March 30, 2001

César Chávez Day: A Fiesta Without A Focus?

By Yvette tenBerge

César Chávez and UFW strikers in 1966.

Every March and April, teachers and parents guide groups of elementary school children along the rows of brilliantly colored blossoms at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad. As students pass by clustered petals of red, pink, yellow and white, adults take the time to answer their questions and to point out the really "important" things that surround them. Rarely, if ever, though do they stop to teach their classes anything about the dozens of men from Oaxaca, Mexico who silently move through the rows with their backs bent and their arms filled with freshly cut flowers. They are the migrant workers whose job it is to care for the 50-acre ranch, and without them, the Flowers Fields would not exist.

By officially designating March 31st as a state holiday in honor of César Chávez, the late Chicano labor leader who fought for the rights of farmworkers, Hispanic leaders are hoping to change this lack of awareness within the community at large. The roots of this problem, though, may grow more deeply than anyone suspects. A recent survey of today's agricultural workers speaks to this as it shows that knowledge of Chávez' legacy even within the agricultural community, itself, has dropped sharply.

Ivone Acuña is a 25 year-old laborer who works with her sister Leticia at a strawberry stand across from the Flower Fields. When asked what she knew about César Chávez, Ms. Acuña stated that she "certainly" knew who Chávez was and went on to comment that she felt him to be the "best boxer to ever come out of Mexico."

Moises Morales of Oaxaca, Mexico, works he fields in Carlsbad.

Mark Day, a journalist and filmmaker, began fighting for worker's rights when he served as a priest and an organizer for the United Farm Workers Union from 1967 to 1970. His immersion in this issue continues today, and he offers some explanation for the apparent fading memory of Chávez among the workers, themselves. "Because of the difficulty of sustaining strikes and boycotts, the union stopped its intensive organizing campaigns in the early 1980s. Therefore, the old-timers who worked in the San Joaquin valley and the Coachella [valley] clearly remember the grape strikes and its benefits. Newcomers probably confuse César Chávez with Julio César Chávez, the boxer. I think most farmworkers, however, know that because of the struggles of the UFW in the 1960s and 1970s, wages and working conditions of farm labor have improved a great deal."

Although government officials and community leaders alike boast that Chávez is the first union leader in U.S. history ever to be honored with a paid holiday, workers like Moises Morales, who have some knowledge of the significance of Chávez' work, highlight the irony of the holiday. Mr. Morales points out that it is a holiday for everyone except for those people who actually work in agriculture.

"I have heard that [César Chávez] helped all of us who work in agriculture very much. We are all treated better than before, and we are given more respect. For example, before [him], we did not have protection from chemicals, but now, we are given gloves, masks and suits to wear," says Mr. Morales, a father of six who currently works at the Carlsbad Flower Fields. He has worked in the U.S. agricultural industry for 21 years. "As for this holiday, everything will be normal for us. We don't get a vacation. It may be a special day for some, but not for us."

César Chávez worked tirelessly to inspire in Latinos the courage to demand improved working conditions for themselves, however, he is perhaps best known for having founded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). The UFW was formed in 1966 when Chávez' National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which had already won the first genuine union contract between a grower and farm workers' union in U.S. history, merged with the Filipino American Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to form the UFW. Chávez led the union for 31 years. His contracts called for increased wages, medical benefits, improved health and safety regulations, improved sanitary conditions and an end to child labor.

The union presence throughout the coastal north county, which includes Carlsbad, Vista and San Marcos, is not strong today. The area's agricultural industry is relatively small in size, and it has become fragmented. Despite this weakened state of the union, though, Mr. Morales and his team of workers at the Flower Fields have few complaints about their jobs. Most have little knowledge of what a union is or of what it specifically does for workers. For them, things are fine. They report that they are paid on time, that they have clean bathroom facilities available to them and that they are taken to the doctor's office or to the hospital if they have a work-related, medical emergency.

There are many, though, who remember a time in the not-too-distant past when things were anything but fine. Ex-agricultural workers like 59 year-old Susana Soto recall when working without the protection of the union in California was unbearable. When her husband was forced to stop working due to appendicitis, Ms. Soto moved her three children from Tijuana to Bakersfield where her husband had been living. She traded in her job as a housewife for a job as a field worker, and from 1970 to 1973, Ms. Soto worked in the onion and grape fields of Kern County in order to support her family. The weather toughened and tanned the once smooth skin on her face, and the pesticides blistered the skin on her arms and caused her eyes to become red and swollen.

"I worked for companies that did not have a contract with the union as well as for those that did. For people who do not know the difference, I can say that the difference was immense. To belong to Chávez' union, you had to pay $10 a month. Some thought that this was too much to pay, but I believe that it was worth every cent. With the union, we had medical benefits, two 15-minute breaks, time to eat, clean bathrooms with toilet paper and facilities to wash our hands. We also had clean drinking water and were allowed to stop working and go home if the heat became too intense," says Ms. Soto. She recalls that her jobs with companies that did not have contracts with the UFW did not provide water or bathrooms for employees. Workers had to bring drinking water from home or spend the day without water, and they were forced to relieve themselves in the fields or bushes. Ms. Soto explains that workers were often expected to maintain such a rapid working pace in adverse weather conditions that they often fainted and had bloody noses.

When asked whether the idea to honor César Chávez with a holiday is a good one, Ms. Soto did not hesitate to respond positively. "César Chávez deserves this honor. He dedicated his life to ease the suffering of his people, and that should always be remembered."

Although few people would disagree with Ms. Soto's opinion, the decision to celebrate César Chávez Day by having a few fiestas, parades and breakfasts and by giving state employees the day off has some people worried that those in charge have missed the point. Doug Adair, an Anglo agricultural worker who met Chávez before the strikes and who was himself a member of the union, doubts that the Chávez he knew would have approved of these celebrations.

"I was pleased that the state added something for the children [referring to the morning school hour that will be set aside for students to learn about Chávez and his legacy of nonviolence and social justice], but if we do not focus on community works projects, it is just one more paid public holiday for state workers. A lot of government agencies that could be serving farm workers will be closed," says Mr. Adair, who admits that due to some opposing viewpoints, there was some "tension" between himself and Chávez. Nevertheless, he claims that Chávez "profoundly influenced" his life.

"The Chávez of 1965 to 1970 would have been disgusted at the fawning politicians and prelates [high-ranking members of the clergy] using his name for their sound bites. Most Democrats turned their backs on the union in those days, and the Catholic Church hierarchy forbid priests to say mass with the union unless they had permission from the Bishop in Fresno. Cesar's priority was serving the poor, oppressed farmworkers," says Mr. Adair. When asked what could be done on March 31st that would be more appropriate to the purpose of the holiday, Chávez' hunger strikes come to mind. "Why don't people give up food for a day to see what it feels like not to eat? You could only eat what you were able to grow yourself, maybe that way everyone would realize that [agricultural workers] are the people that feed us."

Although Mr. Adair's hunger strike suggestion might increase awareness within the community, it along with the current holiday's celebrations will not directly improve the plight of the migrant farmworker. Mr. Adair's mention of the significance of community works projects, however, hits home. In order to truly understand Chávez' legacy, we must admit that there is still a great deal of work to do. Rather than simply recognizing Chávez' leadership abilities, we must continue the fight where he left off. Only by dedicating our efforts to improving the lives of the men and women who wrap our flowers into bunches, who pick our fruit and who plant and harvest our vegetables, will we truly honor his memory.

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