

SAN DIEGO - "They'd never heard of the social teachings of the church. I told them the Catholic church approved and supported their right to organize, their right to strike. Nearly all of them are Catholic, but they don't hear any of this in church, of course."

Father Victor Salandini is speaking. Salandini, 6-foot-2 with graying black hair and a slight professorial stoop, was talking about how he was gradually brought deeper into the drywallers strike.

Since the heyday of the United Farm Workers, Salandini has maintained a connection to labor. Back then, fresh from his doctorate in labor economics from Catholic University of America, he was a full-time assistant to Cesar Chavez.

He is still known as the Tortilla Priest because, in 1966, he said Mass using tortillas because there weren't any hosts. Far away, his bishop reportedly muttered, "I hope they were wheat tortillas." It became a cause celebre, and Father Victor Salandini had a nickname for life.

At the time, Salandini, in protest, had been saying Mass on an ironing-board altar outside the home of one of San Diego's wealthier Catholic businessmen. When Salandini learned what his bishop had said, he switched from wheat to corn tortillas. San Diego Bishop Leo T. Maher suspended him.

These days, Father Victor," 66, is considered one of the old guard among labor leaders in San Diego, most of whom are Catholic. In the past decade he has picketed with shipyard workers and others. Not long ago, he was picketing with the Carpenters Union at a K mart construction project when he learned about the drywallers. The more he heard about the strike, the more agreeable he became to helping them.

There is an air of perpetual innocence about Salandini. In so many ways during meetings and lunches and at Mass in San Diego's Cardijn Center, he still reflects the same naive, gangling, "Hi there, world" stance captured in black-and-white photographs more than 40 years ago, when he was Southern California's champion orange-picker.

From age 9 on, this man worked as migrant laborers worked. He picked oranges until four days before he entered the seminary. He knows what its like to have to work in the fields - no toilets, no fresh water to drink; to end each 10- to 12-hour day, day after day, black-faced, sticky with toxic insecticides - which makes poor health another cost paid by the poor to survive. (Thank God those days are over? They're not. See accompanying story.)

But the scars must be very deep, even though they are rarely glimpsed: "I cannot change the abiding anger that burned early on and still burns," wrote Salandini in his self-published The Confessions of the Tortilla Priest.

Salandini writes about his many exiles, about trying to organize salt-mine workers and, most of all, about his father. He wrote, too, about how the workers in the orange trees would click their shears and sing, usually love songs "sweeter than ever when the groves were poor: |Tu, solo tu: You, only you. In order to forget you, I turn to drink.'"

No wonder they turned to drink, he said. The pay wasn't enough to live on - when they got it. Undocumented pickers were defrauded of pay. The grove and vineyard owners would call the authorities when the fruit was picked and wages were due to have the Mexicans thrown back across the border. Not cheap labor, free labor.

"How do you like your orange juice now, Mr. and Mrs. Anglo?" Salandini asked in his book and again, rhetoricaly, as he picked at his lunch and glanced out the huge window that runs the entire length of the coffee shop wall. This is a very Catholic coffee shop, this open area often filled with lunchtime golfers dressed in touristy pastels, cleated shoes and silly hats.

This part of the Handlery Hotel is like an oasis. It looks out on to the golf course but just out of sight and earshot, nonstop high-density traffic pollutes the air, rushing east and west on San Diego's Interstate 8. Prices are as modest as the view is serene.

Once, years ago, this was the Stardust Hotel. Then, the coffee shop would be serving Young Christian Workers and visiting women religious, priests and social activists, union organizers and the poor Cardijn Center members and parish people from Tijuana.

It was where Father Leo Davis - onetime rector of St. Francis Seminary in San Diego and Cardijn Center chaplain (Salandini was a center cofounder) - held court. His colleagues and co-conspirators, such as Father Jim Anderson and Salandini, were often with him.

Davis was integral to Salandini's life, particularly once Salandini became a marked figure to his bishops. (It was Davis who referred to San Diego's first three bishops as "Hero, Nero and Zero." He died before the fourth, Bishop Robert Brom, known for fixing financial messes, was appointed.)

It was Davis who persuaded Salandini to go to Catholic University to work with an unknown farm worker determined to unionize the exploited field workers, Cesar Chavez.

A couple of months ago, Salandini was in the swish Beverly Hills Hotel, standing alongside people like Steve Allen who were talking about their 30 years of friendship. The National Italian American Foundation gave the priest, son of immigrants, its Giorgio Perlasca Humanitarian Award. It's the sort of honor that usually starts to come to activists after they've ceased being active.

But something deep down, where the scar is sensitive, has caused Salandini to start again, this time with the drywallers. It's useful (as well as spiritually consoling) for a union to have a priest on its side. Salandini knows it looks good when television and print media photographers sweep in. For the drywallers a couple of months ago, he said Mass from the back of a pickup truck outside a Catholic church in Poway, Calif., that was using nonunion drywallers at its construction site.

Salandini, when the restlessness breaks through the mild manner, talks about his limitations, too. He writes about them. No one would publish his book; it's poorly organized, not well-written. But it has something many a best-seller lacks: It errs on the side of candor, of saying too much, sometimes too often, yet the man himself comes through. And at times, it is a painful portrait.

Finally, he published it himself. He likes to turn it over to the rear cover and tap the bottom of the page. It has a union label.
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Title Annotation:Fr. Victor Salandini
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 22, 1993
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