March 28, 2008

Commentary:

Honoring the Legacy of Cesar E. Chavez

by David G. Oddo

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker 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 don’t 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’ non-violent 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. And I was most fortunate to have met Cesar on two separate 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. And after a seven-month stint at Mercy and Sharp Rehabilitation Hospitals, I was able to return to my home in the Linda Vista area of San Diego. However, the next several years of my life were spent confined to a wheelchair. As well, I faced the daunting task of learning to walk again. To be completely honest, I don’t now how I survived those difficult times. I am certain that my faith in God was essential to my recovery. The support of my friends and family was equally important. Maybe I was just plain stubborn, especially after being told by my doctors that I would never walk again.

During those difficult days, I would often think of the many accomplishments of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, for example; the banning of dangerous agricultural chemicals such as DDT; the elimination of the infamous short-handled hoe; 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” (Yes, it can be done) attitude of the farm worker movement. This was a source of inspiration as I was recovering from my illness.

It has been nearly seventeen years since I became seriously ill. However, I have almost completely recovered from my ailment. And despite numerous setbacks, I am currently able to walk with the assistance of a walker and a quad cane. I can also ambulate short distances under my own power. And the wheelchair? It is collecting dust on the porch of my family’s condominium.

More importantly, 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, the vast majority still labor under hazardous conditions, earn poverty-level wages, and are excluded from the benefits of collective bargaining agreements.

As I move forward with these challenges, however, it is my hope that the spirit of Cesar Chavez will guide me on my journey.

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