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Many people (especially those who don’t live in or near the agricultural promised lands of California) just dont understand what terrible living and working conditions immigrant farm-workers suffered under for so many years. Many of these laborers didn’t know there was an alternative. Many were happy to get this work, even at such a low wage as thirty-five cents an hour, and paid housing; a tent. That is until a man named Cesar Chavez came along. Chavez, by many, is considered the Moses of the West Coast migrant farm-workers. At the risk of personal safety, as well that of his family, Mr. Chavez fought the boss, as farm owners and supervisors–mostly white were known, and organized these suppressed workers under one name, the United Farm Workers Union; possibly the most well known union story of the twentieth century. So, how did it evolve? First, lets show the history of Cesar Chavez.
Chavez, a product of a depression era migrant childhood, knew what suffering was all about. He grew up in primarily in Arizona. His grandparents escaped the feudal hacienda system in Mexico; basically an indentured servant system, where the peons who were at the lowest rung of the countrys economic system and toiled all their lives for the lords of the large farms. In the late 1880s they fled this system and crossed the Rio Grande. His grandfather was able to get work in the mines in Arizona and saved enough money to buy a parcel of land. His father, Librado, was one of the Chavezs that stayed in Yuma, Arizona to raise his own family and take care of the family farm. The Chavez family prospered until the Great Crash of the stock market in 1929, and because Librado owed money on land that he bought, the land was bought out from under him by another farmer, who just also happened to own the bank where Librados loan was from.
The destruction of the family farm left an indelible mark on Cesar Chavez, this seems to have brought out his rebellious side. The family packed up what they had left and went to California, like many other migrants; to pick tomatoes, plums, melons, berries, grapes, cotton or whatever they could get paid pennies to pick. Everyone was needed to work to put food on the table; the children would catch bits of school in between the traveling. In the winter of 1939, Cesar and his family lived in a soggy tent, working to pick peas for pennies an hour. Migrant workers, during these times, were treated some of the worst in the history of this country. John Steinbeck, the author, branded the California elite as heartless saying No one complains at the necessity of feeding a horse when it is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands. I can go on for pages about how ill-treated these migrant farm workers were treated and some of the atrocities committed. However, I will now time-travel forward to Cesars actual work in getting these workers what they deserve.
After a stint in the Navy, Cesar saw that others suffered prejudice and discrimination also; black men and Filipinos could advance no further than the kitchen or paint crews, Mexican-Americans could go no further than deck hands, etc. The Navy even afforded him his first visit to a real doctor! His first, of many, brush with the law was after his discharge from the Navy, he went to a segregated movie theater and decided to sit in the white section; he was taken to jail but since they didn’t know what to charge him with, he was sternly lectured and released. Little did he know that this was his opening shot of what he considered his own personal battle for a Mexican-American civil rights movement.
It all started, in June 1952, when Cesar was recruited to become the leader of a movement to encourage Mexican-Americans to vote in local elections; something up to then that just wasnt done in San Jose, California. As an active member of the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group, Cesar was able to recognize and hone his organizational and leadership skills. This group extended all over California and began to link and unite the Mexican-Americans; one of its platforms included encouraging the women to become actively involved, and it worked. For ten years Cesar worked to make the CSO power to be dealt with all over California, and it was; the FBI had Cesar on its watch list, and interviewed him several times for subversion and accusing him of being communist. After ten years of this, Cesar decided he wanted to go back to his roots; pardon the pun. He decided he was more needed by the farm-workers he and his siblings had grown up with that were still being treated like animals and paid ridiculously low wages.
He started in Delano, California, where he talked with the workers about a new project: the National Farm Workers Association, a pilot project of the CSO. He envisioned this as a social movement rather than a traditional union–a crusade that would inspire farm workers. In Delano, there was a major strike; wanting the normal things–better pay living conditions, medical care, etc. This was considered a major strike and there were threats, pleas, and unfortunately, violence. However, Cesar felt this was all necessary to set the groundwork for future dealings with the farm owners, they needed to believe that the workers wouldn’t tolerate such ill-treatment any longer and that they were now organized and united. These same type events happened over and over again; different places, similar events, for the next 13 years; Delano, Stockton, Fresno, Salinas, Kern County, all up and down the valley.
Behind the scenes of these strikes, boycotts and violence, there were all kinds of wheelings and dealings going on. In 1964, the United Auto Workers (UAW) were donating funds to help the newly established UFW thrive; even Senator Robert Kennedy was making donations. In 1967 and in 1970, the Teamsters Union members made themselves available for employment during critical strike times by the UFW, despite non-raiding agreements between the two; this damaged some progress made by Chavez and his group, but not for long. During these sometimes hard times, key collective bargaining agreements with major employers were made; including health care, pension funds, work referrals, legal services, trained union stewards, and an effort to provide community development work.
The actual fight led by Cesar Chavez the farm workers endured mostly ends in 1974; Cesar Chavez stayed actively involved up to his death in 1993. His accomplishments included receiving the Martin Luther King Nonviolent Peace Award from Coretta Scott King in 1974. The last twenty years of his life were spent mostly fighting legal battles defending farm workers rights, including the rights of workers handling produce sprayed with pesticides and insecticides. He can actually be considered the Moses that brought down civil rights for the migrant farm worker.
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