“Fighting for social justice…is one of the profoundest ways in which man can say ‘yes’ to man’s dignity, and…there is no way on this earth in which you can say ‘yes’ to man’s dignity, and know that you’re going to be spared some sacrifice.”- Cesar Chavez, 1975
During the zenith of the lettuce, carrot, cauliflower and broccoli harvest season of 1978, along a well traveled country road a few miles south of Brawley, California, I had the privilege of meeting Cesar Chavez. As a teenager during those icy cold winter days, my older brothers and I would perform field work, mainly in “el asadon” and picking lettuce on weekends and during school breaks. Most of the money we earned was earmarked as a contribution to our household income and provided our family a revenue source to purchase the minimal necessities. I remember the customary ritual of waking up in the darkness and gathering up “animo” to face the ominous back-breaking workday. But, before achieving full consciousness, the savory aromatic emanations of “tortillas, chile y frijoles” coming from my mother’s tiny kitchen would induce my salivary glands to respond much like a subject in Pavlov’s experiment. I would hear her preparing “el desayuno” for the long arduous day ahead. The familiar sounds of my mother kneading the dough to achieve that just-right constituency and the rolling and shaping of the tortillas, were truly an act of love and art that brought me out of my deep slumber. After ingesting our celestial meal with our father, who was also a “trabajador de la tierra”, we made our way to our respective worksites. Following in his wake, my brothers and I along with a couple other “compas” from “El Campo” rode crammed together in my brother Jorge’s, honey-colored, 65 Chevy Impala.
During those twilight commutes to “la oficina de los filosofos”, I heard rumors and vociferous pro and con arguments during about Cesar and the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). Most of the time the conversations echoed propaganda that the pro-grower, local media had disseminated over the airwaves or some derived version of it. I didn’t understand what it was really all about. I just listened to the prolonged discourses about losing jobs, not being able to find employment because of lack of education or being black listed by “el patron y los contratistas”, and families surviving on marginal subsistence.
It was also a time of fear for many “campesinos”; the fear of physical violence and fear of being displaced altogether. Many farmworkers had no faith in the judicial system and sought no assistance from the sheriffs or the city police. Instead most of us considered the sheriff and police departments as the enemy. A great majority of us were afraid of being reported as undocumented residents which would result in deportation even though we were naturalized or American citizens. We, along with many other farmworking families lived that trepidation of being excluded from the economic cornucopia—the fruit of our labor, and watching our hopes and dreams rot along with the undesirable legumes left in the fields. While the growers relied on harvest insurance, clever tax consultants, and federal water and crop subsidies to cover financial losses; the farmworkers in took refuge in themselves and families, hedging on a promise for a better tomorrow. Seeking sanctuary from the always present, “La Virgen Morena, Nuestra Virgen de Guadalupe” the “soldados y soldaderas razos” were able to maintain their unity.
One bone-chilling Saturday morning on our way to “la oficina”, we noticed a massive traffic jam on Dogwood and Worthington Roads located just east of the City of Imperial California. As we advanced toward the constricted passage, I saw an unusual number of vehicles and individuals dispersed along “el patron’s”. What surprised me even more was the unbelievable amount of law enforcement patrol vehicles lined-up along the roadsides. It was evident that the county sheriff’ and the California Highway Patrol had prepared themselves to arrest a large number of people.
Across the road and at the fringes of the property lines representatives of the UFW were dialoging with the indentured “Raza”. Cesar was among them; as he is among us today. Their mission was to convince the ununionized and replacement workers to cease working and join the UFW.
As our “ranfla” came to a stop, I sensed an apocalyptic scenario because of overt political power struggle perpetrated by the dooms-day media that fueled the racial hatred of the oppressive status quo machinery, namely the local politicians and farmers. Along with the sheriff’s office, the social engineering forces were fortified to ensure that we, the Mexicans, were kept in an apartheid condition. Together, in collusion, the yellow journalistic attack, the powers-at-be orchestrated an onslaught of economic violence against the Mexican population, the UFW and Cesar—the man, and what he stood for. The conclusions were as predictable as the law of gravity; many “campesinos” were denied employment, education, freedom and justice.
After I extruded myself from the humanity packed car, I approached a slow moving and cold trembling crowd surrounding Cesar. Cesar was shaking hands, greeting and conversing with “hermanos campesinos”. When I walked up to Cesar, he looked at me and we spontaneously reached for each other’s calloused grips and gave ourselves the well practiced power handshake. With that encarnal gesture, I realized that a personal transubstanation occurred: the time had come to join Cesar in the struggle for justice. Previous to this encounter, by de-facto of being a farmworker, I was already part of the farmworker struggle whether I wanted to join or not.
The synergistic life force of the “Movimento Campesino” internalized itself into my essence as I witnessed and etched into my neurons and synapses, the passion and violence standing on the picket line that winter. The repercussions against the “campesinos” caused an immediate psychological and fiscal impact on both sides of the picket line; however, the effects were more dramatic for the farmworkers. I’ll never forget the determination on those wrinkled, wind-cracked, sun burnt faces of the men and women standing along the dirt roads those early mornings across the way from the “esquirol” and Teamster goons in the midst of sheriff riot squads.
Today, I do not grieve over the bodily departure of Cesar Chavez. Cesar’s exodus to purgatory was a communal celebration and farewell to a unique man. He was a deeply Catholic and a humble man who did not fear martyrdom. He faced death and was willing to die for “La Causa”. Several times he fasted for “La Causa” for which he paid a heavy physical and emotional price, and pushed his tired weakened body to the point of complete shutdown. Cesar knew that should he perish, it would not have been an act of futility.
Cesar was born to a poor “campesinos” family in Yuma Arizona. All his life he worked for the “trabajores agricolas”. And he died where he was born. At Cesar “entierro”, on April 29, 1993, I recollect how the plain pine wood casket, encased his body. The wooden coffin symbolized how Cesar lived his life. He never desired accolades, awards or compensation. His only desire was justice. Justice for the “campesinos”. For this was the why, he gave his life.
I knew as well as many of those who knew him that “El Movimiento Campesino” was the beginning of a new “sol”, a resurgence of a collective consciousness. Cesar became the new anointed David. Similarly, Cesar like the David of the Old Testament, who with nothing but Faith and a God given talent confronted and subdued the invincible giant.
The lessons of risk and political sacrifice of Mexicanos for dignity were clear then as it is now. History has once again taught us a lesson that is time proven. Those “Huelgistas” standing on the picket line gave credence to a well embedded “dicho” among “La Raza” since the days of “El Libertador”, Padre Miguel Hildago y Costilla—“Es mejor morrir de hambre, que morrir incado pidiendo limosna”. The farmworker struggle was a civil rights movement. “Viva La Causa” was and still is a “grito” of pride and liberation.
Cesar’s prophetic vision of a better life for all manifested itself in advocacy groups who integrated a philosophy of social change into their agendas. This “spirit-de-corps” transcended ethnic, occupational and social divisions. His messianic theme was also imbedded into many professional and social organizations by a new generation of university educated and blue collar “campesinos”.
“Gracias Cesar, gracias por las leciones personales, politicas, y tambien por tu vision de justicia. Juntos trabajaremos para seguir abriendo las puertas por el futuro de nuestra gente”.