Civil Rights

Growing Up Latino: How Cesar Chavez Inspired A Generation

By Yolanda Miranda

Latinos were once known as the “sleeping giant.” Not only did they wake up, but they have roared in disenchantment over the proposed policies of this government against them and their families.

¡Ya Basta! Enough is Enough! Although they cross the border to come work in this country illegally, the majority of these workers contribute to the economy, not take from it. They pay taxes, work the jobs that most Americans will not work, and which pay only the minimum wage or even less.

At one time the majority of farmworkers were U.S.-born, but as they left the fields to work in factories and other trades, they were replaced by undocumented workers. In the cities, many of the undocumented workers are “day workers,” doing construction work or any type of work while being paid low wages, and many are robbed of their wages since there aren’t any laws to protect them.

Many who are vilified as “illegal” are parents whose children are fighting and being wounded or dying in Iraq. More than 37,000 non-citizens serve in the military, mostly in Iraq.

Racism and injustice have not been eradicated in this country, but the civil rights movement has been given a breath of life and spirit this past Saturday. If undocumented workers can organize themselves, we need to support their efforts and learn from them to get rid of the Patriot Act and get out of Iraq now!

We can trace the roots of the current uprising back 84 years, to March 31, 1927, in the dusty agricultural town of Yuma, Arizona, where Cesar Chavez was born to Librado and Juana Chavez.

The family’s decision to move to California was made out of desperation due to a severe draught that drove them from the ranch they worked on. Thus started the Chavez family saga in becoming migrant farmworkers, living in government labor camps, following the crops that consisted of vegetables and fruit. Cesar, like many migrant children of farmworkers, dropped out of school while in the eighth grade to help his family work in the vineyards. Eventually, the family settled in San José, where Cesar joined the Navy and served in World War II.

After the war, Cesar met Fred Ross, who worked in the Community Service Organization (CSO) founded by Saul Alinsky. He registered Latinos to vote, travelling throughout California and becoming the Director of the CSO. Cesar never forgot his roots as he registered Latinos to vote. He left the CSO and formed the National Farmworker’s Association (NFA) in the mid-60s to organize for higher wages. Dolores Huerta, a former school teacher, joined the NFA also because she believed in his cause, fighting for farmworker’s rights.

I was raised in a migrant farmworker family of 14, married in the mid-60s, with two children and two more yet to be born. I always keep the memory of the elation I felt when I heard of Cesar and the work he was doing for the farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley. The grape boycott was the beginning of my involvement in my community. I housed the union’s organizer, planned picketlines, marches, and rallies.

My days revolved around caring for my four children, working and devoting any time left to organizing the community for the grape boycott which had targeted Safeway at that time. The union organizers were only paid $15 per week, as the union had no contracts or members.

My husband at the time yanked us out from a small town, moving us to Napa County, then to Sonoma County. He hoped that by taking this drastic action that I would come back to my senses and leave all this political involvement behind. Little did he know the union was stronger in Napa and Sonoma because of the organizing of the wine grape pickers and the wineries.

How could I explain or describe the burning flame illuminating within me, of pride and hope about the light Cesar was shining on the plight of the farmworkers both nationally and world-wide. He was describing our family and others who faced poverty, lack of education, and worked long hours for little pay.

No matter how long and hard we worked, the winter months were feared. There was no food stamp program, no unemployment checks, and my father would have to go to work in Oregon in the sawmills to feed the family while my older brother worked in Arizona in the lettuce fields. It never failed, the electricity was always cut off in winter in our home. My mother had to choose between light or food. So, kerosene lamps were always available in our house.

With 14 children to feed and clothe, the only access my dear mother had to birth control was through breast feeding. My siblings are two to one-and-a-half years apart. Later, as we grew up, our mother shared with us that when she found out she was pregnant, she would jump off the kitchen table, over and over again, hoping to bring on a miscarriage. It never worked. She spent most of her growing up years pregnant, as she and my father were married when she was sixteen.

Although we were poor economically, we were taught that to be poor was no sin. But to be poor, not working and keep a dirty house was next to a mortal sin. My mothers’s life was not easy. Can you imagine having to wash clothes for these kids with a washboard and hang them? The guilt she felt being pregnant meant more hardship for the family.

In 1994, I joined the United Farmworkers (UFW) as an organizer after the name was changed. Cesar’s low paid attorneys finally won the Agriculture Labor Relations Board Act in California. This Act oversaw the holding of fair union elections without the intimidation of the ranchers or their supervisors. It gave us the right to file unfair labor practice charges against ranchers who were violating the rights of farmworkers. There was no way I could not be part of this historical time, to do my part in preventing the injustice to my family. Farm workers had anguished for years about the control ranchers had over us and the conditions we were forced to work under.

Have you ever worked while the field next to you was being sprayed with pesticides? Crop dusters made our eyes water, leaving pesticide dust on our clothes. The planes gave us coughing spells as we inhaled the poisons. Many of us suffered from skin rashes brought on by the spray they used. Cesar knew all about it, he had experienced it, along with his family, and he never forgot.

I wasn’t the only member of my family to answer “La Causa,” the call to help build the union. My first cousin, Luis Valdez, started El Teatro Campesino in the fields, using the story lines of the ranchers versus the union and farmworkers. He went on to become a famous producer and filmmaker. My cousin, Ramon Pasillas, another organizer who, like me, was rank-and-file, didn’t hold an official position, but was equally important in the organizing we did. We were trained by Fred Ross in organizing techniques.

After I left the UFW, two years later, I went on to work and gain more experience with other AFL-CIO unions. Yet, being involved in the Farm Workers Unions was like nothing else in my life. When Nick Jones, the former National Boycott Director for the UFW visited me, we exchanged war stories as if they had just happened yesterday.

Granted, the UFW, the “movimiento,” the beam of the lighthouse, has dimmed since those years. I, like other organizers and some union officials, have seen the difference in what the UFW once was and what it is now. But it will never lose the legacy that Cesar left.

The farmworkers feed the nation and the world, but are given no respect, or a decent income, with the union.

The gains we made “way back when” will be lost unless organizing continues on. So, organize, organize and organize.

 

CESAR, HAPPY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

 

HAPPY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DOLORES HUERTA !

 

It was an honor to work with you both, to regain my dignity and pride as a farmworker family member.

Because of the union, I was the first in my family to graduate from high school and go on to college. My younger brothers and sisters followed in my footsteps. My older siblings sacrificed their education to fulfill our parent’s dream.    b

A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 Beachhead.

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