He was a small brown-skinned man, dressed in a short-sleeve plaid cotton shirt and blue jeans, an outfit that was almost his uniform, he wore it so much. The day I met him he had on a pair of high-top work shoes, giving him the appearance that he had just come in from the fields. His thick black hair, expressive black eyes and dark skin gave away his Indian heritage.
When I walked into the auditorium I knew right away that I had to talk to him one-on-one. But first I had to listen to him. He talked in a calm, quiet way, waiting until people had finished asking complete questions before giving his answers. When he talked he would frame his answers in such a way that the questioners, and the whole audience, felt that it was their own perceptions, opinions and ideas that were the important thing. How different he was from the usual testosterone-fueled Mexican leaders.
Today, he was advocating for farm workers, which is what he always did. He was talking about the importance of labor unions, calmly laying out the reasons that we need them. “There is such a terrible imbalance of power between those who own the land and the people they hire to plant, tend and harvest the crops,” he was saying. “When the workers are powerless, all kinds of abuses are inflicted on them.” He went on, patiently explaining his life’s work.
Unions protect workers. They are the substitute for the communal environment of the village, long since disappeared. An effective union can create safer working conditions, negotiate for a living wage, shorter working hours, the end of child labor, and prevent poisoning from agricultural pesticides. He brought the discussion down to earth with his final point. Unions can make sure that there is clean drinking water, such a simple thing but often neglected.
Most of all, the growers must provide sanitary toilets for the lowest-paid American workers — the farm workers who put food on our tables.
I especially remember the point about toilets. Before he came along, none of these protections, which most of us take for granted, existed. And even now they don’t exist in many places. Take the matter of toilets. He described that workers relieved themselves literally on top of the crops. Of course, the suburban shoppers picking up their salad fixings don’t know that. At this point the audience laughed. But it wasn’t funny then and it isn’t funny now. It gives you a whole new perspective on the produce section of the supermarket.
We still don’t have the union-required sanitary toilets for so many thousands of people who toil in the fields.
This encounter with Cesar Chavez happened in the early 1970s. What a different time that was. Most of us believed that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” How optimistic I felt listening to the short, quiet man. At this point he was immersed in the lettuce boycott, seeking justice against Jimmy Hoffa’s corrupt Teamsters Union which had signed sweetheart deals with the California lettuce growers, unfairly acing out his union, the United Farmworkers. He was a lonely Don Quixote, tilting against the giant windmills of agribusiness and American ignorance and apathy. But he prevailed. People stopped buying iceberg lettuce and the growers dropped the Teamsters.
Cesar’s birthday is March 31. In California it’s a state holiday. In the rest of the country Cesar’s birthday is largely ignored. This non-observance accurately reflects the marginalized social status of Mexican Americans. We have moved on to slightly higher working-class occupations and have been replaced in the fields by waves of immigrants. This may be good for us but not for the immigrants.
Like the rest of us, Cesar Chavez, our only national hero, the only champion we ever had who was able to attract national attention to our cause, is almost completely unknown to the great mass of people in this country.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.