The Legacy Of Cesar Chavez
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
We discuss the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. One of the great American populist movements of the 20th century was the effort to unionize and secure rights for migrant farm workers. Cesar Chavez, the man we honor on this holiday, was one of the leaders of the movement that resulted in the founding of the United Farm Workers, or UFW. Now members of that organization are carrying on the struggle for equal rights by joining in recent demonstrations for immigration reform. This morning, we're having a conversation about the legacy of Cesar Chavez, his accomplishments, his dedication to non-violence and how his message of equality resonates today. I’d like to introduce my guests. Roman Pinal is research analyst for the United Farm Workers. Roman, welcome to These Days.
ROMAN PINAL (Research Analyst, United Farm Workers): Good morning, and happy Cesar Chavez Day.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, same to you. Richard Griswold del Castillo is professor of Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, author of “César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit.” Richard, welcome to These Days.
RICHARD GRISWOLD del CASTILLO (Professor, Chicano Studies, San Diego State University): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Jorge Mariscal is professor of Spanish and Chicano/Chicana Literature at UC San Diego. Jorge, good morning.
JORGE MARISCAL (Professor of Spanish, Chicano/Chacana Lieterature, University of California San Diego): Buenos dias, good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If he were alive today, what do you think Cesar Chavez would say about our country’s attitude toward immigration? Give us a call with your questions and comments on this holiday, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Richard, you wrote a biography of Cesar Chavez, and I’d like to start by asking you if you discovered in the process of writing that book what – when did Cesar Chavez develop his desire – start developing his desire to find justice for his people?
DEL CASTILLO: Well, first of all, the book is co-authored with Richard Garcia. I want to give him credit.
DEL CASTILLO: But I think as a young person, his family worked as migrant farmer workers during the 1930s in the San Joaquin Valley and he experienced firsthand the terrible conditions of migrant workers and the abuses of labor contractors and the exploitative wages and bad sanitary conditions and all of the things that later he worked to try to change. So I think that’s where his motivation came from. He’s one of the only farm union organizers to have that background, I think. All the other ones came from a more industrial union background.
CAVANAUGH: And where did he develop his ability to organize and motivate masses of people. Where did that come from?
DEL CASTILLO: Well, I think it was developed out of his experience working for the CSO, the Community Service Organization, during the 1950s. He was educated by the people who were trying to form this community organizing group in the cities basically, small towns and cities, for voter registration and citizenship education and community improvement. So he worked for them and became the national director, actually the state director of the CSO in California during the fifties and I think that’s where his skills – He applied a lot of the techniques he learned there later on with the UFW.
CAVANAUGH: Now one of the legacies of the life of Cesar Chavez is the United Farm Workers organization. Richard, tell me a little bit about how that organization was founded.
DEL CASTILLO: Well, when Chavez was the director of the CSO, he asked them if they would take up the cause of organizing farm workers and trying to do something about the terrible conditions that they worked under, and they refused to and so he quit. As the director, he quit this paying job. He gave up, you know, a house in Los Angeles, and moved to Delano with his wife Helen and they decided to take up the job on their own. And so singlehandedly, the next two or three years, they went around to migrant camps trying to get farmer workers to join this association that he wanted to start. So it was a very slow and laborious process, a lot of sacrifice. They worked as farm workers themselves to support themselves during this time, and eventually they formed this association of farm workers which they saw as a way of providing benefits to these farm workers who didn’t have benefits and – but not necessarily going on strike. And eventually, in 1965, the Filipino farm workers in Delano were going on strike because of the wages they were getting paid were less than the wages bracero workers were getting paid. And they asked the UFW – or, rather the Farm Workers Association if they would join them in the strike. And they voted on September 15th, 1965 to join with the Filipino workers in the famous – now famous Delano grape strike.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Right. Roman Pinal, you’re research analyst for the United Farm Workers and I’m wondering, what does this holiday mean to you?
PINAL: Well, you know, it’s definitely a day where we reflect back on Cesar Chavez, his lessons that he left us with. We’re very, very – we recognize that he left an incredible foundation for us to continue his work. The UFW today is active in organizing farm workers in the central coast, in the San Joaquin Valley. We represent workers at the largest rose producing company, the largest mushroom company, the largest dairy, the second largest vegetable company. So our organization is – they made tremendous headway largely because of the lessons, the foundation, the – that Cesar Chavez left us today. So we dig in a little harder today.
CAVANAUGH: Now back when the organization was founded, as Richard was telling us, it was largely identified with California. What about today?
PINAL: Today, we – You know, even in those days—I wasn’t around in those days—but Artie and Dolores, our president, Arturo Rodriguez, they talk a lot about how, you know, President Carter would seek out Cesar Chavez’s voice on certain issues at the national level. So although our membership has always been California focused, we’ve taken the advocacy position for farm workers around the country. For example, immigration reform, we see that as a way to impact millions of farm workers, not just in California but across the country. So although our membership is focused in California, we take on issues at the national level as well.
CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit about the farm workers today. How many are there estimated in the United States?
PINAL: Close to 2 million farm workers live in the United States, although many changes have occurred. The short-handled hoe is no longer in existence. In many states farm workers now have unemployment benefits and workers compensation. In some industries like the mushroom industry where about 80% of the workers are union members, average salaries are about $40,000 a year with full family medical benefits. But we recognize that there’s still a lot of suffering across the country. It’s not very – it’s very easy to find farm workers who are surviving on $8,000 to $10,000 a year with no medical benefits. In most states, in all but one state, farm workers still do not have the right to join a union so we recognize that there’s a lot of work to continue to do to improve farmer workers’ conditions.
CAVANAUGH: And Roman, what lessons from Cesar Chavez are still being used at UFW?
PINAL: Well, you know, one of the important lessons is that relationship that he addressed early on through the boycotts, that relationship between farm workers and consumers, so although, you know, we don’t – we’re not publicly boycotting products as in the past, that relationship continues to be part of our strategy to win new union contracts today. So that relationship, I would say, is still, you know, part of our daily tactics and strategies for winning new union contracts.
CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call from Robert who’s calling us from Anza, Anza Borrego. Robert, good morning. Welcome to These Days.
ROBERT (Caller, Anza): Well, hello. Yeah, it’s Anza, California, not Borrego.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, sorry.
ROBERT: Okay. I want to know just how much influence, positive influence or whatever, that Joan Baez provided with her singing and going to jail with Cesar Chavez…
CAVANAUGH: Who’d like…
ROBERT: …in the movement.
CAVANAUGH: Who’d like to answer that question from Robert? Joan Baez’s influence.
DEL CASTILLO: Well, yeah, it’s true, Joan Baez went to jail along with Cesar, and the music has always been really important for organizing people, not just the farm workers but labor movement in general. And I think she lent her voice, as did other singers, Pete Seeger and others, so I think Joan Baez was identified early on, and she has maintained a lifelong commitment to the farm workers and in a lot of her concerts, you know, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “No Nos Moverán,” is one of the main songs she sings so, yeah, she’s an important person.
CAVANAUGH: San Diego played a very important part in the early movement of the UFW. Tell us a little bit about that, Richard.
DEL CASTILLO: Well, in terms of – I’m not sure what…
CAVANAUGH: The boycotting grapes.
DEL CASTILLO: Yeah, well, they, of course, Cesar Chavez’s children, several of them, went to San Diego State and a lot of his organizers came from San Diego and volunteered to go up to Delano and they came down to San Diego and organized the boycott here and so, yeah, San Diego was an important locale for a lot of the boycott activities.
CAVANAUGH: And tell me a little bit about the history of ‘Si Se Puede.’
DEL CASTILLO: Well, yeah, that slogan, which now has become nationally known through…
DEL CASTILLO: …President Barack Obama, became important during the boycott when – And one of the main contributions that Chavez made, I think, to people was to have – help them overcome their fears. And a lot of people who he sent out to do boycotting and other kinds of work had never gone outside their home, had no education in this. And ‘Si Se Puede’ was a kind of byword of what he told them. I mean, that was what he told them. You can do it…
DEL CASTILLO: …you know. And so it became a chant or something that was an organizing tool at the rallies and so forth, so that’s where it came from.
CAVANAUGH: We’re going to have to take a short break and when we return, I want to talk with Jorge about this wonderful article comparing the work of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. But before we go, Richard, there was – I was doing some reading in preparation for this, our talk today, and there was some comment about the fact that in some communities Cesar Chavez is not as remembered as perhaps he should be. There were some articles that said, you know, that there are blog entries where ‘yes, we can’ is basically said to have originated with the Barack Obama campaign. I wonder what your take is on that? Is the contribution of Cesar Chavez and this movement recognized as widely as it should be in this country?
DEL CASTILLO: Oh, definitely not. I think, well, today President Obama is meeting with members of Chavez’s family and with Artie Rodriguez, the leader of the UFW privately to declare this Cesar Chavez Day nationally. And so I think Chavez and his contributions are much – are well known among academics and among teachers and things like this but still, you know, I don’t think it’s nationally prominent, unfortunately. And there’s a campaign to have a national holiday and there’s a petition that they’re starting and there’s resolutions that have been introduced and so forth and – but we’ll see how that goes. I mean, it’s an uphill battle.
CAVANAUGH: We’re going to continue our conversation about Cesar Chavez Day after a short break, and continue to take your calls, in fact, answer a few of them when we return, 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And on this holiday we’re having a conversation about the legacy of Cesar Chavez. My guests are Roman Pinal. He is research analyst for the United Farm Workers. Richard Griswold del Castillo is professor of Chicano Studies at San Diego State University. And Jorge Mariscal is professor of Spanish and Chicano/Chicana Literature at UC San Diego. We are taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. And right now, George is calling us from Imperial Valley. Good morning, George, and welcome to These Days.
GEORGE (Caller, Imperial Valley): Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for taking my call. My question was in the past the UFW played an important role here in Imperial Valley and more recently in the past few years its role has greatly diminished. And I was wondering if the UFW views Imperial Valley differently? Are there plans for Imperial Valley? Anything? That type of information should be helpful.
CAVANAUGH: That sounds like a question for you, Roman.
PINAL: You know, we just, a year and a half ago or so, two years ago or so, we were focused on signing our first union contract with Dirigo Brothers. And that’s – Workers there voted for the union in 1975 or ‘6 if I recall correctly, and they finally signed their first union contract just a couple of years ago. And about 600 workers work and live there in the Imperial County, so there’s a glimmer of hope. But the industry really is – the vegetable industry really is based out of the Monterey County area so it’s an approach that, you know, has – we have to take that into consideration in terms of our approach, right, the heart of the industry has really been centralized in the Monterey County. So the answer is yes, we have a vision in terms of what we want to do in terms of improving farm worker conditions there but – and there is that one example that I’d like to point to there.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. And I want to move on, if I may, to an article that you wrote, Jorge Mariscal, about the work of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s just amazing to think about the year 1968, both of these men alive, active in their respective causes, and what was going on in that year that actually connected these two men?
MARISCAL: Well, one would have to remember that 1967 was an extremely violent year. There were riots in all the major cities, mainly race riots. The Vietnam War was reaching a crescendo, and 200 American soldiers a week were dying. So it was an extremely violent period in our history, and 1968 was a presidential election year. Dr. King had moved away from a kind of race-based organizing to organizing working people of every color, and he had plans to do something called the Poor People’s Campaign which would be a non-violent civil disobedience movement in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968. Cesar Chavez, early in that year, had gone on a fast specifically to insist that his movement was non-violent. There had been some violent incidents around Delano and around California, and he wanted to remind his own people but also everyone in the country that he was following a kind of Gandhian tradition of nonviolent militancy, is what he would call it. And, of course, Dr. King followed the same path. So although these two men never met, it’s interesting that they did exchange telegrams. Their – Some historians believe that Cesar Chavez actually received a phone call from Martin Luther King but there’s no corroboration of that, so it seems that they not only never met but they never actually spoke to one another and yet they were following a similar path, working to organize working families, working class people of every color and also professing a nonviolent approach to social change.
CAVANAUGH: So I think that this is part of the legacy of both men that we really don’t know a lot about and that is before his assassination, Dr. King, it seemed Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, their causes were dovetailing in a way and perhaps would’ve met up eventually.
MARISCAL: I think there’s no doubt that they would’ve met up, and there were some plans for them to meet in spring of 1968 and, of course, Dr. King was killed on April 4th. The UFW actually sent representatives to Atlanta to Dr. King’s office in the planning sessions for the poor people’s campaign, so the links were already being forged. The two leaders had never met. People like Dolores Huerta, who was the vice president of the union at the time, was very active with some of Dr. King’s people and she attended the march in Memphis after Dr. King was assassinated and that was a march, again, for the Memphis sanitation workers and she also took a UFW delegation to Dr. King’s funeral. So, yes, there’s no doubt that they would’ve come together. I think the idea—and we can only fantasize here—of these two great social leaders coming together and their collective movements with Mexican Americans, Filipinos, poor whites and African-Americans, it would’ve been a tremendous shift in American history. And, unfortunately, whoever did assassinate Dr. King made sure that didn’t happen.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you say that there were actually a couple of telegrams sent to Chavez by Martin Luther King. Can you tell us what they said?
MARISCAL: Well, the first telegram from Dr. King to Cesar Chavez was congratulating him on his work and his fast. Dr. King was very impressed and he even told one of his lieutenants, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, that he was thinking about going on a fast as well just to show the country that his movement coincided with what was happening in the farm worker movement. So he congratulated him. He said you’re an inspiration to us all and, you know, I hope to meet you someday. Then the ties were made between the UFW and Dr. King’s organization in the planning for the poor people’s campaign. The only telegram sent by Cesar to Dr. King’s family was after Dr. King had been killed, so he sent a telegram of condolences to Coretta Scott King.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another phone call. Thomas is calling us from North County. Good morning, Thomas. Welcome to These Days.
THOMAS (Caller, North County): Hi. Good morning. First, before I, you know, give my opinion of what I believe is the current policy on immigration, I’d like to thank, of course, you know, Cesar Chavez, wherever he is, and of course, all the of his descendents and the organization which he formed. I think that, you know, even past his life, changes are still happening and will continue to happen into the future. And now what I’d like to say is, you know, I believe that the current immigration policy, it’s at the very core, it’s un-American. It’s un-American to me because if you go back to even our very, very first document that formed this nation, the Declaration of Independence, this policy does not respect the very basic principle of equality that all humans should have. The other thing that I’d like to say is that it’s not only un-American, it’s also counterproductive…
THOMAS: …because you have a lot of people in this country that could be giving you a lot more, could be giving us a lot more, but they will never do it because of the way they’re treated, because of the way they are dealt with. Okay?
CAVANAUGH: Thomas, thank you. Thank you for your comments. And I want to hear from Roman, if I could. Roman, what is the UFW doing in support of immigration reform? Didn’t the organization take a part in the recent big demonstration in Washington, D.C.?
PINAL: Yes, over 500 farm workers from, I believe, a dozen states made the voyage to Washington, D.C. for this recent rally. And I think the first thing I’d like to say is, you know, we, as advocates for farm workers, have the same opinion of folks on the right, that the immigration laws are broken. We may disagree on how to fix it but we recognize not only that the laws are broken, the system is broken, but on a day to day basis we see the misery, you know, the, you know, workers being pulled over and cars being confiscated, families being separated, workers, as they organize a union, the threats of being deported by their foreman and supervisor, we see that on a day-to-day basis so we, you know, we, in addition to, you know, looking for that solution, I think the bill that we are sponsoring, Ag Jobs, is a – I would say another sign, another example of how Cesar’s legacy continues. Ag Jobs is a very practical solution to farm worker immigration issues. It’s a proposal, it’s a bill that not only has the support of our organization and other farm worker advocates but also the support of the agricultural – and the growers associations are supporting that proposal as well. So we think that that would be a fair way of addressing that issue to provide stability among the labor force for farm workers today.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Kathy is calling us from Escondido. Good morning, Kathy. Welcome to These Days.
KATHY (Caller, Escondido): Hello.
KATHY: My question is do any of your guests realize that Cesar Chavez was against illegal immigration?
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask. Richard?
DEL CASTILLO: Well, actually he wasn’t against illegal immigration. He was against growers using undocumented immigrants to – as strike breakers and in 1973 he and the UFW and Dolores Huerta posed a law that California was proposing that would’ve made the hiring of undocumented immigrants illegal – a crime. So, you know, his position on immigrant was that the employer should not use undocumented immigrants as strike breakers.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, Jorge.
MARISCAL: Yeah, I would add to that that when the UFW was created in 1962, about half of their membership were undocumented people. So the union has never been against undocumented people, it’s always felt that they were workers just like anyone else and they had to be protected. As Ricardo just said, what the union opposed was the use of scabs to try to break strikes.
PINAL: That is corr…
CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.
PINAL: Maureen, that is definitely correct and I would add that in 1986 when the amnesty law was passed, farm workers were originally excluded from those – from that law and Dolores Huerta spent several months advocating for what later became known as the Special Agricultural Worker Amnesty because of, again, the support for that type of reform that the – that Cesar Chavez had at that time.
CAVANAUGH: And, Kathy, you want to respond to that?
KATHY: Yeah, they’re called illegal aliens, there’s 12 to 20 million of them in this country, they’re stealing jobs, services and education, welfare, it goes on and on and on. And with our unemployment in this country at – in the millions, Americans need those jobs. And the ones that can’t be – that need farm workers can be mechanized. I have an article right now that shows just about anything can be harvested with machinery.
CAVANAUGH: Kathy, thank you. And, Roman, you must – Kathy’s attitude is the attitude of a lot of Americans when it comes to people who come to this country without documents. And I wonder if that – how does that interfere in – with the organization of farm workers? How does that attitude impact your organization?
PINAL: These are tough economic times right now. A lot of folks are feeling the pinch. It’s a historical occurrence that immigration – immigrant populations feel the blunt of the – of that reaction but, you know, as Secretary Vilsack told farm workers recently, that we have a choice to make in this country. We either import our labor or we import our food. Throughout history, whether in the late 1800s when Chinese laborers were some of the first farm workers or going even back to the plantation days when African slaves where the nation’s – our nation’s first farm workers, agriculture has always depended on immigrants to harvest our fruits and vegetables.
CAVANAUGH: And, Richard, we’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of Chicano Park in San Diego here, and I wish you would tell us what about – how – the role that San Diegans played in the Chicano movement.
DEL CASTILLO: Well, that’s a big question. We have a lot of information that’s in a book called “Chicano San Diego,” chapter by Isidro Ortiz on the Chicano movement in San Diego. But, yeah, Chicano Park’s a perfect example of the influence of the farm workers union and Cesar Chavez because you can go there and see many, many murals that were done, inspired by the farm workers’ struggle, the ubiquitous sign of the UFW flag, the Virgin Guadalupe, the farm workers in the fields and so forth. But, yeah, there’s a lot of local Chicano leaders who were inspired by the UFW and who were involved in the creation of Chicano Park back in 1970. So, you know, I think there’s a lot of current leaders in San Diego have had their formation in the struggle for farm workers during the 1960s and ‘70s.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, Jorge.
MARISCAL: I would add to that that throughout the decades, many students here in local colleges and universities have participated in UFW activities and, of course, a lot of those same folks back in the day participated in the creation of Chicano Park and the Centro Cultural in Balboa Park. So even at my university, UCSD, which is a little bit detached from San Diego proper, many of our students in the late sixties and seventies were active with the Safeway boycotts and the grape and lettuce boycotts that the UFW was conducting. And even today, many of our students are very active with UFW-related activities.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I asked our audience and our listeners have responded, a number of people have called in, I asked what they thought Cesar Chavez would say about our country’s attitude toward immigration. And I’m wondering if I could ask you gentlemen the same question. Do you think that this sort of strident attitude against illegal immigration is just plainly against the idea that some people are in this country without documentation and that shouldn’t be? Or does it have a wider implication about the nature of this country and the addition of the rightful claims of a Latino population?
MARISCAL: Well, I have no doubt that if Cesar were still alive he would support comprehensive immigration reform. And if I may be so bold as to suggest that if Dr. King were alive, he would support it also because what we saw them doing in the late 1960s and Cesar up until 1993 when he passed was working for the rights of working families and people that are doing jobs that don’t pay well, that are often carried out in very poor conditions, so it seems to me that the bulk of undocumented people are here for economic reasons, there’s no doubt about that, and I think they would be fighting just like the UFW is right now for a fair and comprehensive reform. We might have a debate about what that looks like but it seems to me that these people, many of them have raised families here, many of them are paying taxes, many of them are contributing to our society in a number of ways, that Cesar and Dr. King would certainly be supporting them and working for them.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think, Richard, that Cesar Chavez would be surprised that we’re still talking about this? That we have not come up with a solution to immigration in this country?
DEL CASTILLO: No, not at all. I think, you know, his life was one of constant struggle against tremendous odds and never a final solution – I mean, a final victory. I mean, even in 1970 when they signed the contracts and won the grape boycott and so forth, that victory only lasted two or three years. He knew that it would only last two or three years because the contracts don’t go on forever. And in terms of politics, I think, you know, the struggle over the Agricultural Labor Relations Act for California, they succeeded in getting the first ever law to allow farm workers to organize their own union to be recognized, I mean, to be – negotiate contracts but very soon, you know, the opposition to that by the growers and so forth began to take its toll. So Chavez knew the political struggle was not – he was very practical, very realistic about what was involved with politics so I think he would not be too surprised to know that we’re still fighting over what the shape of America should be like and what the color of America should be like.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all and, again, happy Cesar Chavez Day to all of you. Thank you for being here and speaking to me. Roman Pinal, Richard Griswold del Castillo, and Jorge Mariscal, thank you.
MARISCAL: Thank you very much.
PINAL: Thank you.
DEL CASTILLO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to post a comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, the Eyes of Picasso find a new home, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.
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