When I think of grapes many memories come to mind.
My mother’s family were migrant workers; her father a foreman. They followed the crops from Pomona, California to Fresno and all the little towns in between in the great California Central Valley.
Picking fruit, nuts, and citrus in 90-degree weather was the norm for Mom, her brothers, and sisters. They spent a childhood in migrant camps, traveling from town to town in a loaded down jalopy like the Joad family in the book, Grapes of Wrath.
One of her first memories is playing under a sunshade of green grape vines where the earth felt cool. At four years old, she cared for her baby sister as their mother worked up and down the vineyard rows clipping clusters of grapes.
When I think of uvas, I remember Cesar Chavez’ boycott which began in 1965. Although Mom no longer worked in the vineyards she honored the boycott and made sure everyone in the family did so too.
In 1970 the United Farm Workers union won their first contract and we could eat grapes again, but that was shortlived. Growers broke the union contracts three years later and signed sweetheart deals with the Teamsters Union.
In 1973, the family boycotted grapes again. I remember the bumper stickers, NO UVAS, and the boycott against Gallo Vineyards.
That boycott of grapes lasted until 1977. I was in college by then; carrying No Uvas, No Grapes signs in front of Safeway stores in Santa Barbara and my hometown of Oxnard.
This tiny fruit, the uva, carries a huge weight of memories.
César Chávez was an Arizonian, WWII Veteran, a father, husband, organizer, and a leader.
Chávez’ legacy as a leader among farm workers’ unions is honored Friday, March 31st, on what would have been his 90th birthday. On this day, the UFW martyrs also need to be remembered. These were men and women from Yemen, Mexico, and the United States. They were Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant.
The Spanish phrase: “Si Se Puede” (Yes, You Can) was coined by César Chávez during a 1972 fast in which the Mexican-American farm worker rights advocate protested a signed Arizona bill that denied farm workers the right to strike and boycott during harvest seasons.
From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.-
In 2012 former Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis hosted the Induction of the Pioneers of the Farm Worker Movement into the Labor Hall of Honor and the naming of the César E. Chávez Memorial Auditorium in Washington, D.C.
Thanks to César Chávez and the UFW the actions led to these accomplishments:
The abolishment of the short-handled hoe that crippled generations of farm workers.
Unemployment, disability and workers’ compensation benefits for farm workers;
Establishment of labor contracts with employers that require rest periods,
Toilets in the fields.
Clean drinking water, hand washing facilities,
Protective clothing against pesticide exposure.
Banning pesticide spraying while workers are in the fields.
Outlawing DDT and other dangerous pesticides.
Eliminating farm labor contractors and guaranteeing farm workers seniority rights and job security.
Creation of a pension plan for retired farm workers; a credit union.
and comprehensive union health benefits for farm workers and their families.
Not many people know of the men and women who participated in and fought for the establishment of the UFW. They were inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame:
Nan Freeman: an 18-year old college freshman from Wakefield, Massachusetts who gave her life while picketing with striking farm workers in central Florida in the middle of the night because of her love for justice. In Cesar’s words, Nan was Kadosha in the Hebrew tradition, a “holy person” to be forever honored.
Rufino Contreras: a 27-year-old husband, father of two and a dedicated union activist who was shot to death in the Imperial Valley lettuce field for demanding a more just share of what he himself produced during the 1979 vegetable industry strike
Nagi Daifallah: a young Muslim immigrant from South Yemen who was killed during the 1973 grape strike after he gave himself completely to the union to escape the trap of powerlessness. Nagi immigrated to this country to escape poverty, only to rediscover it in California’s rich fields and vineyards. He learned English, could communicate well, served as a translator for UFW organizers and became active with the union.
Juan De La Cruz: a 60-year old immigrant from Mexico, a gentle man who knew firsthand the benefits of a UFW contract. He was also a grape striker and an original union member recruited by Cesar in the early ‘60s. Juan died two days after Nagi’s killing when shots rang out on a vineyard picket line and Juan shielded his wife, Maximina, with his body.
Rene Lopez was only 21 when he came home and proudly told his mother, “Here is my first union card. Now I am important. Now I am a man.” A short time later, grower goons gunned Rene down just after he voted in a union election at Sikkema Dairy near Fresno, which he and his co-workers were striking. Rene was young, but, as Cesar observed, “he had already felt the call to social justice.”
César Chávez has a special connection to my county, Ventura, because he lived in Oxnard as a child and returned as an adult to organize protests and boycotts to secure better wages and working conditions for farm workers.
When I drove my car over the railroad tracks, my friend, Dani, said she had never been to La Colonia, the working class neighborhood of my birth and youth.
I felt my memories stir.
We drove pass decorated bakeries, ‘hole-in-the-wall’ restaurants, liquor stores, and the very old, concrete church. A blend of sweet and spicy aromas entered my car.
La Colonia, which literally means, “The Colony” or neighborhood, had and still has a negative connotation by many because of the crime-much of it perpetuated and unevenly reported by the media.
Police cars blocked off a few of the streets, so I went down the well traveled pot-holed alleyways to find parking.
“Those fences must be ten or twelve feet,” my friend, a retired teacher, remarked on the chain link fences surrounding an elementary school. “I’ve never seen them that high.”
We left my mom off so she could join the people on the fire truck. In her eighties now, she didn’t have to walk the 4.5 miles to mid-town.
I felt proud of my mother. She always “walked the talk.”
Dani and I walked a few streets to join the well organized crowd of 1,000 people for the commemorative march for Cesar Chavez day. (A holiday in only 11 states). I smiled to see so many people on an early Sunday morning.
Around me were monitors for crowd control. While Dani and I waited for the march to begin I stepped outside the double yellow street line to snap a photo. One of the monitors waved at me to get back in line-just doing her job and a good one at that.
The signal was given to begin. Women with strollers, a Brownie and Daisy troop, a Congresswoman, and people of all ages holding UFW flags or wearing T-shirts depicting Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta began to move forward.
While we walked, I pointed out the housing project. “It looks so modern now, like condo’s, not at all how they looked when I lived there,” I said. Back in the 60’s/70’s the ‘projects,’ were flat topped, square looking buildings painted army green and dingy yellowed cream.
The roofs and overhang section had hundreds of rocks, which were used for many a rock fight. I noticed that the old telephone poles still abounded, their low hanging electrical lines a hazard.
At the corner, the church where I had my eight grade graduation and my first marriage, stood with a big banner across it, “Mariachi Mass for Mother’s Day.” Behind that church was the Catholic grammar school, where my sisters, brother, and cousins attended first to eighth grade.
“Hey, wait, are some of these places in your story?” Dani had read one of my manuscripts.
“Yep, my neighborhood is the setting,” I said with some nostalgia.
Soon we passed small houses, many filled with flowers and fruit trees, squeezed into miniscule front yards. Several women and children leaned on their fences and watched us walk by, a moving wave of red flags, banners, and colorful tee-shirts.
An elderly man in a walker stood on his porch. With one hand, he gripped his walker, in the other he held up his red with black eagle flag.
The red line moved forward as a slow wave of water. Chants of “Si Se Puede,” “Viva Cesar,” and “Justice,” rang out around us. I felt my heart stir.
The march slowed to a stop as we made the turn to the bridge. “I remember when we didn’t have a bridge,” I said. “We took the city bus to school. If the train was stuck on the tracks, which happened half the time, their was no way out of Colonia.
The group of us would be late for school. When I went into the office for a late note, someone would inevitably say, ‘must be a Colonia kid.’
Over the bridge we flowed, 1,000 of us, to the plaza park area. My march down memory lane was over but it’s never forgotten.
After the march ended and the Aztec Dancers finished with a ceremonial dance, we entered the movie theater to watch a movie on Cesar Chavez.
The film was very well done, with historical facts blended with personal, family dynamics.
I have to say that Michael Peña and America Ferrera did a much better job than I thought they would, based on their other movies. I wished Rosario Dawson, as Dolores Huerta, was given a meatier role as Dolores Huerta deserved.
This movie is one that everyone should see to further their knowledge of social justice, non-violent activism, and history.
Happy Birthday, Cesar, and may future generations come to recognize your non-violent work for social justice, worker’s rights and equality.