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From the Outside Looking In


By Alexa Llewellyn



March 31, 2003

Si se puede

Si se puede. Yes, it can be done.

-- Cesar Chavez, Phoenix, May 1972

In 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 Chavez."

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 Arizona.

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 pretenses.

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 picket line.

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.

A 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."