In a 400 square mile area halfway between Selma and Weedpatch, California, a general strike of farm workers has been going on for six weeks. The Filipinos, under AWOC AFL-CIO began the strike for a $1.40 per hour guarantee and a union contract. They were joined by the independent Farm Workers Association which as a membership of several thousand Mexican-Americans.
Filipino, Mexican-American and Puerto Rican workers have been manning picket lines daily for 41 days in a totally non-violent manner. Ranchers in the area, which include DiGiorgio Fruit, Schenley, and many independent growers, did not take the strike seriously at first. By the second or third week, however, they began taking another look– and striking back. Mechanized agriculture began picketing the pickets — spraying them with sulfur, running tractors by them to create dust storms, building barricades of farm machinery so that scabs could not see the pickets. These actions not only increased the determination of the strikers, but convinced some of the scabs that the ranchers were, in fact, less than human. Scabs quit work and the strike grew.
The growers hired security guards for $43 a day. They began driving their Thunderbirds, equipped with policy dogs and rifles, up and down the roads. The people made more picket signs, drew in their belts, and kept marching.
Production was down 30% and the growers began looking for more and more scabs. They went to Fresno and Bakersfield and Los Angeles to find them. They didn’t tell the workers that they would be scab crews. The pickets followed them into every town and formed ad hoc strike committees to prevent scabbing. They succeeded in these towns. Within two weeks, only one bus, with half a dozen winos, escorted by a pearl gray Cadillac, drove into the strike zone. A new plan was formed. The ranchers would advertise in South Texas and old Mexico. They bring these workers in buses and the workers are held in debt to the rancher before they even arrive in town. We have a new and more difficult task ahead of us with these scabs.
As our strike has grown, workers have matured and now know why and how to fight for their rights. As the strike has grown into a movement for justice by the lowest paid workers in America, friends of farm workers have begun to rally in support of LA CAUSA. Civil rights, church, student and union groups help with food and money.
We believe that this is the beginning of a significant drive to achieve equal rights for agricultural workers. In order to enlist your full support and to explain our work to you, I would like to bring some of our pickets and meet with you.
VIVA LA CAUSA Y
VIVA LA HUELGA
The following article was prepared by Mr. Chavez during his 25-day “spiritual fast” and was presented to a meeting on Mexican-Americans and the Church at the Second Annual Mexican Conference in Sacramento, California on March 8-10, 1968.
The place to begin is with our own experience with the Church in the strike which has gone on for thirty-one months in Delano. For in Delano the church has been involved with the poor in a unique way which should stand as a symbol to other communities.
Of course, when we refer to the Church we should define the word a little. We mean the whole Church, the Church as an ecumenical body spread around the world, and not just its particular form in a parish in a local community. The Church we are talking about is a tremendously powerful institution in our society, and in the world.
That Church is one form of the Presence of God on Earth, and so naturally it is powerful.
It is powerful by definition.
It is a powerful moral and spiritual force which cannot be ignored by any movement.
Furthermore, it is an organization with tremendous wealth.
Since the Church is to be servant to the poor, it is our fault if that wealth is not channeled to help the poor in our world. In a small way we have been able, in the Delano strike, to work together with the Church in such a way as to bring some of its moral and economic power to bear on those who want to maintain the status quo, keeping farm workers in virtual enslavement.
In brief, here is what happened in Delano.
Some years ago, when some of us were working with the Community Service Organization, we began to realize the powerful effect which the Church can have on the conscience of the opposition. In scattered instances, in San Jose, Sacramento, Oakland, Los Angeles and other places, priests would speak out loudly and clearly against specific instances of oppression, and in some cases, stand with the people who were being hurt.
Furthermore, a small group of priests, Frs. McDonald, McCollough, Duggan and others, began to pinpoint attention on the terrible situation of the farm workers in our state.
At about that same time, we began to run into the California Migrant Ministry in the camps and field. They were about the only ones there, and a lot of us were very suspicious, since we were Catholics and they were Protestants. However, they had developed a very clear conception of the Church.
It was called to serve, to be at the mercy of the poor, and not to try to use them. After a while this made a lot of sense to us, and we began to find ourselves working side by side with them. In fact, it forced us to raise the question why OUR Church was not doing the same.
We would ask, “Why do the Protestants come out here and help the people, demand nothing, and give all their time to serving farm workers, while our own parish priests stay in their churches, where only a few people come, and usually feel uncomfortable?”
It was not until some of us moved to Delano and began working to build the National Farm Workers Association that we really saw how far removed from the people the parish Church was. In fact, we could not get any help at all from the priests of Delano. When the strike began, they told us we could not even use the Churches auditorium for the meetings. The farm workers money helped build that auditorium! But the Protestants were there again, in the form of the California Migrant Ministry, and they began to help in little ways, here and there.
When the strike started in 1965, most of our friends forsook us for a while. They ran- or were just too busy to help. But the California Migrant Ministry held a meeting with its staff and decided that the strike was a matter of life or death for farm workers everywhere, and that even if it meant the end of the Migrant Ministry they would turn over their resources to the strikers.
The political pressure on the Protestant Churches was tremendous and the Migrant Ministry lost a lot of money. But they stuck it out, and they began to point the way to the rest of the Church. In fact, when 30 of the strikers were arrested for shouting Huelga, 11 ministers went to jail with them.
They were in Delano that day at the request of Chris Hartmire, director of the California Migrant Ministry. Then the workers began to raise the question: “Why ministers? Why not priests? What does the Bishop say?”
But the Bishop said nothing.
But slowly the pressure of the people grew and grew, until finally we have in Delano a priest sent by the new Bishop, Timothy Manning, who is there to help minister to the needs of farm workers. His name is Father Mark Day and he is the Unions chaplain.
Finally, our own Catholic Church has decided to recognize that we have our one peculiar needs, just as the growers have theirs.
But outside of the local diocese, the pressure built up on growers to negotiate was tremendous. Though we were not allowed to have our own priest, the power of the ecumenical body of the Church was tremendous. The work of the Church, for example, in the Schenley, Di Giorgio, Perelly-Minetti strikes was fantastic. They applied pressure- and they mediated. When poor people get involved in a long conflict, such as a strike, or a civil rights drive, and the pressure increases each day, there is a deep need for spiritual advice. Without it we see families crumble, leadership weaken, and hard workers grow tired. And in such a situation the spiritual advice must be given by a friend, not by the opposition.
What sense does it make to go to Mass on Sunday and reach out for spiritual help, and instead get sermons about the wickedness of your cause? That only drives one to question and to despair. The growers in Delano have their spiritual problems… we do not deny that. They have every right to have priests and ministers who serve their needs.
BUT WE HAVE DIFFERENT NEEDS, AND SO WE NEEDED A FRIENDLY SPIRITUAL GUIDE.
And this is true in every community in this state where the poor face tremendous problems. But the opposition raises a tremendous howl about this. They don’t want us to have our spiritual advisors, friendly to our needs. Why is this? Why indeed except that THERE IS TREMENDOUS SPIRITUAL AND ECONOMIC POWER IN THE CHURCH. The rich know it, and for that reason they choose to keep it from the people.
The leadership of the Mexican-American Community must admit that we have fallen far short in our task of helping provide spiritual guidance for our people.
We may say, “I Don’t feel any such need. I can get along.” But that is a poor excuse for not helping provide such help for others. For we can also say, “I don’t need any welfare help. I can take care of my own problems.”
But we are all willing to fight like hell for welfare aid for those who truly need it, who would starve without it. Likewise, we may have gotten an education and not care about scholarship money for ourselves, or our children. But we would, we should, fight like hell to see to it that our state provides aid for any child needing it so that he can get the education he desires. LIKEWISE WE CAN SAY WE DON’T NEED THE CHURCH. THAT IS OUR BUSINESS. BUT THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF OUR PEOPLE WHO DESPERATELY NEED SOME HELP FROM THAT POWERFUL INSTITUTION, THE CHURCH, AND WE ARE FOOLISH NOT TO HELP THEM GET IT.
For example, the Catholic Charities agencies of the Catholic Church has millions of dollars earmarked for the poor. But often the money is spent for food baskets for the needy instead of for effective action to eradicate the causes of poverty.
The men and women who administer this money sincerely want to help their brothers. It should be our duty to help direct the attention to the basic needs of the Mexican-Americans in our society… needs which cannot be satisfied with baskets of food, but rather with effective organizing at the grass roots level. Therefore, I am calling for Mexican-American groups to stop ignoring this source of power. It is not just our right to appeal to the Church to use its power effectively for the poor, it is our duty to do so. It should be as natural as appealing to government… and we do that often enough.
Furthermore, we should be prepared to come to the defense of that priest, rabbi, minister, or layman of the Church, who out of commitment to truth and justice gets into a tight place with his pastor or bishop. It behooves us to stand with that man and help him see his trial through. It is our duty to see to it that his rights of conscience are respected and that no bishop, pastor or other higher body takes that God-given, human right away.
Finally, in a nutshell, what do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches of fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.
In honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory we also acknowledge non-violence as a truly powerful weapon to achieve equality and liberation, in fact, the only weapon that Christians who struggle for social change can claim as their own.
Dr. King’s entire life was an example of power that nonviolence brings to bear in the real world. It is an example that inspired much of the philosophy and strategy of the farm workers’ movement. This observance of Dr. King’s death gives us the best possible opportunity to recall the principles with which our struggle has grown and matured.
Our conviction is that human life is a very special possession given by God to man and that no one has the right to take it for any reason or for any cause, however just it may be.
We are also convinced that nonviolence is more powerful than violence. Nonviolence supports you if you have a just and moral cause. Nonviolence provides the opportunity to stay on the offensive, and that is of crucial importance to win any contest.
If we resort to violence then one of two things will happen: either the violence will be escalated and there will be many injuries and perhaps deaths on both sides, or there will be total demoralization of the workers.
Nonviolence has exactly the opposite effect. If, for every violent act committed against us, we respond with nonviolence, we attract people’s support. We can gather the support of millions who have a conscience and would rather see a nonviolent resolution to problems. We are convinced that when people are faced with a direct appeal from the poor struggling nonviolently against great odds, they will react positively. The American people and people everywhere still yearn for justice. It is to that yearning that we appeal.
But if we are committed to nonviolence only as a strategy or tactic, then if it fails our only alternative is to turn to violence. So we must balance the strategy with a clear understanding of what we are doing. However important the struggle is and however much misery, poverty and exploitation exist, we know that it cannot be more important than one human life. We work on the theory that men and women who are truly concerned about people are nonviolent by nature. These people become violent when the deep concern they have for people is frustrated and when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.
We advocate militant nonviolence as our means of achieving justice for our people, but we are not blind to the feelings of frustration, impatience and anger which seethe inside every farm worker. The burdens of generations of poverty and powerlessness lie heavy in the fields of America. If we fail, there are those who will see violence as the shortcut to change.
It is precisely to overcome these frustrations that we have involved masses of people in their own struggle throughout the movement. Freedom is best experienced through participation and self-determination, and free men and women instinctively prefer democratic change to any other means.
Thus, demonstrations and marches, strikes and boycotts are not only weapons against the growers, but our way of avoiding the senseless violence that brings no honor to any class or community. The boycott, as Gandhi taught, is the most nearly perfect instrument of nonviolent change, allowing masses of people to participate actively in a cause.
When victory comes through violence, it is a victory with strings attached. If we beat the growers at the expense of violence, victory would come at the expense of injury and perhaps death. Such a thing would have a tremendous impact on us. We would lose regard for human beings. Then the struggle would become a mechanical thing. When you lose your sense of life and justice, you lose your strength.
The greater the oppression, the more leverage nonviolence holds. Violence does not work in the long run and if it is temporarily successful, it replaces one violent form of power with another just as violent. People suffer from violence.
Examine history. Who gets killed in the case of violent revolution? The poor, the workers. The people of the land are the ones who give their bodies and don’t really gain that much for it. We believe it is too big a price to pay for not getting anything. Those who espouse violence exploit people. To call men to arms with many promises, to ask them to give up their lives for a cause and then not produce for them afterwards, is the most vicious type of oppression.
We know that most likely we are not going to do anything else the rest of our lives except build our union. For us there is nowhere else to go. Although we would like to see victory come soon, we are willing to wait. In this sense, time is our ally. We learned many years ago that the rich may have money, but the poor have time.
It has been our experience that few men or women ever have the opportunity to know the true satisfaction that comes with giving one’s life totally in the nonviolent struggle for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of these unique servants and from him we learned many of the lessons that have guided us. For these lessons and for his sacrifice for the poor and oppressed, Dr. King’s memory will be cherished in the hearts of the farm workers forever.
February 10, 1979 was a day of infamy for farm workers. It was a day without joy. The sun didn’t shine. The birds didn’t sing. The rain didn’t fall.
Why was this such a day of evil? Because on this day greed and injustice struck down our brother Rufino Contreras.
What is the worth of a man? What is the worth of a farm worker? Rufino, his father and brother together gave the company 20 years of their labor. They were faithful workers who helped build up the wealth of their boss, helped build up the wealth of his ranch.
What was their reward for their service and their sacrifice? When they petitioned for a more just share of what they themselves produced, when they spoke out against the injustice they endured, the company answered them with bullets; the company sent hired guns to quiet Rufino Contreras.
Capital and labor together produce the fruit of the land. But what really counts is labor: the human beings who torture their bodies, sacrifice their youth and numb their spirits to produce this great agricultural wealth—a wealth so vast that it feeds all of America and much of the world. And yet the men. women and children who are the flesh and blood of this production often do not have enough to feed themselves.
But we are here today to say that true wealth is not measured in money or status or power. It is measured in the legacy that we leave behind for those we love and those we inspire.
In that sense, Rufino is not dead. Wherever farm workers organize, stand up for their rights and strike for justice, Rufino Contreras is with them.
Rufino lives among us. It is those who have killed him and those who have conspired to kill him that have died; because the love, the compassion, the light in their hearts have been stilled.
Why do we say that Rufino still lives? Because those of us who mourn him today and bring him to his rest rededicate ourselves to the ideals for which he gave his life. Rufino built a union that will someday bring justice to all farm workers.
If Rufino were alive today, what would he tell us? He would tell us, ‘don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged.’ He would tell us, ‘don’t cry for me, organize!’
This is a day of sorrow, but it is also a day of hope. It is a time of sadness because our friend and brother is dead. It is a time of hope because we are certain that Rufino today enjoys the justice in heaven that was denied him on earth.
It is our mission to finish the work Rufino has begun among us, knowing that true justice for ourselves and our opponents is only possible before God, who is the final judge.
Twenty-one years ago last September, on a lonely stretch of railroad track paralleling U.S. Highway 101 near Salinas, 32 Bracero farm workers lost their lives in a tragic accident.
The Braceros had been imported from Mexico to work on California farms. They died when their bus, which was converted from a flatbed truck, drove in front of a freight train.
Conversion of the bus had not been approved by any government agency. The driver had “tunnel” vision.
Most of the bodies lay unidentified for days. No one, including the grower who employed the workers, even knew their names.
Today, thousands of farm workers live under savage conditions–beneath trees and amid garbage and human excrement–near tomatoe fields in San Diego County, tomatoe fields which use the most modern farm technology.
Vicious rats gnaw on them as they sleep. They walk miles to buy food at inflated prices. And they carry in water from irrigation pumps.
Child labor is still common in many farm areas.
As much as 30 percent of Northern California’s garlic harvesters are under-aged children. Kids as young as six years old have voted in state-conducted union elections since they qualified as workers.
Some 800,000 under-aged children work with their families harvesting crops across America. Babies born to migrant workers suffer 25 percent higher infant mortality than the rest of the population.
Malnutrition among migrant worker children is 10 times higher than the national rate.
Farm workers’ average life expectancy is still 49 years –compared to 73 years for the average American.
All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings.
Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden–to be used and discarded.
That dream was born in my youth. It was nurtured in my early days of organizing. It has flourished. It has been attacked.
I’m not very different from anyone else who has ever tried to accomplish something with his life. My motivation comes from my personal life–from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up; from what we experienced as migrant farm workers in California.
That dream, that vision, grew from my own experience with racism, with hope, with the desire to be treated fairly and to see my people treated as human beings and not as chattel.
It grew from anger and rage–emotions I felt 40 years ago when people of my color were denied the right to see a movie or eat at a restuarant in many parts of California.
It grew from the frustration and humiliation I felt as a boy who couldn’t understand how the growers could abuse and exploit farm workers when there were so many of us and so few of them.
Later, in the ’50s, I experienced a different kind of exploitation. In San Jose, in Los Angeles and in other urban communities, we–the Mexican American people–were dominated by a majority that was Anglo.
I began to realize what other minority people had discovered: That the only answer–the only hope–was in organizing. More of us had to become citizens. We had to register to vote. And people like me had to develop the skills it would take to organize, to educate, to help empower the Chicano people.
I spent many years–before we founded the union–learning how to work with people.
We experienced some successes in voter registration, in politics, in battling racial discrimination–successes in an era when Black Americans were just beginning to assert their civil rights and when political awareness among Hispanics was almost non-existent.
But deep in my heart, I knew I could never be happy unless I tried organizing the farm workers. I didn’t know if I would succeed. But I had to try.
All Hispanics–urban and rural, young and old–are connected to the farm workers’ experience. We had all lived through the fields–or our parents had. We shared that common humiliation.
How could we progress as a people, even if we lived in the cities, while the farm workers–men and women of our color–were condemned to a life without pride?
How could we progress as a people while the farm workers–who symbolized our history in this land–were denied self-respect?
How could our people believe that their children could become lawyers and doctors and judges and business people while this shame, this injustice was permitted to continue?
Those who attack our union often say, ‘It’s not really a union. It’s something else: A social movement. A civil rights movement. It’s something dangerous.’
They’re half right. The United Farm Workers is first and foremost a union. A union like any other. A union that either produces for its members on the bread and butter issues or doesn’t survive.
But the UFW has always been something more than a union –although it’s never been dangerous if you believe in the Bill of Rights.
The UFW was the beginning! We attacked that historical source of shame and infamy that our people in this country lived with. We attacked that injustice, not by complaining; not by seeking hand-outs; not by becoming soldiers in the War on Poverty.
Farm workers acknowledged we had allowed ourselves to become victims in a democratic society–a society where majority rule and collective bargaining are supposed to be more than academic theories or political rhetoric. And by addressing this historical problem, we created confidence and pride and hope in an entire people’s ability to create the future.
The UFW’s survival–its existence-was not in doubt in my mind when the time began to come–after the union became visible–when Chicanos started entering college in greater numbers, when Hispanics began running for public office in greater numbers–when our people started asserting their rights on a broad range of issues and in many communities across the country.
The union’s survival–its very existence–sent out a signal to all Hispanics that we were fighting for our dignity, that we were challenging and overcoming injustice, that we were empowering the least educated among us–the poorest among us.
The message was clear: If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere– in the cities, in the courts, in the city councils, in the state legislatures.
I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but the coming of our union signaled the start of great changes among Hispanics that are only now beginning to be seen.
I’ve travelled to every part of this nation. I have met and spoken with thousands of Hispanics from every walk of life–from every social and economic class.
One thing I hear most often from Hispanics, regardless of age or position–and from many non-Hispanics as well–is that the farm workers gave them hope that they could succeed and the inspiration to work for change.
From time to time you will hear our opponents declare that the union is weak, that the union has no support, that the union has not grown fast enough. Our obituary has been written many times.
How ironic it is that the same forces which argue so passionately that the union is not influential are the same forces that continue to fight us so hard.
The union’s power in agriculture has nothing to do with the number of farm workers under union contract. It has nothing to do with the farm workers’ ability to contribute to Democratic politicians. It doesn’t even have much to do with our ability to conduct successful boycotts.
The very fact of our existence forces an entire industry –unionized and non-unionized–to spend millions of dollars year after year on improved wages, on improved working conditions, on benefits for workers.
If we’re so weak and unsuccessful, why do the growers continue to fight us with such passion?
Because so long as we continue to exist, farm workers will benefit from our existence–even if they don’t work under union contract.
It doesn’t really matter whether we have 100,000 members or 500,000 members. In truth, hundreds of thousands of farm workers in Calfiornia–and in other states–are better off today because of our work.
And Hispanics across California and the nation who don’t work in agriculture are better off today because of what the farm workers taught people about organization, about pride and strength, about seizing control over their own lives.
Tens of thousands of the children and grandchildren of farm workers and the children and grandchildren of poor Hispanics are moving out of the fields and out of the barrios–and into the professions and into business and into politics. And that movement cannot be reversed!
Our union will forever exist as an empowering force among Chicanos in the Southwest. And that means our power and our influence will grow and not diminish.
Two major trends give us hope and encouragement.
First, our union has returned to a tried and tested weapon in the farm workers’ non-violent arsenal–the boycott!
After the Agricultural Labor Relations Act became law in California in 1975, we dismantled our boycott to work with the law.
During the early- and mid-’70s, millions of Americans supported our boycotts. After 1975, we redirected our efforts from the boycott to organizing and winning elections under the law.
The law helped farm workers make progress in overcoming poverty and injustice. At companies where farm workers are protected by union contracts, we have made progress in overcoming child labor, in overcoming miserable wages and working conditions, in overcoming sexual harassment of women workers, in overcoming dangerous pesticides which poison our people and poison the food we all eat.
Where we have organized, these injustices soon pass into history.
But under Republican Governor George Deukmejian, the law that guarantees our right to organize no longer protects farm workers. It doesn’t work anymore.
In 1982, corporate growers gave Deukmejian one million dollars to run for governor of California. Since he took office, Deukmejian has paid back his debt to the growers with the blood and sweat of California farm workers.
Instead of enforcing the law as it was written against those who break it, Deukmejian invites growers who break the law to seek relief from the governor’s appointees.
What does all this mean for farm workers?
It means that the right to vote in free elections is a sham. It means that the right to talk freely about the union among your fellow workers on the job is a cruel hoax. It means the right to be free from threats and intimidation by growers is an empty promise.
It means the right to sit down and negotiate with your employer as equals across the bargaining table–and not as peons in the field — is a fraud. It means that thousands of farm workers–who are owed millions of dollars in back pay because their employers broke the law–are still waiting for their checks.
It means that 36,000 farm workers–who voted to be represented by the United Farm Workers in free elections–are still waiting for contracts from growers who refuse to bargain in good faith.
It means that, for farm workers, child labor will continue. It means that infant mortality will continue. It means malnutrition among our children will continue. It means the short life expectancy and the inhuman living and working conditions will continue.
Are these make-believe threats? Are they exaggerations?
Ask the farm workers who are still waiting for growers to bargain in good faith and sign contracts. Ask the farm workers who’ve been fired from their jobs because they spoke out for the union. Ask the farm workers who’ve been threatened with physical violence because they support the UFW.
Ask the family of Rene Lopez, the young farm worker from Fresno who was shot to death last year because he supported the union.
These tragic events forced farm workers to declare a new international boycott of California table grapes. That’s why we are asking Americans once again to join the farm workers by boycotting California grapes.
The Louis Harris poll revealed that 17 million American adults boycotted grapes. We are convinced that those people and that good will have not disappeared.
That segment of the population which makes our boycotts work are the Hispanics, the Blacks, the other minorities and our allies in labor and the church. But it is also an entire generation of young Americans who matured politically and socially in the 1960s and ’70s–millions of people for whom boycotting grapes and other products became a socially accepted pattern of behavior.
If you were young, Anglo and on or near campus during the late ’60s and early ’70s, chances are you supported farm workers.
Fifteen years later, the men and women of that generation of are alive and well. They are in their mid-30s and ’40s. They are pursuing professional careers. Their disposable income is relatively high. But they are still inclined to respond to an appeal from farm workers. The union’s mission still has meaning for them.
Only today we must translate the importance of a union for farm workers into the language of the 1980s. Instead of talking about the right to organize, we must talk about protection against sexual harasasment in the fields. We must speak about the right to quality food–and food that is safe to eat.
I can tell you that the new language is working; the 17 million are still there. They are resonding–not to picketlines and leafletting alone, but to the high-tech boycott of today–a boycott that uses computers and direct mail and advertising techniques which have revolutionized business and politics in recent years.
We have achieved more success with the boycott in the first 11 months of 1984 that we achieved in the 14 years since 1970.
The other trend that gives us hope is the monumental growth of Hispanic influence in this country and what that means in increased population, increased social and economic clout, and increased political influence.
South of the Sacramento River in California, Hispanics now make up more than 25 percent of the population. That figure will top 30 percent by the year 2000.
There are 1.1 million Spanish-surnamed registered voters in California; 85 percent are Democrats; only 13 percent are Republicans.
In 1975, there were 200 Hispanic elected officials at all levels of government. In 1984, there are over 400 elected judges, city council members, mayors and legislators.
In light of these trends, it is absurd to believe or suggest that we are going to go back in time–as a union or as a people!
The growers often try to blame the union for their problems–to lay their sins off on us–sins for which they only have themselves to blame.
The growers only have themselves to blame as they begin to reap the harvest from decades of environmental damage they have brought upon the land–the pesticides, the herbicides, the soil fumigants, the fertilizers, the salt deposits from thoughtless irrigation–the ravages from years of unrestrained poisoning of our soil and water.
Thousands of acres of land in California have already been irrevocably damaged by this wanton abuse of nature. Thousands more will be lost unless growers understand that dumping more poisons on the soil won’t solve their problems–on the short term or the long term.
Health authorities in many San Joaquin Valley towns already warn young children and pregnant women not to drink the water because of nitrates from fertilizers which have contaminated the groundwater.
The growers only have themselves to blame for an increasing demand by consumers for higher quality food–food that isn’t tainted by toxics; food that doesn’t result from plant mutations or chemicals which produce red, lucious-looking tomatoes–that taste like alfalfa.
The growers are making the same mistake American automakers made in the ’60s and ’70s when they refused to produce small economical cars–and opened the door to increased foreign competition.
Growers only have themselves to blame for increasing attacks on their publicly-financed hand-outs and government welfare: Water subsidies; mechanization research; huge subsidies for not growing crops.
These special privileges came into being before the Supreme Court’s one-person, one-vote decision–at a time when rural lawmakers dominated the Legislature and the Congress. Soon, those hand-outs could be in jeopardy as government searches for more revenue and as urban taxpayers take a closer look at farm programs–and who they really benefit.
The growers only have themselves to blame for the humiliation they have brought upon succeeding waves of immigrant groups which have sweated and sacrificed for 100 years to make this industry rich. For generations, they have subjugated entire races of dark-skinned farm workers.
These are the sins of the growers, not the farm workers. We didn’t poison the land. We didn’t open the door to imported produce. We didn’t covet billions of dollars in government hand-outs. We didn’t abuse and exploit the people who work the land.
Today, the growers are like a punch-drunk old boxer who doesn’t know he’s past his prime. The times are changing. The political and social environment has changed. The chickens are coming home to roost–and the time to account for past sins is approaching.
I am told, these days, why farm workers should be discouraged and pessimistic: The Republicans control the governor’s office and the White House. They say there is a conservative trend in the nation.
Yet we are filled with hope and encouragement. We have looked into the future and the future is ours!
History and inevitability are on our side. The farm workers and their children–and the Hispanics and their children–are the future in California. And corporate growers are the past!
Those politicians who ally themselves with the corporate growers and against the farm workers and the Hispanics are in for a big surprise. They want to make their careers in politics. They want to hold power 20 and 30 years from now.
But 20 and 30 years from now–in Modesto, in Salinas, in Fresno, in Bakersfield, in the Imperial Valley, and in many of the great cities of California–those communities will be dominated by farm workers and not by growers, by the children and randchildren of farm workers and not by the children and grandchildren of growers.
These trends are part of the forces of history that cannot be stopped. No person and no organization can resist them for very long. They are inevitable.
Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.
You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.
Our opponents must understand that it’s not just a union we have built. Unions, like other institutions, can come and go.
But we’re more than an institution. For nearly 20 years, our union has been on the cutting edge of a people’s cause–and you cannot do away with an entire people; you cannot stamp out a people’s cause.
Regardless of what the future holds for the union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishments cannot be undone. “La Causa”–our cause–doesn’t have to be experienced twice.
The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm!
Like the other immigrant groups, the day will come when we win the economic and political rewards which are in keeping with our numbers in society. The day will come when the politicians do the right thing by our people out of political necessity and not out of charity or idealism.
That day may not come this year. That day may not come during this decade. But it will come, someday!
And when that day comes, we shall see the fulfillment of that passage from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, “That the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
And on that day, our nation shall fulfill its creed–and that fulfillment shall enrich us all.
Thank you very much.
What is the worth of a man or a woman? What is the worth of a farm worker? How do you measure the value of a life?
Ask the parents of Johnnie Rodriguez.
Johnnie Rodriguez was not even a man; Johnnie was a five year old boy when he died after a painful two year battle against cancer.
His parents, Juan and Elia, are farm workers. Like all grape workers, they are exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Elia worked in the table grapes around Delano, California until she was eight months pregnant with Johnnie.
Juan and Elia cannot say for certain if pesticides caused their son’s cancer. But neuroblastoma is one of the cancers found in McFarland, a small farm town only a few miles from Delano, where the Rodriguezes live.
“Pesticides are always in the fields and around the towns,” Johnnie’s father told us. “The children get the chemicals when they play outside, drink the water or when they hug you after you come home from working in fields that are sprayed.
“Once your son has cancer, it’s pretty hard to take,” Juan Rodriguez says. “You hope it’s a mistake, you pray. He was a real nice boy. He took it strong and lived as long as he could.”
I keep a picture of Johnnie Rodriguez. He is sitting on his bed, hugging his Teddy bears. His sad eyes and cherubic face stare out at you. The photo was taken four days before he died.
Johnnie Rodriguez was one of 13 McFarland children diagnosed with cancer in recent years; and one of six who have died from the disease. With only 6,000 residents, the rate of cancer in McFarland is 400 percent above normal.
In McFarland and in Fowler childhood cancer cases are being reported in excess of expected rates. In Delano and other farming towns, questions are also being raised.
The chief source of carcinogens in these communities are pesticides from the vineyards and fields that encircle them. Health experts believe the high rate of cancer in McFarland is from pesticides and nitrate-containing fertilizers leaching into the water system from surrounding fields.
Last year California’s Republican Governor, George Deukmejian, killed a modest study to find out why so many children are dying of cancer in McFarland. “Fiscal integrity” was the reason he gave for his veto of the $125,000 program, which could have helped 84 other rural communities with drinking water problems.
Last year, as support for our cause grew, Governor Deukmejian used a statewide radio broadcast to attack the grape boycott.
There is no evidence to prove that pesticides on grapes and other produce endanger farm workers or consumers, Deukmejian claimed.
Ask the family of Felipe Franco.
Felipe is a bright seven year old who is learning to read and write.
Like other children, Felipe will some day need to be independent. But Felipe is not like other children: he was born without arms and legs.
Felipe’s mother, Ramona, worked in the grapes near Delano until she was in her eighth month of pregnancy. She was exposed to Captan, known to cause birth defects and one of the pesticides our grape boycott seeks to ban.
“Every morning when I began working I could smell and see pesticides on the grape leaves,” Ramona said.
Like many farm workers, she was assured by growers and their foremen how the pesticides that surrounded her were safe, that they were harmless “medicine” for the plants.
Only after Ramona took her son to specialists in Los Angeles was she told that the pesticides she was exposed to in the vineyards caused Felipe’s deformity. The deep sadness she feels has subsided, but not the anger.
Felipe feels neither anger nor sadness. He is lavished with the care and love he will always need. And he dreams of what only a child can hope for: Felipe wants to grow arms and legs. “He believes he will have his limbs someday,” his mother says. “His great dream is to be able to move around, to walk, to take care of himself.”
Our critics sometimes ask, ‘why should the United Farm Workers worry about pesticides when farm workers have so many other more obvious problems?’
The wealth and plenty of California agribusiness are built atop the suffering of generations of California farm workers. Farm labor history across America is one shameful tale after another of hardship and exploitation.
Malnutrition among migrant children. Tuberculosis, pneumonia and respiratory infections. Average life expectancy more than twenty years below the U.S. norm.
Savage living conditions. Miserable wages and working conditions. Sexual harassment of women workers. Widespread child labor. Inferior schools or no school at all.
When farm workers organize against these injustices they are met with brutality and coercion-and death.
Under Governor Deukmejian’s control, California’s pioneering 1975 law which guarantees farm workers the right to organize and vote in secret ballot union elections is now just one more tool growers use to oppress our people.
Thousands who thought the law protected them were threatened and fired and beaten by the growers; two were murdered-shot to death by gunmen their employers had hired.
For 100 years succeeding waves of immigrants have sweated and sacrificed to make this industry rich. And for their sweat and for their sacrifice, farm workers have been repaid with humiliation and contempt.
With all these problems, why, then, do we dwell so on the perils of pesticides?
Because there is something even more important to farm workers than the benefits unionization brings.
Because there is something more important to the farm workers’ union than winning better wages and working conditions.
That is protecting farm workers-and consumers-from systematic poisoning through the reckless use of agricultural toxics.
There is nothing we care more about than the lives and safety of our families.
There is nothing we share more deeply in common with the consumers of North America than the safety of the food all of us reply upon.
We are proud to be a part of the House of Labor.
Collective bargaining is the traditional way American workers have escaped poverty and improved their standard of living. It is the way farm workers will also empower themselves.
But the U.F.W. has always had to be something more than a union.
Because our people are so poor. Because the color of our skin is dark. Because we often don’t speak the language. Because the discrimination, the racism and the social dilemmas we confront transcend mere economic need.
What good does it do to achieve the blessings of collective bargaining and make economic progress for people when their health is destroyed in the process?
If we ignored pesticide poisoning-if we looked on as farm workers and their children are stricken-then all the other injustices our people face would be compounded by an even more deadly tyranny.
But ignore that final injustice is what our opponents would have us do.
‘Don’t worry,’ the growers say.
‘The U.F.W. misleads the public about dangers pesticides pose to farm workers,’ the Table Grape Commission says. ‘Governor Deukmejian’s pesticide safety system protects workers,’ the Farm Bureau proclaims.
Ask the family of Juan Chabolla.
Juan Chabolla collapsed after working in a field sprayed only an hour before with Monitor, a deadly pesticide.
But instead of rushing Juan to a nearby hospital, the grower drove him 45 miles across the U.S.-Mexico border and left him in a Tijuana clinic. He was dead on arrival.
Juan, 32, left his wife and four young children in their impoverished clapboard shack in Maneadero, Mexico.
Just after Juan Chabolla died, Governor Deukmejian vetoed a modest bill, strongly opposed by agribusiness, that would have required growers to post warning signs in fields where dangerous pesticides are applied.
One billion pounds of pesticides are applied each year in the United States-79 percent of them in agriculture; 250 million pounds go on crops in California; in 1986, 10 million pounds went on grapes.
And that 10 million pounds on grapes only covers restricted use pesticides, where permits are required and use is reported. Many other potentially dangerous chemicals are used that don’t have to be disclosed.
Grapes is the largest fruit crop in California. It receives more restricted use pesticides than any fresh food crop.
About one-third of grape pesticides are known carcinogens-like the chemicals that may have afflicted Johnnie Rodriguez; others are teratogens-birth defect-producing pesticides-that doctors think deformed Felipe Franco.
Pesticides cause acute poisoning-of the kind that killed Juan Chabolla-and chronic, long-term effects such as we’re seeing in communities like McFarland.
More than half of all acute pesticide-related illnesses reported in California involve grape production.
In 1987 and ’88, entire crews of grape workers-hundreds of people-were poisoned after entering vineyards containing toxic residues.
In all those episodes, the grapes had been sprayed weeks before. All the legal requirements were followed. The vineyards were thought to be “safe.”
But farm workers were still poisoned.
Illegal use of pesticides is also commonplace.
Grape growers have been illegally using Fixx, a growth enhancer, for 20 years. Another illegal pesticide, Acephate, which causes tumors, has also been used on grapes.
Over 2,000 consumers were poisoned in 1984 after eating watermelons illegally sprayed with Aldicarb.
And these are only cases where growers were caught applying illegal chemicals.
Farm workers and their families are exposed to pesticides from the crops they work. The soil the crops are grown in. Drift from sprays applied to adjoining fields-and often to the very field where they are working.
The fields that surround their homes are heavily and repeatedly sprayed. Pesticides pollute irrigation water and groundwater.
Children are still a big part of the labor force. Or they are taken to the fields by their parents because there is no child care.
Pregnant women labor in the fields to help support their families. Toxic exposure begins at a very young age-often in the womb.
What does acute pesticide poisoning produce?
Eye and respiratory irritations. Skin rashes. Systemic poisoning. Death.
What are the chronic effects of pesticide poisoning on people, including farm workers and their children, according to scientific studies?
Birth defects. Sterility. Still births. Miscarriages. Neurological and neuropsychological effects. Effects on child growth and development. Cancer.
Use of pesticides are governed by strict laws, agribusiness says. Growers argue reported poisonings involved only one (1) percent of California farm workers in 1986.
But experts estimate that only one (1) percent of California pesticide illness or injury is reported. The underreporting of pesticide poisoning is flagrant and it is epidemic.
A World Resources Institute study says 300,000 farm workers are poisoned each year by pesticides in the United States.
Even the state Department of Food and Agriculture reported total pesticide poisoning of farm workers rose by 41 percent in 1987.
Yet the Farm Workers aren’t sincere when we raise the pesticide issue, grape growers complain.
They won’t admit that the first ban on DDT, Aldrin and Dieldrin in the United States was not by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972, but in a United Farm Workers contract with a grape grower in 1967.
Who will protect farm workers from poisoning if it isn’t the farm workers’ union?
The Environmental Protection Agency won’t do it.
They’re in bed with the same agricultural and chemical interests they are supposed to regulate.
It was an accident of history that E.P.A. got stuck with regulating pesticides. It happened after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration-which is supposed to safeguard all American working people-refused to protect farm workers.
The law won’t do it.
Agribusiness lobbied mightily to exclude farm workers from federal job safety and health laws. And they won.
You think the National Rifle Association wields a powerful lobby? They’re pussy cats compared to organizations that lobby for agribusiness when it comes to protecting their interests.
Too many people still think of small family farmers-an image corporate agribusiness likes to promote. The American Medical Association tries to do the same thing; except most people don’t believe doctors still make house calls. But we all know what farming is today in states like
California: a $14 billion a year industry dominated by huge corporations-the state’s richest industry.
There has never been a law at the state or national levels that has ever been enforced for farm workers and against growers: child labor, minimum wage and hour, occupational health and safety, agricultural labor relations.
Now will agribusiness protect farm workers from pesticides?
The agrichemical industry won’t do it.
It’s out to maximize profits. Using smaller amounts of safer chemicals more wisely is not in the interest of chemical companies and agribusiness groups like the Farm Bureau that have heavy financial stakes in maintaining pesticide use.
There is nothing is wrong with pesticides, they claim; the blame rests with abuse and misuse of pesticides.
It’s like the N.R.A. saying, ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’
Universities won’t do it.
America’s colleges and universities are the best research facilities in the world. But farm workers are of the wrong color; they don’t speak the right language; and they’re poor.
The University of California, and other land grant colleges spend millions of dollars developing agricultural mechanization and farm chemicals. Although we’re all affected in the end, researchers won’t deal with the inherent toxicity or chronic effects of their creations.
Protecting farm workers and consumers is not their concern.
Doctors won’t do it.
Most physicians farm workers see won’t even admit their patients’ problems are caused by pesticides. They usually blame symptoms on skin rashes and heat stroke.
Doctors don’t know much about pesticides; the signs and symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning are similar to other illnesses.
Doctors who work for growers or physicians with close ties to rural communities won’t take a stand.
Two years ago in Tulare County, California 120 orange grove workers at LaBue ranch suffered the largest skin poisoning every reported. The grower had changed the formulation of a pesticide, Omite CR, to make it stick to the leaves better. It did.
It also stuck better to the workers. Later they discovered the reentry delay had to be extended from seven to 42 days.
After the poisoning, the company doctor said workers should just change clothes and return to work. When we demanded the workers be removed from exposure, the doctor replied, “Do you know how much that would cost?”
Workers endure skin irritations and rashes that none of us would tolerate. They continue to work because they desperately need the money. They don’t complain out of fear of losing their jobs.
Farm workers aren’t told when pesticides are used. They have no health insurance. They are cheated out of workers compensation benefits by disappearing labor contractors or foremen who intimidate people into not filing claims.
In the old days, miners would carry birds with them to warn against poison gas. Hopefully, the birds would die before the miners.
Farm workers are society’s canaries.
Farm workers-and their children-demonstrate the effects of pesticide poisoning before anyone else.
But the unrestrained use of agricultural chemicals is like playing Russian Roulette with the health of both farm workers and consumers. So much of so many pesticides are used and so little is known about them.
There are 600 active ingredient pesticides used in agriculture; they to into thousands of pesticide products.
Of the 600 farm pesticides, 496 can leave residues on or in food.
Only 316 of the 496 pesticides that leave residues on food have maximum legal tolerance levels set by the E.P.A. saying how much of these pesticides can be in what we eat.
Of the 316 pesticides with tolerance levels, only 41 percent can be detected by the most common and widely used tests.
Two hundred and ninety-three (293) pesticides that could leave residues on food cannot be detected by any current test that checks for more than one chemical at a time. Many can’t be detected by any test at all.
Forty-four (44) percent of the pesticides used on grapes that pose potential health hazards to humans can’t be detected by tests used to check for toxic residues.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that pesticides in 15 commonly eaten foods, including grapes, pose the greatest pesticide-caused dietary cancer risk to people.
Many pesticides used on food-that have government tolerance levels-can cause cancer in human beings.
Almost all tolerance levels of pesticides in food were set by the federal government without adequate testing for potential harmful health effects on consumers.
Some safety studies on these pesticides were conducted by an Illinois laboratory that was closed after it was found to be reporting fraudulent data to the E.P.A. Two of its toxicologists are in jail.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that it will take E.P.A. until well into the 21st century to ensure all pesticides now on the market meet current health and safety standards.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration takes an average of 18 days to test food for pesticide residues. Before test results are available, the food has been marketed and consumed.
Most pesticides were approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1940s and ’50s. Little or no testing for chronic health effects was required.
Not long ago the Delaney Amendment, passed by Congress, banned any food additive known to cause cancer in animals or humans. That ban applies to everything-except farm pesticides.
The agrichemical industry convinced Congress that pesticides which cause cancer are not really food additives since they are added to food before it is harvested.
In 1978, E.P.A. allowed new chemicals to be registered conditionally without complete testing for chronic health effects. Testing on half of all new pesticides registered between 1978 and 1984 did not meet current health and safety testing standards.
All this means that we do not know if pesticide residues on the food you buy in supermarkets cause cancer, birth defects, and other tragedies.
And E.P.A.-charged with protecting America’s land and people from toxic contamination-has made no effort to encourage the use of safer alternatives to toxic pesticides.
The chemical companies have convinced the growers-and they want you to believe-that if it wasn’t for them, the whole world would be dead of malaria and starvation.
But, brothers and sisters, pesticides haven’t worked.
Crop loss to pests is as great or greater than it was 40 years ago. The pesticides haven’t changed anything.
Because Darwinian evolution has favored pests of all kinds with this enormous ability to resist and survive.
It’s why antibiotics stop working after awhile. If you don’t kill everything, the organisms that survive are tougher and more resistant; and they’re the ones that breed.
There are mosquitos in parts of the world that can survive any combination of pesticides delivered in any dose. There is a startling resurgence of malaria around the world. And it’s much worse now because 40 years ago we relied entirely on a chemical solution.
So we ignored alternatives: draining ponds, dredging ditches, observing sound crop practices, encouraging use of natural predators.
In the long run, more lives will be lost because for 30 years we also stopped developing malaria vaccines.
You can’t fool Mother Nature. Insects can outfox anything we throw at them. In time, they will overcome.
People thought pesticides were the cure-all-the key to an abundance of food. They thought pesticides were the solution; but they were the problem.
The problem is this mammoth agribusiness system. The problem are the huge farms. The problem is the pressure on the land from developers. The problem is not allowing the land to lay fallow and recover. The problem is the abandonment of cultural practices that have stood the test
of centuries: crop rotation, diversification of crops.
The problem is monoculture-growing acres and acres of the same crop; disrupting the natural order of things; letting insects feast on acres and acres of a harem of delight . . . and using pesticides that kill off their natural predators.
Meantime, these greedy chemical companies, multi-national corporations, try to sanctify their poisons. They would have us believe they are the health givers-that because of them people are not dying of malaria and starvation.
When all the time, they just want to defend their investments. They just want to protect their profits. They don’t want anything to change.
The chemical companies believe in the Domino Theory: if any chemical is attacked then all chemicals are threatened. No matter how dangerous it is.
It’s a lot like that saying from the Vietnam War: we had to destroy the village in order to save it.
They have to poison us in order to save us.
But at what cost?
The lives of farm workers and their children who are suffering?
The lives of consumers who could reap the harvest of pesticides ten, twenty years from now? The contamination of our ground water. The loss of our reverence for the soil. The raping of the land.
We see these insane practices reflected in the buy-outs and takeovers on Wall Street. It’s the same thing: exchanging long term security for short-term gain.
You sacrifice a company for the immediate rewards. But you destroy what produces jobs and livelihoods and economic health.
If you eat the seed corn, you won’t have a crop to plant.
Oscar Wilde once said, “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
We look at the price, but we don’t look at the value. Economics and profit drive everything.
People forget that the soil is our sustenance. It is a sacred trust. It is what has worked for us for centuries.
It is what we pass on to future generations.
If we continue in this thoughtless submission to pesticides-if we ruin the top soil-then there will not be an abundance of food to bequeath our children.
Farm workers and consumers cannot get pesticide regulation because those who make the laws and set the rules are captives of these bankrupt 40- and 50-year old policies that have been shown not to work.
E.P.A.’s pesticide standards are not health standards created to rotect the American public.
With health standards, a company cannot complain to the government that it will go out of business or that its business will be hurt of it is forced to comply with the standards.
Because protecting public health is considered more important than protecting the profits of any corporation.
But E.P.A.’s standards are based on something very different: cost benefit standards.
If growers or chemical companies can show that standards protecting eople will cost more than they will benefit, they can get off the hook.
Under cost benefit standards, the costs of pesticide safety are quantifiable: like the money chemical companies invest in producing pesticides or in the stock of toxics that have already been manufactured; like the crops growers claim could be endangered if some pesticides are banned.
The benefits of pesticide protection-especially long term chronic threats to farm workers and consumers-are impossible to express in dollars and cents. They are often contained, at best, in vague and incomplete toxicological studies-thanks to growers and chemical companies that have resisted testing for health effects.
So they don’t ban the worst of these poisons because some farm worker might give birth to a deformed child.
So they don’t imperil millions of dollars in profits today because, some day, some consumer might get cancer.
So they allow all of us, who place our faith in the safety of the ood supply, to consume grapes and other produce which contain residues from pesticides that cause cancer and birth defects.
So we accept decades of environmental damage these poisons have brought upon the land.
The growers, the chemical companies and the bureaucrats say these are acceptable levels of exposure.
Acceptable to whom?
Acceptable to Johnnie Rodriguez’s parents? Acceptable to Felipe Franco? Acceptable to the widow of Juan Chabolla and her children?
Acceptable to all the other farm workers-and their sons and daughters-who have known tragedy from pesticides?
There is no acceptable level of exposure to any chemical that causes cancer. There can be no toleration of any toxic that causes miscarriages, still births, and deformed babies.
Risk is associated with any level of exposure. And any level of exposure is too much.
Isn’t that the standard of protection you would ask for your family and your children? Isn’t that the standard of protection you would demand for yourself?
Then why do we allow farm workers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?
Do we carry in our hearts the sufferings of farm workers and their children?
Do we feel deeply enough the pain of those who must work in the fields every day with these poisons? Or the anguish of the families that have lost loved ones to cancer? Or the heartache of the parents who fear for the lives of their children? Who are raising children with deformities? Who agonize the outcome of their pregnancies?
Who ask in fear, ‘where will this deadly plague strike next?’
Do we feel their pain deeply enough?
I didn’t. And I was ashamed.
I studied this wanton abuse of nature. I read the literature, heard from the experts about what pesticides do to our land and our food.
I talked with farm workers, listened to their families, and shared their anguish and their fears. I spoke out against the cycle of death.
But sometimes words come too cheaply. And their meaning is lost in the clutter that so often fills our lives.
That is why, in July and August of last year, I embarked on a 36-day unconditional, water-only fast.
The fast was first and foremost directed at myself. It was something I felt compelled to do to purify my own body, mind and soul.
The fast was an act of penance for our own members who, out of ignorance or need, cooperate with those who grow and sell food treated with toxics.
The fast was also for those who know what is right and just. It pains me that we continue to shop without protest at stores that offer grapes; that we eat in restaurants that display them; that we are too patient and understanding with those who serve them to us.
The fast, then, was for those who know that they could or should do more-for those who, by not acting, become bystanders in the poisoning of our food and the people who produce it.
The fast was, finally, a declaration of noncooperation with supermarkets that promote, sell, and profit from California table grapes. hey are as culpable as those who manufacture the poisons and those who use them.
It is my hope that our friends everywhere will resist in many nonviolent ways the presence of grapes in the stores where they shop.
The misery that pesticides bring farm workers-and the dangers they pose to all consumers-will not be ended with more hearings or studies. The solution is not to be had from those in power because it is they who have allowed this deadly crisis to grow.
The times we face truly call for all of us to do more to stop this evil in our midst.
The answer lies with you and me. It is with all men and women who share the suffering and yearn with us for a better world.
Our cause goes on in hundreds of distant places. It multiplies among thousands and then millions of caring people who heed through a multitude of simple deeds the commandment set out in the book of the Prophet Micah, in the Old Testament: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Thank you. And boycott grapes.
Thanks be to God that our mother’s family—those she loved so much—were able to be at her bedside during the final hours. Our mother left us a beautiful heritage of courage and faith—a heritage that, please God, will sustain us come what may, until we meet her again in paradise.
In a passage from the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon offers his description of a good woman:
Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
Juana Estrada Chavez does not need for any of us to speak well of her this day. The simple deeds of a lifetime speak far more eloquently than any words of ours about this remarkable woman and the legacy of hope and strength that she leaves behind.
Rather than bore you by talking about how good she was, let us share some of the events we witnessed and some of the lessons we learned growing up as the children of Juana Chavez.
It was the Depression years of the late 1930s and early ’40s. But as poor as we were and with what little we had, mama would send my brother Richard and me out to railroad yards and other places looking for “hobos” we could invite to our tent to share a meal.
In those days the highways were littered with families whose cars or pick-up trucks had broken down—with no place to go and no way to get there. When we were on the road, no matter how badly off we were, our mother would never let us pass a family in trouble.
She brought in a whole assortment of homeless families who didn’t have a place to stay. We didn’t either. But she’d bring them into our tent and make room for them in what little space we had.
Our mother would tell us, “you always have to help the needy, and God will help you.”
Lifelong friendships were born that way. Some of the people she befriended more than 50 years ago are here today.
It was the rainy winter of 1939. We were living in a farm labor camp for cotton pickers outside the small farm town of Mendota in West Fresno County. The camp was unpaved. It was pouring rain. The mud was so bad that cars couldn’t get in or out. A young girl was giving birth to her first baby. There was no way to take her to the doctor. So my mother rolled up her sleeves and delivered the baby. And it wasn’t the last time it happened.
In those days few people had money for doctors. Many hadn’t even set foot in a doctor’s office. A lot of the farm workers also didn’t speak the language. Many didn’t believe in doctors. Our mother was a folk healer. Besides delivering babies and curing common colds and headaches, she cured children of sustos empacho mollera pujon y ojo.
Her favorite herbs were yerba buena, yposote, yerba del pasmo, sauco—and she really believed in manzanilla. I’d go to her and say, “mama, I have a headache.” She’d say, “manzanilla.” “Mama, I have a stomachache.” “Manzanilla.” “Mama, I feel depressed.” “Manzanilla.” So much so that my nickname came to be…Manzi.
It was also that year when dad was hurt in an auto accident and couldn’t work—for a whole year. Our mother and the oldest sister, Rita, supported the family tying carrots in the Imperial Valley. But they didn’t know how to do the work. They were farm workers, but they were fresh from a little farm in Arizona and had never done that kind of work before. So they’d leave home at 3:30 in the morning. And they didn’t get back until 7:00 in the evening. They earned $3 a week. But they kept us together until dad was able to work again.
One January or February we were driving to the Imperial Valley from that labor camp in Mendota when we ran out of money in Los Angeles. Mama quickly sold two beautiful quilts she had crocheted. And we had money to buy gas and continue on our journey.
It was 1941, and there was very little work. We were lucky to find jobs picking cotton in the San Joaquin Valley. When our big, heavy sacks were full, we’d line up and wait to have the sacks weighed by hanging them on a hook at the truck of the labor contractor. You’d get 3/4 cents per pound of cotton. But sometimes the contractor would cheat the workers by putting his knee under the sack so it’d weigh less. Instead of getting credited for a 100 pound sack, the worker would get marked down for only 80 pounds. All this would happen pretty fast and the victim’s view was usually blocked.
Well, mama was pretty sharp. She saw the contractor cheating a worker who was in line in front of her—and she called him on it. The contractor was furious. The entire Chavez family got fired.
It didn’t bother her. Our mother used to say there is a difference between being of service and being a servant. We were living in Delano during the early ’40s when I started driving. All of us—especially Rita and I—became a travelling service center. Our mother would have us do all kinds of errands, often driving people to Bakersfield, 30 miles away, to see the doctor or police or district attorney or welfare office. We drove many a girl having a baby to the General Hospital. One baby was born in the back seat of our car.
After going to work in the fields early in the morning, by 10 a.m. we’d have to change out of our work clothes, jump in the car to Bakersfield, return home, change back into our work clothes and try to get some more work done. Mama never let us charge a penny for our troubles, not even for gas.
When she wasn’t helping people or getting us fired for challenging labor contractors, we were the strikingest family in all of farm labor. Whenever we were working where there was a strike or when the workers got fed up and walked off the job, she’d be the first one to back up our dad’s decision to join the strike.
Our mother taught us not to be afraid to fight—to stand up for our rights. But she also taught us not to be violent.
We didn’t even know enough at the time to call it nonviolence. But from an early age, through her dichos and little lessons, she would always talk to us about not fighting, not responding in kind.
She taught her children to reject that part of a culture which too often tells its young men that you’re not a man if you don’t fight back. She would say, “No, it’s best to turn the other cheek. God gave you senses like eyes and mind and tongue, and you can get out of anything. It takes two to fight, and one can’t do it alone.”
This is a day of sadness for Rita and Richard and Eduwiges and Librado and me, for all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren who are here today. But the services this morning are not an occasion for sadness, much less for despair. Rather, this is a time to celebrate, in the spirit of Christian joy, our mother’s life and the goodness and mercy of God.
Her 99 years are a story of triumph over cruelty and prejudice and injustice. She was a wise woman who fulfilled God’s Commandments by loving and serving her neighbors—even to the point of sacrifice. Our mother’s good deeds—good deeds above all of charity and compassion and kindness—are known to many of you. All who knew our mother as a personal friend or more immediately as a member of the family can vouch for the fact that she had understanding. By this I mean that she had the gift of faith—that gift of knowing what is truly important in life.
We are here today to say that true wealth is not measured in money or status or power. It is measured in the legacy we leave behind for those we love and those we inspire.
We are here today because our lives were touched and moved by her spirit of love and service. That spirit is more powerful than any force on earth. It cannot be stopped.
Death comes to us all and we do not get to choose the time or the circumstances of our dying. The hardest thing of all is to die rightly. Juana Chavez died rightly. She served her God and her neighbor.
Now it is for you and me to finish the work Juana Chavez has begun among us in her quiet and simple ways, until we too can say that we have obeyed the commandment set out in the Book of the Prophet Micah in the Old Testament: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
“Happy are those who died in the Lord; Let them rest from their labor for their good deeds go with them.”
My friends, today we honor a giant among men: today we honor the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was a powerful figure of destiny, of courage, of sacrifice, and of vision. Few people in the long history of this nation can rival his accomplishment, his reason, or his selfless dedication to the cause of peace and social justice.
Today we honor a wise teacher, an inspiring leader, and a true visionary, but to truly honor Dr. King we must do more than say words of praise.
We must learn his lessons and put his views into practice, so that we may truly be free at last.
Who was Dr. King?
Many people will tell you of his wonderful qualities and his many accomplishments, but what makes him special to me, the truth many people don’t want you to remember, is that Dr. king was a great activist, fighting for radical social change with radical methods.
While other people talked about change, Dr. King used direct action to challenge the system. He welcomed it, and used it wisely.
In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. king wrote that “The purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
Dr. king was also radical in his beliefs about violence. He learned how to successfully fight hatred and violence with the unstoppable power of nonviolence.
He once stopped an armed mob, saying: “We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we live by. We must meet hate with love.”
Dr. King knew that he very probably wouldn’t survive the struggle that he led so well. But he said “If I am stopped, the movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just, and god is with us.”
My friends, as we enter a new decade, it should be clear to all of us that there is an unfinished agenda, that we have miles to go before we reach the promised land.
The men who rule this country today never learned the lessons of Dr. King, they never learned that non-violence is the only way to peace and justice.
Our nation continues to wage war upon its neighbors, and upon itself.
The powers that be rule over a racist society, filled with hatred and ignorance.
Our nation continues to be segregated along racial and economic lines.
The powers that be make themselves richer by exploiting the poor. Our nation continues to allow children to go hungry, and will not even house its own people. The time is now for people, of all races and backgrounds, to sound the trumpets of change. As Dr. King proclaimed “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”
My friends, the time for action is upon us. The enemies of justice wants you to think of Dr. King as only a civil rights leader, but he had a much broader agent. He was a tireless crusader for the rights of the poor, for an end to the war in Vietnam long before it was popular to take that stand, and for the rights of workers everywhere.
Many people find it convenient to forget that Martin was murdered while supporting a desperate strike on that tragic day in Memphis, Tennessee. He died while fighting for the rights of sanitation workers.
Dr. King’s dedication to the rights of the workers who are so often exploited by the forces of greed has profoundly touched my life and guided my struggle.
During my first fast in 1968, Dr. King reminded me that our struggle was his struggle too. He sent me a telegram which said “Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.”
I was profoundly moved that someone facing such a tremendous struggle himself would take the time to worry about a struggle taking place on the other side of the continent.
Just as Dr. King was a disciple of Ghandi and Christ, we must now be Dr. King’s disciples.
Dr. King challenged us to work for a greater humanity. I only hope that we are worthy of his challenge.
The United Farm Workers are dedicated to carrying on the dream of reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. My friends, I would like to tell you about the struggle of the Farm workers who are waging a desperate struggle for our rights, for our children’s rights and for our very lives.
Many decades ago the chemical industry promised the growers that pesticides would bring great wealth and bountiful harvests to the fields.
Just recently, the experts are learning what farm workers, and the truly organized farmers have known for years.
The prestigious National Academy of Sciences recently concluded an exhaustive five-year study which determined that pesticides do not improve profits and do not produce more crops.
What, then, is the effect of pesticides? Pesticides have created a legacy of pain, and misery, and death for farm workers and consumers alike.
The crop which poses the greatest danger, and the focus of our struggle, is the table grape crop. These pesticides soak the fields. Drift with the wind, pollute the water, and are eaten by unwitting consumers.
These poisons are designed to kill, and pose a very real threat to consumers and farm workers alike. The fields are sprayed with pesticides: like Captan, Parathion, Phosdrin, and Methyl Bromide. These poisons cause cancer, DNA mutation, and horrible birth defects.
The Central Valley of California is one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the world. In its midst are clusters of children dying from cancer.
The children live in communities surrounded by the grape fields that employ their parents. The children come into contact with the poisons when they play outside, when they drink the water, and when they hug their parents returning from the fields.
And the children are dying.
They are dying slow, painful, cruel deaths in towns called cancer clusters, in cancer clusters like McFarland, where the children cancer rate is 800 percent above normal. A few months ago, the parents of a brave little girl in the agricultural community of Earlimart came to the United Farm Workers to ask for help.
The Ramirez family knew about our protests in nearby McFarland and thought there might be a similar problem in Earlimart. Our union members went door to door in Earlimart, and found that the Ramirez family’s worst fears were true:
There are at least four other children suffering from cancer in the little town of Earlimart, a rate 1200 percent above normal.
In Earlimart, little Jimmy Caudillo died recently from Leukemia at the age of three.
Three other young children in Earlimart, in addition to Jimmy and Natalie, are suffering from similar fatal diseases that the experts believe are caused by pesticides.
These same pesticides can be found on the grapes you buy in the stores.
My friends, the suffering must end. So many children are dying, so many babies are born without limbs and vital organs, so many workers are dying in the fields.
We have no choice, we must stop the plague of pesticides.
The growers responsible for this outrage are blinded by greed, by racism, and by power.
The same inhumanity displayed at Selma, in Birmingham, in so many of Dr. King’s battlegrounds, is displayed every day in the vineyards of California.
The farm labor system in place today is a system of economic slavery.
My friends, even those farm workers who do not have to bury their young children are suffering from abuse, neglect, and poverty.
Our workers labor for many hours every day under the hot sun, often without safe drinking water or toilet facilities.
Our workers are constantly subjected to incredible pressures and intimidation to meet excessive quotas.
The women who work in the fields are routinely subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assaults by the grower’s thugs. When our workers complain, or try to organize, they are fired, assaulted, and even murdered.
Just as Bull Connor turned the dogs loose on non-violent marchers in Alabama, the growers turn armed foremen on innocent farm workers in California.
The stench of injustice in California should offend every American. Some people, especially those who just don’t care, or don’t understand, like to think that the government can take care of these problems. The government should, but won’t.
The growers used their wealth to buy good friends like Governor George Deukmajian, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush.
My friends, if we are going to end the suffering, we must use the same people power that vanquished injustice in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham.
I have seen many boycotts succeed. Dr. King showed us the way with the bus boycott, and with our first boycott we were able to get DDT, Aldrin, and Dieldrin banned in our first contracts with grape growers. Now, even more urgently, we are trying to get deadly pesticides banned.
The growers and their allies have tried to stop us for years with intimidation, with character assassination, with public relations campaigns, with outright lies, and with murder.
But those same tactics did not stop Dr. King, and they will not stop us.
Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.
You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. And you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.
In our life and death struggle for justice we have turned to the court of last resort: the American people. And the people are ruling in our favor.
As a result, grape sales keep falling. We have witnessed truckloads of grapes being dumped because no one would stop to buy them. As demand drops, so do prices and profits. The growers are under tremendous economic pressure.
We are winning, but there is still much hard work ahead of us. I hope that you will join our struggle.
The simple act of refusing to buy table grapes laced with pesticides is a powerful statement that the growers understand.
Economic pressure is the only language the growers speak, and they are beginning to listen.
Please, boycott table grapes. For your safety, for the workers, and for the children, we must act together.
My friends, Dr. King realized that the only real wealth comes from helping others.
I challenge each and every one of you to be a true disciple of Dr. King, to be truly wealthy.
I challenge you to carry on his work by volunteering to work for a just cause you believe in.
Consider joining our movement because the farm workers, and so many other oppressed peoples, depend upon the unselfish dedication of its volunteers, people just like you.
Thousands of people have worked for our cause and have gone on to achieve success in many different fields.
Our non-violent cause will give you skills that will last a lifetime. When Dr. King sounded the call for justice, the freedom riders answered the call in droves. I am giving you the same opportunity to join the same cause, to free your fellow human beings from the yoke of oppression.
I have faith that in this audience there are men and women with the same courage and the same idealism, that put young Martin Luther King, Jr. on the path to social change.
I challenge you to join the struggle of the United Farm Workers. And if you don’t join our cause, then seek out the many organizations seeking peaceful social change.
Seek out the many outstanding leaders who will speak to you this week, and make a difference.
If we fail to learn that each and every person can make a difference, then we will have betrayed Dr. King’s life’s work. The reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had more than just a dream, he had the love and the faith to act.
God Bless You
In the “March from Delano to Sacramento” there is a meeting of cultures and traditions; the centuries-old religious tradition of Spanish culture conjoins with the very contemporary cultural syndrome of “demonstration” springing from the spontaneity of the poor, the downtrodden, the rejected, the discriminated-against baring visibly their need and demand for equality and freedom.
In every religious oriented culture “the pilgrimage” has had a place, a trip made with sacrifice and hardship as an expression of penance and of commitment — an often involving a petition to the patron of the pilgrimage for some sincerely sought benefit of body or soul. Pilgrimage has not passed from Mexican culture. Daily at any of the major shrines of the country, and in particular at the Basilica of the Lady of Guadalupe, there arrive pilgrims from all points — some of whom may have long since walked-out the pieces of rubber tire that once served them as soles, and many of whom will walk on their knees the last mile or so of the pilgrimage. Many of the “pilgrims” of Delano will have walked such pilgrimages themselves in their lives — perhaps as very small children even; and cling to the memory of the day-long marches, the camps at night, streams forded, hills climbed, the sacral aura of the sanctuary, and the “fiesta” that followed.
But throughout the Spanish-speaking world there is another tradition that touches the present march, that of the Lenten penitential processions, where the penitents would march through the streets, often in sack cloth and ashes, some even carrying crosses, as a sign of penance for their signs, and as a plea for the mercy of God. The penitential procession is also in the blood of the Mexican-American, and the Delano march will therefore be one of penance– public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own personal sins as well as their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause will be purified of all lesser motivation.
These two great traditions of a great people meet in the Mexican-American with the belief that Delano is his “cause”, his great demand for justice, freedom, and respect from a predominantly foreign cultural community in a land where he was first. The revolutions of Mexico were primarily uprisings of the poor, fighting for bread and for dignity. The Mexican-American is also a child of the revolution.
Pilgrimage, penance and revolution. The pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento has strong religious-cultural overtones. But it is also the pilgrimage of a cultural minority who have suffered from a hostile environment, and a minority who mean business.
WHAT IS THIS STRIKE?
This strike is all the farm workers standing up together and saying FROM THIS DAY WE DEMAND TO BE TREATED LIKE THE MEN WE ARE! We are not slaves and we are not animals. And we are not alone.
This strike is good men standing side by side and telling the growers WE WILL NO LONGER WORK FOR LOW WAGES! We are not afraid of the growers because we are strong. We want a union contract that will guarantee us our jobs.
This strike is all farm workers telling the growers WE WILL NO LONGER WORK FOR YOU UNTIL WE CAN SHARE IN THE GREAT DEAL OF MONEY YOU HAVE MADE! You live in big, warm homes and we live in boxes. You have plenty to eat while our children work in your fields. You wear good clothing while we are dressed in rags. Your wives are free to make a good home while our wives work in the fields. We do the work and you make most of the money. THIS GREAT INEQUALITY MUST END!
This strike is to force the growers to RECOGNIZE THE UNION OF FARM WORKERS! We will not work in the growers’ fields until they sign a contract that shows they respect us as men and that they respect our union. This strike is a great sacrifice for all farm workers, but WE ARE MAKING THIS SACRIFICE BECAUSE WE KNOW OUR ONLY HOPE IS IN THE STRENGTH OF A UNION!
WHAT IS THIS UNION?
This union is a group of farm workers who have joined together to win for themselves the high wages and the decent working conditions they have already earned. This union is the proof of the strength of good men who realize that the growers are strong and rich, and WE MUST BE EVEN STRONGER IF WE ARE TO MAKE THE GROWERS RESPECT US! We must be strong if we are to win decent wages and decent living conditions and a better life for our wives and children.
This is A UNION OF FARM WORKERS! More of our brothers learn of the union every day, and come and join with us. We know OUR ONLY HOPE IS IN THE STRENGTH OF THE UNION AND WE MUST TEACH OUR BROTHERS WHO DO NOT YET KNOW!
We are showing our unity in our strike. Our strike is stopping the work in the fields. Our strike is stopping ships that would carry grapes. Our strike is stopping the trucks that would carry the grapes. OUR STRIKE WILL STOP EVERY WAY THE GROWER MAKES MONEY UNTIL WE HAVE A UNION CONTRACT THAT GUARANTEES US A FAIR SHARE OF THE MONEY HE MAKES FROM OUR WORK!
We are a union and we are strong and we are striking to force the growers to respect our strength!