In memory of Cesar Chavez
As a college student in the late 60’s, I was starting to get involved with the Chicano movement. During that time a friend invited me to a meeting to hear Cesar Chavez talk about the huelga in the fields. I was impressed with Cesar but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of the farmworker movement. Despite the fact that my mother worked in the fields and I started helping her during the grape harvest at the age of 12. I was well aware of the horrible living conditions in the farm labor camps, as well as the bad working conditions, low pay, no benefits, and abusive mayordomos. I still had my doubts that the farmworker movement would have any success. My focus was MEChA and helping my community (Coachella) improve economically, empower themselves politically, and encouraging and supporting young people to continue in a higher education. Little did I know that my community involvement would bring into contact with Cesar Chavez and the UFW over and over again. It took me awhile before I realized that Cesar was more than a labor leader. I started running into him at MEChA conferences and community political rallies. In his speeches he talked about organizing, nonviolence action, and the power of unity, but most importantly the struggle of the campesino for better working conditions or the boycott, or the huelga. In 1970 a friend invited me to join him and a group of campesinos picket our local super market for selling grapes (the grape boycott was on). That day there was a counter group of people, mostly family, friends and relatives of grape growers. I went to school with some of them and had no idea they were children of grape growers. Someone handed me a small red flag with a black eagle sprayed on it (I still have it). As we chanted “boycott grapes” , “huelga”, “viva la causa”, and sang songs, they responded with “go back to Mexico”, “greasers”, “wetbacks” and lots of cussing. At one point they walked into the store and came out eating grapes. They were opening bottles of Gallo wine, pouring into paper cups and drinking. I cannot imagine anyone else doing that and not getting arrested. The police that were present didn’t do anything.
After that I started attending more Farmworker rallies and pickets lines. In 1973, I heard that the growers brought in the Teamsters to organize the workers. I left school and decided to join the picket lines against the growers and the Teamsters. However, I didn’t go alone I took my younger brother Ray, my future brother-in-law Eddie, and my then girlfriend Esther, who is now my wife we have been married for over 38 years. That was a difficult year. Many of us were jailed and there was a lot of violence against the workers on the picket lines. Despite the violence our people were amazingly strong, spirits were always high, and very united. One incident that I will never forget (that was recorded in a video titled “Fighting for our Lives”), Cesar came to our picket line and asked some us to walk with him as he walked in front of a large group of Teamsters. I witnessed one the worst verbal attacks that a person could endure. But Cesar remained calm, the courage he displayed at that moment, encouraged us and let us know that could win and we did win.
There is a small park in Coachella that is being considered as a historical site. Cesar and the UFW would hold meetings and rallies there. I witnessed the city turn the sprinklers on so they wouldn’t use the park. They would flood the park with so much water it would run down the street. The police would drive up and down the street handing out tickets for every imaginable infraction from driving to slow to parking to far from the curb. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that my city would treat some of the most humble, decent, hardworking people in such bad manner. I told myself that if I ever got the chance I would change all that.
In 1987, I was elected to the Coachella City Council, later that year in a public ceremony we gave the keys to the city to Cesar. We decided that our city would never make anyone feel unwelcomed again. Then as Mayor, I had the opportunity to be part of the committee that named three new schools in our school district. The committee submitted three names one of them was Cesar Chavez, and I am proud to say our school board named one of our elementary school after him. Our community had a school named after him while he was still alive. I do believe that we were the first school district and city to have a school named after Cesar. He stopped to visit at my home several times and I would invite some of my friends to be there. I was amazed at how he could remember all of us by our first names. Muchisimas Gracias for the opportunity to share some of my memories with you, que viva la memoria de Cesar Chavez, que viva Dolores Huerta, La Union, y Arturo Rodriguez who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and in my opinion the best choice to lead the Union and continue the vision of Cesar Chavez.