What is a movement?

On September 16, 1965, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) voted to join a strike of grape pickers begun by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). AWOC and the NFWA were distinct organizations–the constituency of the first were primarily Filipinos and the latter, Mexican. AWOC also had legal status and the support of the AFL-CIO, of which they were a part.

The NFWA saw itself as more than a labor movement. Its founded and leader–César Estrada Chávez–envisioned his efforts as a poor people movement, something that could fundamentally attack the inequitable power system which determined the poor quality of famrworkers’ lives. Though they didn’t plan on a strike in 1965, their larger project was threatened by being placed in the position of strike breakers. Their primary goal–recognition–would ultimately be served by the dynamic leadership role they played in the ensuing 5-year struggle.

In the same month they voted to join the strike, their English/Spanish newspaper–El Malcriado–began publishing pieces to help educate the Mexican famrworkers about the moment in which they found themselves. One piece asked “What is a movement?” It answered:

It is when there are enough people with one idea so that their actions are together like the huge wave of water, which nothing can stop.

The NFWA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Got food? Thank a farmworker.

March 29 – April 4, 2009 is National Farmworker Awareness Week.

We demand just living and working conditions for farmworkers and an end to unfair treatment under the law. We demand fairly harvested food.

Farm work is the third most dangerous job in the U.S., yet the people who plant and harvest our fruits and vegetables lack many of the basic worker protections that most of us take for granted. Things like overtime, unemployment insurance, even protection when joining a union are not guaranteed under federal law.

We are connected to farmworkers everyday because we all consume food– much of it planted and harvested by farmworkers, yet farmworkers remain largely invisible and continue to live and work in unacceptable conditions.

For more information, visit the campaign website.

César Chávez Day (2009)

March 31st marks the observance of César Chávez Day.  To commemorate the occasion, I’d like to offer a few words about who the man was, why we mark his life, and the dangers involved in so doing.

Who was Chávez?
Born March 31, 1927, the holiday is meant to coincide with the birthday of this legendary union organizer.  Chávez, who founded the United Farm Workers (UFW)–a union representing the labor rights of agricultural workers–died in April 1993.  Legislation creating a day in honor of his life and legacy first came into law in California in 2000.  Today, César Chávez Day is an official holiday in eight states (California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Michigan) and a supported day of recognition in countless towns and cities.

Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona, the son of two land-owning Mexicans.  For the first ten years of his life, he lived on his family’s farm as they made a simple living off what they produced.  As a child in school, he encountered the kinds of discrimination typical of most Mexicans of his generation: he was called racist and derogatory names by white children and teachers, and he was reprimanded for speaking Spanish.  As he remembered, “When we spoke Spanish, the teacher swooped down on us. I remember the ruler whistling through the air as its edge came down sharply across my knuckles.”

In 1937, after having been evicted from their land, the Chávez family survived the Depression by packing up their things in a car and joining the ranks of the hundreds of thousands who became migrant laborers.  Finding a new home in California, the young Chávez and his family worked in the fields as migrants, waking before dawn to work stooped over in the dirt and moving with the seasons to a new place and a new crop.

After serving in the Navy during WWII, Chavez returned to the mainland to marry his sweetheart and begin the transition from field worker to advocate. After working for some years in the fields surrounding San Jose, in 1952 he began working with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a community-based movement seeking to empower Mexican Americans through voting and community mobilization.  Working on electoral issues, police brutality, and education, the CSO formed under the guidance of legendary organizer Fred Ross.  Feeling a strong pull toward migrant workers in the fields, after a decade, Chávez left the CSO in order to devote his full attention to the agricultural worker.

Then as now, agricultural workers were exempt from the standards of the National Labor Relations Board, federally-mandated regulations which protected workers’ rights to unionize.  Thus, before working on solutions to the many problems farmworkers faced (low pay, discrimination, physical abuse, exposure to toxins, etc.), Chávez had to first secure their right to form a union.  This drove him to apply his CSO skills in creating the National Farm Workers Association.  After years of hard work, Chávez and his fellow organizations Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Medina, could boast a fledgling union of representing some 1200 Mexican American families.  Still, no formal contracts with employers existed.

In 1965, the mostly Filipino union of farmworkers–the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)–decided to strike in Delano, California, where they worked picking grapes.  Timing their grape strike at the time of harvest–September–Chávez’ NFWA had to make the decision to support it or act as scab labor.  The result was the merging of the two unions into the United Farm Workers (UFW). Chávez became the union’s president, a position he held for the rest of his life.  And, in those first days at the helm, the famous Delano Grape Strike began.  It lasted for some five years.

The story of the strike is as legendary as the man himself, who by the late sixties had become the most widely recognized face of Mexican America.  After winning contracts from most of the employers in the industry, Chávez and the union tackled other sectors of agricultural production–melons, lettuce, berries, to name a few.  Winning ontracts that last only for a few years, the union found itself constantly fighting to preserve their gains.

Sometimes they were helped by government leaders.  Most often, they were not.  When Democrat Jerry Brown became governor of California, he helped protect the rights of farmworkers to organize into unions of their choosing, and fought for the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.  In 1982, when the governorship went Republican with the election of George Deukmejian, the various elements of enforcing those rights were diluted.  And so it goes up to the present day, only as strong as the interests behind the governor’s appointees.

The UFW grew to about 40,000 union members at its height.  Chávez was an effective leader, making the movement about moral justice as much as anything else.  His campaigns were nonviolent, though the farmworkers faced violence at every turn.  While the UFW stood for labor rights, they were never far from the broader movement for civil and human rights.  Representing people by their location in the workforce, Chávez also made heavy use of religious and cultural symbols making the UFW very much a Mexican union.

He was not perfect.  In their first decades, the UFW vigorously opposed undocumented labor, seeing it (rightly) as a mechanism to break strikes and undermine the position of the union.  Under this perception, the union called immigration officers to round up and deport laborers at various times.  By the 1980s, the UFW had changed its tune, recognizing the mutual and shared cause for human rights stood as a morally more significant matter than legal distinctions.

Chávez fought for the rights of workers with his very body and soul.  He used the Gandhian tactic of the fast to bring both attention and moral focus to the movement.  As he said, “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So, it how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life.”

Due to his repeated use of the technique, his work in the fields, and his unyielding work on behalf of others, he died in 1993.

Why a day for him?
Chávez is more than a labor leader.  Formal, organized labor often opposed his efforts, seeing the unionization of the agricultural sector and of the Mexican and Filipino worker as inconsequential.  Chávez did not.  He saw it as the height of service.  He struggle to improve the lives of the most oppressed, to make them better, more just, more human and humane.  For those reasons alone, a day for his is a worthwhile effort.

He is also, arguably, the most high-profile Latino in U.S. history.  In a time of racial progress and change, he became the embodiment of the kinds of forward-looking struggles for basic economic rights people associated with the most favorable of movements.  For these reasons, he deserves his day.

But that doesn’t mean his holiday is the most fitting-way to pay tribute to his life, legacy, and memory.  His work and position within history led to the movement to secure a holiday in his name.  The UFW did not support this effort at first.  They knew Chávez would have been the last person to be in favor of a day commemorating his life.  It eclipses the farmworkers for whom he gave his life.  It marginalizes their struggle in the name of his own.  It is also a gross contradiction.  The official holiday (March 31st) will be a day off from work for State employees in eight states.  But what about farmworkers?

A more fitting tribute to Chávez would have been the passage of legislation making the lives of farmworkers better.  It could have been about securing the federal protection for them (and domestic workers) to form unions–the only two sectors of the economy left beyond the reach of the NLRB.  It could have been more workplace and health security for workers.  It could have been a lot.

What can we do?
There is always a danger in formalizing commemoration for a person whose movement demanded a major change in the status quo.  They risk creating a distance between the fight “then” and the real life lived “now.”  As is the case with the holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it creates a false sense of accomplishment, when, in reality, the fight they inspired is still very much unresolved.

I will celebrate this day by doing what I do, reading and writing about the causes of human social justice.  I will do something to help others think about the struggles to which Chávez gave his life.  I will stop before I eat today and remember, eat time I chew, there is a pair of hands, an aching back, a name, a life, a human body filled with dreams that brought this food from the dirt to my mouth.

I will also do something to bring attention to the ongoing struggles of workers.  I hope you do the same.

César Chávez and your day off

Today numerous places in the 8 states that officially recognize Céasar Chávez day are observing that holiday with a day off.  The actual holiday is on March 31st, the day of Chávez’ birth.  Unfortunately, like MLK day and other holidays, an “observance day”–a tactic devised to give people a three-day weekend and a non-interrupted work week–is quickly becoming the trend.

Next Tuesday, I’ll have some things to say about the life and legacy of Chávez but, in the meantime, let me just say that the use of Chávez’ memory to create a three-day weekend is kind of grotesque, especially considering the people he struggled for (farmworkers) don’t have today, or even tomorrow, off.

So work me beauties, and be thankful that you work in a place where you can read a blog go to the bathroom when you want, and not develop crippling, life-shortening back ailments.  (Of course, only if you do work in such a place.)

The “Border Beat” (September 22, 2008)

If you had asked me last spring, I would have predicted that by now both major party nominees for president would be making the news on a weekly basis touting their stances on immigration and ripping apart those of their opponent.  By summer, the issue of immigration had started to fade away in the presidential contest, less a result of its “hot potato” status than the way more tabloid-like issues began to take prominence.  Now, with the economic downturn looking more like a kind of collapse, I don’t expect this diminished status will change.

The Bush administration’s ICE raids, however, continue to unleash an assortment of passions on either end of the political spectrum.  In addition, the impact of Latinos within U.S. society continues to grow.  So between ICE, the race for the White House, and the return of Ugly Betty, I’m sure there will be enough news for this weekly post.

Here is a round-up of some of the more interesting news and opinion pieces relating to Latinos in the United States this past week.

• “Displaced People: NAFTA’s Most Important Product” (No Sweat)
People are always asking me to explain why people are leaving specific parts of Latin America in such large numbers.  Here’s the biggest answer.

• “Bishops call for end to ICE Raids” (Rhode Island Catholic)
Before WWII, the history of the Catholic church and the Latino population in the United States was less than favorable.  They had been huge supporters of “Americanization” programs (highly racialized endeavors based upon white superiority and colored inferiority) and reflected the same kinds of institutional ignorance exhibited by government at large.  After WWII, though the formal hierarchy was slow to change, grassroots endeavors by priests and lay leadership began to write a different story.  Today, they remain near the forefront of the immigrants’ rights movement.

• “Edward Roybal is a big name around town” (LA Times)
Roybal was a serious Mexican American legend in politics and deserves all the posthumus accolades coming his way.  There will come a day when textbooks will do the same.

• “Dual citizenship growing-its pros, cons” (SF Chronicle)
This is a far more complicated issue than this article can address but you clearly get an idea of it from some of their informants.  The thing that kept echoing in my mind as I read it, however, was how many people in this country would see this as part of the growing problem of Latino immigrants coming to the U.S. to take jobs and not become “Americans.”

• “McCain-Palin ticket appeals to Hispanic American voters” (Pueblo Chieftain)
Former Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla is working hard to elect John McCain and Sarah Palin.  He’s even written an opinion piece explaining how the Republican ticket is the right one for Latinos to buy.  Or does he mean only those who identify as “Hispanic American”?

• “Klansman’s Conviction In 1964 Case Overturned” (NPR)
This is a sad story as well as an example of a difficult dilemma in American jurisprudence.  The 2007 conviction of James Ford Seale for the 1964 murder of two black teenagers in Mississippi (Charles Moore and Henry Dee) has been overturned on grounds that the statute of limitations has expired.  It is a limiting, not to mention disrespectful, belief to imagine the legal system as the equivalent of justice.

Historical Photograph of the Week

Cesar Chavez, May 6, 1966. [Source.]

September 16 marked the 43rd anniversary of the start of the legendary strike which gave birth to the UFW, the union of agricultural workers Chavez made famous.  This is a beautiful shot, making the almost mythical labor leader into something of a normal man, human, young, and yet still somehow special.

Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)

June 6th marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Younger brother to JFK, Attorney General from 1961 to 1964, and U.S. Senator from New York from 1965 to his death, RFK was shot after winning the California Democratic Primary.

The Los Angeles Times reported on the results of the Tuesday, June 4th primary in their Wednesday, June 5th edition:

“A late surge of votes from Mexican-American and Negro precincts–particularly in Los Angeles County–made Sen. Robert F. Kennedy the winner in California’s Democratic Presidential primary battle Tuesday.” 1

They went to press before being able to report he had been shot after giving a victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel, shortly after midnight.

He died at 1:44 a.m. on June 6th. The last edition of that paper from L.A. reported in an article titled “Disbelief, Sorrow Sweep Negro, Latin Areas at News of Tragedy”:

“Stunned disbelief and sorrow swept across the Mexican-American barrios and through the Negro neighborhoods of South Los Angeles Wednesday as hundreds of thousands tried to grasp the enormity of the tragedy that befell Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

To many, he was the only presidential candidate who fully sensed their problems and their frustrations.” 2

Indeed, today’s remembrance is a significant one in Chicano/Latino history. RFK was popular within Latino communities, and for good reason. He consistently voiced support for the issues and daily struggles of Latinos in the United States.

He was a public and fervent supporter of the farm worker’s struggle, led by Cesar Chavez. Though a sharp minority of the Latino population in the U.S. of the 1960s worked in the agricultural sector, most could identify with this union struggle of the poorest and most oppressed of our population. RFK’s support for this cause endeared him to Latinos because it spoke volumes about his capacity for empathy and humanism. That such a powerful figure in U.S. society recognized “our” struggle spoke volumes to a generation who knew the scourge of racial oppression.

Likewise, RFK won the loyal support of radical and reformist Chicana and Chicano activists when he publicly supported the young students who started the Chicano Movement by walking out of their East L.A. classes in March of 1968. Already an advocate for minority rights in the face of local police oppression, RFK’s legitimization of these students’ efforts helped win them the support of many in Los Angeles, an important fact when 13 of the walkout leaders were arrested and charged with felony conspiracy. His support played a small role in eventually getting the “East L.A. 13” released from jail (coincidentally, on June 6th), as well as securing them an acquittal on all charges.

As a historian, I am utterly fascinated with the political history of the United States. But, I assure you, I’m no sentimentalist when it comes to the same. I know better than to put too much faith in a politician to represent the ideals I hold dear. Regrettably, that is not the game of politics. But RFK would have been a real difference to that long history of disappointment with power. In his lifetime, he had already begun to model a potential challenge to that, though not without contradiction.

So take pause to remember this day in Chicano/Latino History.

********************
Sources:

1. Richard Bergrolz, “Kennedy Wins Race’ Rafferty Apparent Victor Over Kuchel,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1968, 1.

2. “Ray Rogers and Jack Jones, “Disbelief, Sorrow Sweep Negro, Latin Areas at News of Tragedy,” Los Angeles Times (“Extra” edition), June 6, 1968, C1.

César Chavez (1927-1993)

Today is the 15th anniversary of the death of César Chavez. For all people who believe in the rights of workers to unionize, for all those who believe that the health and safety of workers should not be violated for profit, and for all those that believe in the human right of dignity for all people who work, then Chavez is your man.

While I am a firm believer that a holiday in his name was a symbolic move that has yet to make the lives of farmworkers better in any meaningful way; and while I believe a better way to remember his life and legacy would have been to pass legislation protecting the rights of farmworkers in the fields and in the courts; I am also a firm believer that the life of Chavez has much to teach us in a world of increasing globalization and labor oppressions.

Below, I provide for you a eulogy written by Brother Robert Lentz on the occasion of the death of Chavez, 15 years ago.

At the end of April
the vines already green with buds,
death came to the field-worker,
to the caesar of the grapes dressed in blue,
of the onions in white petticoats,
of the apples in red vestments.
She said to him, “Come, César!”

And took him from the poisoned grapes,
the watermelons, the melons full of ill,
the battles of the furrows,
the ambushes of the ditches,
the Guadalupe standard,
the red and black flag.

But in the furrows
his voice left planted
his longing for justice –
which is to say, his demands
for bread for the hungry,
healing for the sick,
books for the innocent.

His voice will bear fruit
and there will be rejoicing
in the furrows,
in the ditches,
round the tables
in the land.
At the end of April
the vines already green with buds,
death came to the field-worker,
to the caesar of the grapes dressed in blue,
of the onions in white petticoats,
of the apples in red vestments.
She said to him, “Come, César!”

And took him from the poisoned grapes,
the watermelons, the melons full of ill,
the battles of the furrows,
the ambushes of the ditches,
the Guadalupe standard,
the red and black flag.

But in the furrows
his voice left planted
his longing for justice –
which is to say, his demands
for bread for the hungry,
healing for the sick,
books for the innocent.

His voice will bear fruit
and there will be rejoicing
in the furrows,
in the ditches,
round the tables
in the land.