Eighteen years after leaving the farmworker movement, and as it turned out, two years before the death of Cesar Chavez, I was asked to give a speech at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to mark the opening of an exhibit devoted to El Malcriado and the graphics of the farmworker movement.
Much to my surprise, I accepted this invitation – for the first time since leaving the movement I would speak publicly about Cesar Chavez and then not again until 2004 when I founded the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project – a Website devoted to publishing primary source materials about Cesar Chavez and his farmworker movement.
(Note: the speech is presented here as originally prepared in 1991)
Presentation to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
28 years ago this week I traveled from Bakersfield to Boston to attend a convention and there at one of the sessions I heard a panel speaker mention the work of Cesar Chavez in organizing farm workers in Delano. California. I was dumfounded that I had to travel 3000 miles to learn about something as important as this just 30 miles from where I lived.
When I returned to Bakersfield in September I tried to get in touch with Cesar but he was not listed in the phone book and none of my circle –fellow high school teachers and Bakersfield activists– had ever heard of him. I finally had to track down the convention panelist and ask him how to get in touch with him. All he could tell me was that he had a brother by the name of Richard whom he thought lived in Delano and maybe that would help me. But he assured me that Cesar was organizing farm workers in the fields around the Delano area. There was a Richard Chavez listed in the Delano telephone directory. I called him and he said he would get a message to Cesar. Several weeks passed but Cesar finally called back. I introduced myself and told him I was interested in his work and that I would like to learn more and could I come an meet him?
Cesar was very soft spoken and sounded a little cautious and asked me some questions about my interest and how I knew about him, but he did finally invite me to come and gave me directions. That is how I found my way to 102 Albany St., the headquarters of the National Farm Workers Association.
It was located — literally — on the last south west corner of Delano. Long open fields to the west and to the south very desolate looking fields as I remember them with very little agricultural value because of the lack of irrigation water on the west side of the valley.
The little office had once been a small church, which Cesar had painted and remodeled on the inside so that when you walked in, his office was behind a counter to the left and straight ahead was another counter that was made to look a little bit like a bank teller’s window. Behind that counter was a sort of all-purpose work area and a small closet-like office that a few years later would become the offices of the El Malcriado, Cesar’s organizing newspaper– which by the way, I strongly recommend to you. Cesar’s pride and joy! There was a toilet at the rear of the building and another store room as I recall. All four sides of this building, which was on a small lot, was quite barren. I had never realized how desolate the central valley could be until I found the west side of Hiway 99.
Cesar was very friendly and greeted me. We talked for a long time and he told me what he was doing. He had moved to Delano because he had a brother there – a carpenter – and his wife, Helen, had a sister and many relatives and friends. This would give them and their eight children the support base they needed. And besides, it was all he could afford if he was going to do this kind of work and he knew that with so many relatives in the area they would not starve to death. He was building what he called the National Farm Workers Association. He did not dare call it a union because given the hostility of powerful agricultural interests and their control of the surrounding towns: McFarland, Richgrove, Earlimart, Shafter, Wasco, Corcoran — he’d be run out of the area. His cover was that he was a well meaning Mexican American “do gooder” who was Quote “helping his own people.” (I’m pretty sure that my memory is correct: in 1963 we were Mexican American, it wasn’t until a few years later that we became Chicanos and then later still we became Hispanics and now some of us might be Latinos. Though it is possible that at that point we were still Mexicans.)
Who was eligible to join the National Farm Workers Association? The basic requirement was you had to be a farm worker. (This was later amended to include such fellow travelers as myself. ) But what benefits did farm workers receive? There were FOUR I think: 1st: you received a wallet card that certified you were a member in good standing. This card had a red band at the top with a thunderbird eagle reversed in white and was signed by Cesar E. Chavez, General Director and Anthony Ordendain, Secretary -Treasurer. 2ND: You paid monthly dues, which were $3.50 a month. 3RD: You received a small death benefit when you died, perhaps as much as $500. This would insure that your burial expenses would not be a burden on your family. AND 4TH: — and the most important – you invested in the dream that some day, perhaps not in your life time but in the life time of your children you would belong to a union that would be strong enough to meet with the growers and successfuly negotiate: better wages, access to bathrooms in the fields, drinking water available on the job, rest breaks, an end to stoop labor with the short handle hoe, medical benefits, pension benefits, and unemployment benefits. (You have to remember that since the 1930’s, farm workers were by law and by name excluded from all labor legislation including coverage under the National Labor Relations Act. The Act that protected all other workers in this country.)
I told Cesar that as a teacher I THOUGHT EDUCATION was the answer to improving the lives of farm workers. He disagreed. He said that he himself had attended 28 elementary schools because he had to work in the fields and follow the harvest of the crops to support the family. Farm worker families, he said, had to have some STABILITY before their children could take advantage of education. That a farm worker union was the FIRST STEP in this process. The fact is, this corresponded with my own teaching experience in San Francisco where I taught for many years. Most of my students did come from families whose fathers where members of unions: longshoremen, building trades, teamsters, retail clerks, firefighters.
I asked him why he didn’t have a telephone in his office. First of all he said, he couldn’t afford it and secondly who would call him? Farm workers didn’t have telephones either. And if someone wanted to speak to him, they would find him. After all, hadn’t I found him and wasn’t I here in his office talking with him.
The scene now changes to OCTOBER 1965. The Filipino table grape workers — members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. AFL-CIO– had walked out on strike in late September and a few days later, Cesar announced that his National Farm Workers Association would join their strike. This was the BEGINNING OF THE CHICANO CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AS FAR AS CALIFORNIA FARM YORKERS WERE CONCERNED. Cesar called me at U.S.C. where I was studying for my Ph.D. and asked me if I would come to Delano to help raise funds and supplies to support the families on strike. I agreed. I left my career to join the strike.
Over the years, I have asked myself many times why I was so attracted to Cesar and his cause. Why did I drop everything to join this rag-tag farm workers movement? IT IS HARD TO KNOW FOR SURE, BUT HERE ARE SOME OF MY REASONS: Cesar was for real. He did not preach one thing and practice another. He lived in voluntary poverty for the sake of trying to help others. He was charismatic and gentle. A very low key person and not bombastic in speech or a firebrand — though he was more adept at that when he spoke in Spanish to the workers than when he spoke in English. He was a marvelous organizer. He spent time with each staff person or each volunteer explaining the issues, answering questions, helping each one to feel comfortable with what they being charged to do. There were days and months at a time when I would touch base with Cesar at least half a dozen times a day or more to seek his advice, to give him input, to plot strategy. Never, ever did he manifest impatience. He gave me his full attention as if I were the only person he had to deal with that day. He was a true teacher. This in turn put tremendous pressure on all of us who had joined the movement to do our best and to be successful. He was a doer, not a talker. He always had a plan of action. He was never at a loss for “what to do”. He always told me that if I ever wanted to know what the next step was, just “go out to the people and listen, they will tell you”. Every meeting –and there were enough to fill two life times– was geared to create action. He was a realist. He told me many times that I should not romanticize farm workers just because they were poor. That they were people just like you and me. And he told me that if some of the workers were growers, they would be worse than the growers. (I remember how chagrined he was when he heard that my expensive London Fog trench coat was lifted from a closet where I was conducting a boycott training meeting with some Delano farm workers here in San Francisco). He was a consummate politician. As frustrated and as tempted as I know he was, he never lashed out against the Churches for their reluctance in supporting the rights of farm workers to organize their own union or their hesitation in supporting the grape boycott. He never publically criticized those whom he called “our natural friends”: the AFl-CIO unions, the ILWU, national church bodies, university student leaders, national liberal democratic leaders, Mexican-American service and political action groups, civil rights organizations — nor would he permit any of us to criticize them. He had wonderful common sense. Time and time again he told me to follow the Mexican proverb, which said: “never ride a horse you don’t own.” In other words, if you are not in charge of your own turf, your own agenda, your own parade, then don’t try to piggy back a ride on that of others, because you will only “be bucked off”. You do your thing, and let them do theirs — there is enough room for everyone. And finally, the most compelling reason of all for me was the fact that Cesar practiced and preached nonviolence. He practiced and preached and even undertook month long fasts to promote nonviolence in the farm workers movement.
I have to stop. History will record that Cesar Chavez is one of the greatest indigenous leaders in the history of this country. This art exhibit here tonight attests to his influence.