I have been an enthusiastic supporter of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers’ movement since 1968. In September of that year, I was a freshman at the University of San Diego High School, and the UFW-led grape boycott was in full swing. One day, my father handed me a “Boycott Grapes” button and he told me that I should wear it to school. When I asked my father how I should respond to questions regarding the boycott, he calmly told me: “Tell your fellow students that you like to eat grapes, but that you do not like the way in which farm workers are being treated.”
Eight years after surviving my first “baptism under fire,” I became an active participant in the farm workers’ nonviolent struggle for social justice. During the time period of 1976-1991, I marched with Cesar Chavez, walked dozens of picket lines, and spent two weeks in Toledo, Ohio, as a volunteer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO. I also had the privilege of meeting Cesar on two occasions.
In September 1991, however, disaster struck. While vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, I became seriously ill with a neurological condition known as Guillain- Barre Syndrome. Within a week, I had become completely paralyzed and was in danger of losing the ability to breathe. I was immediately airlifted to the Intensive Care Unit of Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, where I nearly died due to complications from my illness.
Fortunately, my condition gradually improved. After a seven-month stint at Mercy and Sharp Rehabilitations hospitals, I was able to return to my home in San Diego. However, the next several years were spent confined to a wheelchair. As well, I faced the daunting task of relearning to walk and regaining my independence.
During those difficult days, I would often think of the many accomplishments of Cesar Chavez and the UFW. For example, the banning of dangerous chemicals such as DDT and the enactment of a collective bargaining law for California farm workers.
But perhaps the most enduring legacy, from a personal perspective, was the “Si, Se Puede” attitude of the farm worker movement. This was a source of inspiration as I was recovering from my illness.
It has been nearly twenty-two years since I became seriously ill. However, I have almost completely recovered from my ailment. And despite numerous physical setbacks (including two leg fractures in 2011), I am now able to walk with the assistance of a walker and a quad cane.
More important, I am now physically able to rejoin the fight for farm worker justice. I realize that I have a difficult journey on the road to a complete recovery. And there is still much work to be done with regard to our nation’s agricultural workers. Indeed, too many still labor under hazardous conditions, earn poverty-level wages, and are excluded from the benefits of collective bargaining agreements. And child labor practices are all too commonplace.
As I move forward with these challenges, however, it is my hope that the spirit of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement will guide me on my journey.