“If you want to remember me, organize.” –Cesar Chavez
Today is the 18th anniversary of Cesar Chavez’ death. In memory and gratitude for his work and the work of all those United Farmworkers I’m posting “Seeds of Hope” that appeared in 1993. Cesar, presente!
A Seed of Hope
by Aaron Gallegos and Rose Marie Berger
Sojourners, July 1993
The eagle on the red and black banner of the United Farm Workers union can be likened to the Aztec deity, Quetzacoatl, the plumed, phoenix-like serpent-god that dies descending into the Earth, only to be born again by ascending to the heavens.
Along with sorrow at his passing, Cesar Chavez’s death on April 23 at the age of 66 brings a similar hope of rebirth for many Latinos and others who were inspired by his life of nonviolent resistance to the oppression of America’s farm workers. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez represented moral leadership for minorities, the poor, and many others seeking liberation. His commitment to nonviolence, his spiritual rootedness, his invitation to community, his fasts, and his unwavering dedication to the voiceless of California’s Central Valley were the crucible in which we learned justice.
Cesar Chavez was raised in a family of migrant farm workers, moving through the apricot and almond orchards of Arizona and California, “following the crops” after his family lost their farm during the Great Depression. Though he attended 65 public schools, Chavez never went beyond the eighth grade–instead he educated himself in public libraries through the writings of Gandhi and John Steinbeck.
Influenced by the newly formed farm worker ministries active in California during the early ’50s, Chavez went to work with Saul Alinsky’s Community Service Organization registering Mexican-American voters. In 1962 he left to form the National Farm Workers Association, the precursor to the United Farm Workers union. Delano, California, became the site of La Huelga, UFW’s famous five-year strike and national grape boycott that began in 1965 when the union joined Filipino grape pickers striking for higher wages. It was this strike and boycott that revealed Chavez as one of the most inspired and creative labor leaders of our time.
La Huelga began receiving national attention in March 1966 when Chavez and 70 strikers set out on a 300-mile march to the state capitol in Sacramento. By the time the marchers arrived on Easter Sunday, the procession had 10,000 people and Chavez had won a first-of-a-kind agreement from a grower to negotiate with the farm workers. La Huelga eventually brought many of California’s largest grape growers to sign UFW contracts, improving working conditions in the fields. Rights were granted not only to laborers under UFW contracts, but also to those workers whose bosses feared unionization.
By 1973, a fierce jurisdiction conflict with the Teamsters Union–which was proved to be working in collusion with the growers–lost many of the UFW’s hard-won contracts. Chavez called for new strikes and organized mass protests that resulted in 3,500 arrests. Due in large part to this effort, the California legislature in 1975 enacted the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a historic bill guaranteeing farm workers collective bargaining rights and mandating union elections.
However, the splintered UFW never completely recovered from this battle, and Chavez was criticized by some for holding autocratic control over the union and for being unable to recognize other leadership within the farm workers movement. The difficulties of leadership, along with the slow change the movement was going through to become an established organization, strained Chavez and the union, and by 1980 the UFW had lost much of its former influence in the fields of California.
In the 1980s, Chavez sought to revive the UFW through a boycott of grapes and lettuce that still continues. Though aimed at the dangers of pesticide poisoning to farm workers and consumers, this campaign has won much less public support than earlier ones. It has however led to greater consumer awareness and new steps to cut the use of the pesticide parathion in the fields.
CESAR HAS TAKEN leave of this world at perhaps the time we need him the most. The mass peonage of farm workers that was common when Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962 is seeing a resurgence in the 1990s. Many of the gains that Chavez helped to bring about have been cut by the Republican leadership of California over the last 10 years.
Children, some as young as 8 years old, are once again seen working in the fields. Short-handled hoes are again being forced upon workers by their bosses. New waves of migrants mean more possibilities for growers to exploit non-union, undocumented workers in ways they never could while the UFW was powerful. Rural advocacy groups report that slave-like conditions, makeshift worker camps, and the extortion of money through “company stores” and other practices are now common. Farm workers in 1993 are paid an average of $6,500 a year, which for many is 25 percent less than they made 10 years ago.
We can only hope that out of the death of Cesar Chavez a new solidarity with the struggle of the farm workers will arise–and perhaps even offer new life to the faltering UFW. “Cesar had to die so we would awaken,” a farm worker told Huerta at the funeral. That awakening will take the same kind of single-hearted devotion to La Causa as Chavez showed in his life.
We send our brother to God’s vineyards with the words of Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, “Cesar, we plant your heart like a seed. You shall never die. The seed of your heart will keep on singing, keep on flowering, for the cause. All farm workers shall harvest in the seed of your memory.” And so shall the rest of us, too.
Aaron Gallegos was editorial assistant of Sojourners when this article appeared in Sojourners magazine (July 1993). Rose Marie Berger is associate editor of Sojourners.