Fifty years ago I graduated from high school on the other side of town from where Dolores Huerta had a decade earlier. My high school class will hold its reunion this fall. Also 50 years ago, Huerta and Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers a few miles further south in Delano. The UFW just celebrated its half-century at its annual convention, this year in Bakersfield.
Long before I met Chavez I had heard of the legend. He had learned about organizing under Fred Ross, who was criss-crossing the state building the Community Service Organization (CSO) network among the Spanish-speaking urban barrios. But when Chavez wanted to expand CSO’s mission to organize farm workers in the Central Valley, CSO said no. So he did it on his own, with no money, no budget and only a handful of contacts. He went to Delano and began to work among the vineyards, but it was the rose workers who first responded to his calls for a union.
My campus minister at the University of California, Santa Barbara, brought him to a little church in the student ghetto of Isla Vista. The legend led me to believe that I would see a big man with a persuasive style and a bold voice. Instead, Chavez stood small, spoke haltingly just above a whisper. He told stories of farm workers who labored in the fields in blistering heat, sun up to sun down, without water or toilets. They worked by the piece, the more they picked the more they made — unless they didn’t get paid at all. So whole families worked the fields, and the children didn’t go to school.
Chavez taught nonviolence as a core principle of social change. He went on long fasts to call attention to the working conditions of farm workers. He included religious symbols – banners, crosses, the Virgin de Guadalupe – on long processions through the fields, up and down the highways, even hundreds of miles to the Capitol in Sacramento. He called for boycotts as a tool to educate middle-class consumers in the cities about the conditions of the people who grew their food.
So first we boycotted wine, which was not hard for a young ministry student in those days. Then we stopped eating grapes. Then lettuce. Iceberg lettuce – which before anyone had ever heard of arugula or even Romaine – was the only lettuce Americans ate. They ate it in chunks as a salad and as decoration under Jell-O and layered on hamburgers. Giving up lettuce was big and probably not going to happen, as one of my mentors, the Rev. Chris Hartmire, confided to me in a moment of realistic despair.
The UFW sent idealistic young people into cities where they had never been, to live on five dollars a week and organize these consumer boycotts. One friend who had never lived outside his L.A. suburb found himself in New York City with the names of a couple of people with whom he had to both survive and organize a campaign against millionaire farmers and multi-million dollar corporations. He did, just like hundreds of others in cities across North America and Europe.
My first civil disobedience came a few years later in the scorching fields of the Coachella Valley. Reverend Hartmire, who had founded the California Migrant Ministry, asked if I could get a carload of young clergy to support the workers picketing the vineyards during Holy Week. When we arrived, he told us they planned to participate in a mass arrest of workers, and he wondered if any of us could join them. Since I was the only one without Easter responsibilities beginning the next day, I agreed. I was arrested praying in a dry drainage ditch, led by sheriff’s deputies to waiting school buses, and spent the day with hundreds of others packed into the Coachella jail, then the night riding a Greyhound back to L.A.
Chavez’s work raised the consciousness of identity for people far beyond the fields of California, even beyond the barrios of our cities. The UFW inspired and trained an army of organizers, many who are still organizing, many who matured into leaders in union locals and beyond – like Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. The UFW graduated me into an experience and a life no high school could ever imagine.