Chicano students remember union leader’s struggle for farm workers
They may be too young to remember the table grape boycott of the late 1960s, but many of Chico State University’s Chicano students are still only a generation away from the farm and not about to let labor union leader César Chávez’ legacy be forgotten.
Students, faculty and community members gathered last week in a series of educational events and celebrations honoring the first-ever César Chávez Day—now a state holiday.
Chávez fought for rights for farm workers—campesinos—as a longtime leader in the United Farm Workers union.
While Chávez was active in the union, the UFW negotiated a groundbreaking agreement with grape growers; secured some protection from pesticides; got health benefits and made other strides for farm workers’ rights.
César Chávez Day itself was March 31—the labor leader’s birthday—and no classes were held at Chico State the previous Friday.
Chico State’s chapter of M.E.Ch.A.—the Movimiento Estudiantíl Chicano de Aztlán—hosted the week’s events, along with the support of the Associated Students Multicultural Council, the California State Employees Association, the Butte County Office of Education the Building Bridges program and the university’s Office of Sponsored Programs.
César Lara, student director of M.E.Ch.A. and an international-relations senior, helped organize activities that ranged from an art display to a march protesting pesticides.
Lara, whose parents still pick broccoli and lettuce in the fields near Salinas, said the interest in the César Chávez Day activities was “great. We’ve had a lot of people from off-campus come.” The students reached out to public schools on Friday.
Lara acknowledged that not many Butte County farm workers participate in the UFW. “I see it as a problem, but I think it is just the nature of the crops.”
On March 27, Dionisio Valdés, a Chicano studies professor at the University of Minnesota and a noted Chávez and agricultural-labor scholar, lectured on “The Three Fasts of César Chávez.” On three occasions, in 1968, 1972 and 1988, the labor leader did not eat for anywhere from 24 to 36 days, which took a heavy toll on his body but raised awareness about farm workers’ job conditions, abusive tactics of some growers, pesticides and other issues.
The United Farm Workers union was fighting to be heard, and Chávez’s first fast, and the grape strike and boycott, got the UFW “off the ground” as far as media and government attention, Valdés said. “It perfected the boycott mechanism that was long utilized by farm worker unions to gain public support.”
The “nonviolent, [politically] moderate” fasts, Valdés said, brought a personal face to “la raza.” He pointed out that while fasts are often undertaken for personal reasons of bodily or spiritual purification, those of Chávez also entered the area of protest and political purpose, becoming hunger strikes.
He said that while Chávez wasn’t perfect, and the UFW has had its inner battles, “He was willing to give his life for a cause. … It also made him a hero internationally.”
The next day’s activities included more speakers, replays of Chávez’ speeches, song and dance performances and the presentation by Chico students of El Teatro Campesino’s play, Los Vendidos.
The one-act play took a dark-but-humorous look at how the white United States—particularly its government—views the “place” of Mexican-Americans. One character, on a mission from the state administration, sought the perfect Mexican-American at a “Sancho’s used-Mexican lot.” The salesman ran through a variety of stereotypical “models,” from the farm worker “built low to the ground” for efficiency to the city gangbanger ("She’s a great scapegoat—LAPD just bought 20 of these for rookie cops") to the early-American bandito-type ("He runs on raw horsemeat and tequila. It makes him a lover.” The “buyer” was pleased with the “not-too-dark,” “well-mannered,” “clean,” college-educated Mexican-American, with the emphasis on the “American.” “Say the word ‘acculturate’ and she accelerates,” the seller said. But the joke was on the government when it turned out the entire group of Chicanos had outsmarted them.
On Thursday evening, students, gathered at the Free Speech Area to hear more about how pesticides affect farm workers and consumers.
Chico State Professor María González, who herself worked in the fields of the Coachella Valley as a girl, called the march—peregrinaciên—a re-enactment of the famous marches of Chávez’ era. “[It’s] a time for us to go back in time and really value everything—the legacy that the union left for us,” she told those assembled. “Things have not changed very much since 1960.”
Farm workers, she said, still face such issues as pesticides in the fields, pollution in their often-substandard housing and health care problems. Meanwhile, “they’re providing us with the food we eat every day.”
“We must continue to educate people that the struggle is not over,” González said.
Professor Paul Lêpez read from articles that claimed that, in the “worst-case scenario,” fruits like peaches, apples, pears and grapes, and even baby food are contaminated with unsafe levels of pesticides.
Wearing red-and-black M.E.Ch.A. shirts and carrying wooden crosses, the marchers sang traditional union protest songs like “De Colores” and chanting “¡Sí se puede!”
Lara explained that it’s a UFW tradition to bear crosses while marching, both to show their Catholic faith and thwart those who called union members Communists.
As the people marched from campus through downtown, they earned supportive car honks and cheers. As they turned back to Chico State, watchers could see that the backs of their shirts read, “¿Y Qué?”
That, Lara said, is the Chicano students’ what-of-it pride statement. "Like, end of discussion," he said. "We’re from M.E.Ch.A. … and with unity, there’s strength, just like the union."