education circles, it's called a teachable moment.
One of my interns, who is from Macau, asked me why her
classmates called the street formerly known as Army "Ce-a-sar Chavez." As
an inhabitant of a former Portuguese colony who is also fluent in
Cantonese and Mandarin, she knew that the correct pronunciation was "Cesar
The discussion soon went from linguistics to history. We
(the interns and I) explored the contents of The Fight in the Fields:
Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo
Sandoval (Harcourt Brace, 1997). A note to the great people of the
Department of Children, Youth and their Families: I read aloud to the
students while they filed and stuffed envelopes (and for those watching my
clock) after 5 p.m.
No doubt all of you were aware that Cesar Chavez, with
several others, created the United Farm Workers. A native of Arizona,
Chavez grew up on his family farm, which was lost when he was twelve years
old. His family then worked as migrant farmers throughout California and
When Chavez was in his twenties and living in San Jose, he
got the attention of Fred Ross (a well-respected community organizer who
became a key mentor to Chavez). Ross repeatedly visited the Chavez home,
trying to meet him and persuade him to work as an organizer. Finally,
Chavez's wife, Helen (who had gotten fond of the persistent Ross), told
her husband that he was going to have to deal Ross directly.
Chavez got several of his friends to come to a meeting in
his home to razz and get rid of Ross when Chavez gave the signal. Ross
talked about his group's victories: in Southern California, his
organization, Community Service Strategy, had gotten rid of segregation in
schools, theaters, and school business. CSO also pushed for the punishment
of the drunken police officers who had nearly killed seven young Chicanos
in a 1951 incident known as Bloody Christmas. Chavez was so mesmerized by
Ross's tale that he forgot to give the signal. Rather, history was made
that night, as Chavez began his destiny as a labor organizer.
When Chavez and his colleagues began the United Farmer
Workers in 1962, farm workers didn't have access to basic services like
portable toilets and water. They often lived cardboard boxes or holes dug
in the ground. Local workers were paid less than U.S. Department of
Agriculture-sponsored Braceros (people who were recruited from Mexico to
work as temporary farm workers during the harvest season). Labor
contractors (who recruited and transported these workers to work the
fields) took a portion or all of their money. Farm owners required them to
work in unsafe conditions (ranging from unshored ditches to fields wet
with pesticides). Some of the farm owners also cheated them, using
unscrupulous methods of measuring the work that the workers had done
during a hard, back-breaking day or withholding pay on trivial or false
Using nonviolent methods, Chavez forced agribusiness to
increase the workers' wages; provide health care benefits to long-term
employees; provide basic necessities in the field; create an arbitration
system for disputes; and most important, allow workers to decide who would
represent them as a union. These methods included picketing, marches,
prayer vigils, and slow-downs. Chavez also conducted three fasts in order
to remind the public about the union's goals -- as well as to remind the
union members to use nonviolent methods when they were confronted on the
The road was hard and long. The workers were brutally
battered by police, harassed by the farm owners, cheated by other unions,
and buffeted by the fickleness of the U.S. public. Yet they persevered.
critical win came with UFW's boycott of grapes from December 1965 to July
1970. Chavez organized support throughout California; once that state had
been won over, he sent organizers to every corner of the country. By the
end of the campaign, Time Magazine had made la heulga (the strike)
a cover story, and boycott (and UFW) supporters ranged from community
college students to New York City's chic. By the end of the strike, UFW
had managed to stop sales of California table grapes in Detroit, Chicago,
New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Toronto.
With that momentum, UFW gave a voice to farm workers and
created an avenue where it could be heard. The process shaped some
remarkable careers, starting with Dolores Huerta, Mickey Kantor, Cardinal
Roger Mahoney, and Jerry Cohen. Countless local politicians throughout
California's towns and counties began their political career as organizers
with the UFW.
UFW also gathered an impressive collection of friends,
ranging from Robert Kennedy to Governor Jerry Brown, from Bill Clinton to
Willie Brown. But its most important friends are thousands of workers who
have been empowered to fight for their rights.
Chavez died in 1993, but the work continues. Workers in
many industries and many parts of world are being treated unfairly. They
work in unsafe conditions without a voice to fight for their rights. In
remembering Cesar Chavez, we keep that fight alive.
Since my interns and most of their parents work at minimum
wage jobs here in the city, they were excited to learn that Chavez and the
UFW had worked hard to raise farm workers' wages. Perhaps the work of
Chavez can be continued, helping the lives of my interns and their
parents. As Chavez said, "Si, se puede."