Activist for Migrant Workers

Ralph Harlan Cake Jr., '50

September/October 2016

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Activist for Migrant Workers

Photo: Rocky Wolf

Ralph Harlan Cake Jr. was born into an affluent family, attended Taft, a prestigious preparatory school on the East Coast, and received degrees from Stanford and Harvard. His father, who directed a prominent law practice in Portland, Ore., chaired Equitable Savings & Loan and worked for the Eisenhower administration, expected his son to follow in his footsteps. But Ralph Jr. ultimately decided he was more interested in serving marginalized communities than practicing family law. This commitment led him from Portland’s city streets to the fields of California’s Central Valley, where he worked to establish the rights of migrant workers, and then to Mexico, where he spent the rest of his life as a visual anthropologist. 

Cake, ’50, died December 15 in Atlixco, Mexico. He was 87.

After law school at Harvard, Cake served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska, returning to Portland to join the family law firm and Equitable’s board of directors. But after working on a murder case in north Portland, Cake discovered a love for conducting field research and a desire to help the less fortunate. In the 1960s, he offered to work pro bono for the Valley Migrant League (VML), a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregon’s migrant farm laborers improve their prospects though education and social service. From 1965 until 1974, the VML was instrumental in establishing a strong Hispanic community and Chicano leadership in the Willamette Valley.

After Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers) in 1962, Cake traveled to California to meet with the labor leader and volunteer his legal services. According to Cake’s cousin Rocky Wolf, Chavez initially refused the offer because Cake hadn’t spent any time working in the fields. But Chavez eventually engaged Cake as part of an undercover surveillance mission in the Central Valley, and Cake would later join the famous Delano grape strike in 1965 by Filipino-American workers protesting for higher wages.

Wishing to better understand the fundamental causes of Hispanic immigration to the United States, Cake enrolled in a doctoral program at Tulane University in the emerging field of visual anthropology. In 1968, he drove his VW Beetle from Portland to Cholula, Mexico, and continued his studies at the University of the Americas. He made his home in Atlixco, where he became a fixture in the community and founded Nexatl, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of the area’s rich history and assisting organizations devoted to promoting the region’s cultural activities.

Julie Muller Mitchell, '79, is a writer in San Francisco.

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