Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Struggle in the Fields

This week in my classes, we looked together at a mural in University Hall at Cal State Fullerton, which depicts several figures from the Mexican-American civil rights movement, many of whom are not widely-known or well-understood by the general American public--people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzalez, and others.  What I'm beginning to realize is that most of my students know shockingly little about Mexican-American civil rights leaders.

Because the theme of my writing courses is "Writing About Local (Southern California) Issues" it is essential that my students understand these figures, because their legacy has a direct connection to the history of this place, and some of our continuing social problems related to education, housing, immigrant rights, etc.

In my continuing effort to fill in some of these gaping holes in our knowledge, today we watched a PBS documentary called "The Struggle in the Fields" which is about Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the formation of the United Farm Workers, the result of a five-year strike in Delano, California in the San Joaquin Valley.  This one-hour documentary is the most concise and well-made film I've ever seen about who this Cesar Chavez guy was, what he sacrificed, what he accomplished, why he still matters today, and why we have a state holiday in his honor.

This dude matters.

The film begins by showing the terrible working conditions for Filipino and Mexican-American farm workers in the 1950s and 1960s in California.  I've researched and written about the largely-unknown history  of farm labor in Calfornia, which has been a story of successive waves of immigrants (Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican) who were recruited, exploited, and finally excluded or deported.

Read this book!

The film contains interviews with farm workers and their children like Luis Valdez, Ester Hernandez, and Eliseo Medina, who went on to become important artists, writers, filmmakers, and labor leaders, largely because of their parents' struggle.  "We were seen as ignorant, lazy, stupid, dirty," Hernandez recalls.  "We lived in horrible conditions and got paid lousy wages," said Jessica Govea, who worked as a child laborer in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.

Fed up with the cycle of poverty, discrimination, social segregation, and lack of education opportunities for farm workers, Cesar Chavez (the son of migrant farm workers) organized a strike along with Dolores Huerta of grape pickers in Delano, California.  What they wanted was a union of farm workers, so they could have some negotiating power with the growers, who had all the economic and political power.

Chavez encouraged the exploited farm workers to strike.  For a poor person to go on strike, it meant great personal sacrifice and uncertainty.  "To get involved, you had an awful lot to lose," Ester Hernandez recalls, "But, as my mother said, even if we starve to death, we had to stay and fight.  Otherwise, nothing was going to change."

Though small of stature and soft-spoken, Cesar Chavez inspired workers with his honesty and determination.  Eliseo Medina recalls, "The more he talked, the more I felt that not only could we fight, but we could win."

The Delano Grape Strike grew and began to gain national attention.  Senator Robert Kennedy went to investigate allegations that local sheriffs were unlawfully arresting striking workers.  He held Senate hearings with the local sheriff and district attorney.  Kennedy soon realized that he was witnessing a great injustice.  "We have to come to the conclusion," Kennedy said, "that an ignored part of our society has been the farm workers.  The farm workers have suffered in our society over the past 30 years, and this situation needs to change."  After the hearings, Bobby Kennedy became an advocate for Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

The striking workers realized that their struggle needed to reach beyond the borders of Delano.  They sent representatives to cities across America to organize a massive boycott of California grapes.  For example, Chavez sent Eliseo Medina, a 21-year old with no organizing experience to Chicago with twenty dollars, a bag of buttons and a name.  Eliseo became a major labor leader.

To bring more exposure to the farm workers' struggle, Chavez organized a pilgrimage from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento.  As the striking workers marched through the Central Valley, holding an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, more people began to join the march.  By the time they reached Sacramento, they were 10,000 people strong.  There, at Caliornia's state capitol, Cesar Chavez gave a speech whose themes sounded very familiar.  "He was talking about human rights.  He was talking about the same things as Martin Luther King," said educator Rudy Acuna.

After two and a half years of striking and boycotting, some labor leaders began to grumble that Cesar Chavez's non-violent tactics weren't working, and that maybe violence was necessary.  In response, Chavez went on a 25-day hunger strike, to show that violence was not the answer (even though sheriff deputies often used violence against the strikers).

Finally, after five years of striking and boycotting, enough economic and political pressure was put on the growers that they finally gave in and agreed to recognize the United Farm Workers, and to negotiate for better wages and working conditions.  It was one of the first victories of the Mexican-American civil rights movement, the first step toward economic justice.  As Rudy Acuna explains, "Economic rights are the essence of human rights."

The farm workers' struggle did not end with union recognition.  Many farm workers in California, even today, are still not represented by a union and still struggle for economic and human rights.  Here's the documentary, which is well worth an hour of your time.


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