When I was 5 my grandparents told me about a poor Mexican-American farm worker who fought to make sure that other farm workers, including my grandfather, would get paid fair wages and have safe working conditions. His name was César Chávez. Even though I’m only half Mexican, I felt a sense of national pride. But I forgot about Chávez until my freshman year when I volunteered to help migrant farm workers.
The farm workers were living in a camp on an Indian reservation a few hours east of Los Angeles. As my mother drove me, my sister and my grandmother there, she explained that we might see poverty that would make us uncomfortable. But, she said, we should remember that we were going there to help people. I was excited to help families that were less fortunate. But I was hesitant too, because I didn’t know what to expect. During the car ride, my 14-year-old imagination took off and I wondered if we would see bonfires with sick people lying on the streets like I’d seen in sections of Tijuana.
No one should live in these conditions
As I stepped out of the car onto the dirt, the smell of urine and feces invaded my nostrils. We saw rows of shacks made of plywood, pieces of plastic and tires. They didn’t look like houses, but this is where the workers lived. Alongside the houses, streams of filth flowed through this makeshift town. It wasn’t as bad as what I’d imagined, but it was close. I was disappointed that as an American society we let people live like this. Looking at the conditions and people, who lived just two hours from my house, I felt humbled and sad.
The people living here worked on farms in the area. I assumed they were illegal immigrants (though I don’t know), because only people afraid of exposing their immigration status would live in a place like this. My grandfather, who came to the United States illegally in the 60s, lived in similar conditions while he worked on farms. These people were my people.
There were 25 volunteers. We gave each family a whole chicken, a carton of eggs, a bag of tortillas and a gallon of milk. The food was donated by businesses and people in the local community. We also gave the families donated clothing. The kids who were constantly brushing flies off their dirt-covered faces were now smiling and so were their parents. I felt happy that we were able to give them something they wouldn’t get otherwise.
My 9-year-old sister was depressed being in the farm worker camp. The smells disgusted her. But as she handed them their food, she grew to appreciate how fortunate our family was.
My grandmother’s reaction was different. She understood what these families were going through—the racial discrimination, the prejudice. Her expression was very gentle and loving. It seemed to me that these people were the younger versions of her.
We were there only a few hours and didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone. But a part of me wanted to know more about the people we were helping and what else I could do to help them. Like, how many people get sick because of the conditions? How many people die because of malnutrition? We were giving them one week of food, what would happen after it was gone?
On our way home, I started to remember the talks with my grandparents about César Chávez. If he had fought so hard for farm workers’ rights, why were some of them still living like this?
I wanted to learn more about Chávez and what he accomplished so I went to the library. To my surprise there were only three books about him that I could check out. This wasn’t enough to honor such an important man. When I asked the librarian why there were so few books, she shrugged and asked if I could keep my voice down. I took home all three books from the library and began to dive into his life.
Chávez was a farm worker too
I read that Chávez, who was born in Arizona in 1927, began working on farms at the age of 10. When Chávez was 11 his family moved to California where he again worked on farms. He soon dropped out of school to help support his family. He and other farm workers got paid on average less than $1 per hour, often less, for working in the blistering heat. They lived without running water or electricity.
Chávez worked in the fields for years and became a leader of the United Farm Workers of America. The United Farm Workers union gave farm workers a voice to express their desire for safer working conditions and proper wages with the slogan Si Se Puede, which means “Yes we can.” Chávez used nonviolent methods to protest the inhumane conditions by going on hunger strikes and marching. When I read that he learned about nonviolent protests from Gandhi, it was great to see that that one leader could inspire another.
In 1975, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was implemented, granting farm workers the right to unionize, which means that individual workers could form a group that would negotiate rights for everyone. The unions fought to guarantee basic human rights like minimum wages, medical benefits and humane living conditions for all farm workers.
All of this was accomplished by a man who left school in ninth grade. I was in ninth grade when I read all this, which made me feel like I could accomplish whatever I wanted. It can be done. In school, every time I had to write about injustice I wrote about Chávez.
As March 31, César Chávez Day, approached this past school year, I was excited to see what my school would do to commemorate him. Since my school, The School of Arts and Enterprise, is 85 percent Latino, I expected some kind of a fiesta to celebrate and remember him.
During Black History Month images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were hung on the walls of the school lobby. Teachers showed documentaries about their lives and accomplishments. During English class, students were instructed to write about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. During music class, we listened to the rhythms of John Coltrane and Billie Holiday.
I appreciate that we learn about the legacy of African Americans and their struggles from slavery to modern times. We should also commemorate the role César Chávez had in American and California history. Unfortunately, as I walked into school that day there were no pictures of him in the office. I thought the motto Si Se Puede would be on the bulletin board to inspire us. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. During the morning announcements my homeroom teacher didn’t even mention that it was César Chávez Day. I was outraged. No one seemed to notice that we were supposed to be honoring the man who did so much for California, farm workers and Latinos.
Sadly, the majority of students I saw didn’t seem to care either. The students at my school who show their Mexican heritage pride with their “Hecho en Mexico” (Made in Mexico) T-shirts and their singing of Mexican corridos, popular folk songs, didn’t seem to know what day it was. But why do these students, who are clearly proud of their Mexican heritage, not celebrate such an important leader in the Chicano rights movement? I was frustrated that the school hadn’t held an assembly to honor Chávez and teach students about his legacy.
|Who was César Chávez?|
|He was a farm worker in California who in 1962 co-founded with Dolores Huerta what later became the United Farm Workers of America, an organization that fought for better pay and safer working conditions.
They used nonviolent methods such as marches, boycotts and fasts to bring awareness to the struggles of farm workers. Chávez went on several fasts, including one for 36 days. He wanted laws that would allow farm workers to organize into a union and collectively be able to bargain for better treatment. He’s considered a major civil rights figure in America. He died on April 23, 1993 near Yuma, Ariz.
March 31 is César Chávez Day. It’s a state holiday in California.
For more information on Chávez, go to cesarechavezfoundation.org
I wished students knew more about him
I asked a few friends whether they knew what day it was. They didn’t. They had heard the name César Chávez and knew he was important, but they didn’t know anything more than that he was a farm worker. I told them that he guaranteed farm workers’ basic rights. I was glad to be able to tell somebody about his importance, but ultimately I was upset that hardly anyone seemed to know about him.
As I walked out of my final class on César Chávez Day I noticed the words “Si” and part of “Se” on a poster that was covered by a flyer for next month’s school play. As I ripped off the flyer I saw the entire poster. It read, “Si Se Puede, Remember César Chávez.” To me, this captured the day perfectly. Not only did we not recognize Chávez, but someone put something that they considered more important on top of it.
When I talked to my principal and vice-principal about why the school didn’t commemorate Chávez they said that it was up to the teachers and student government. I also learned that this year as a junior I would be learning more about Chávez because there are lessons about him in the American history curriculum.
This school year I’m going to ask our principal about doing something to recognize César Chávez Day. I hope there’s an assembly. Perhaps we could give students who have volunteered in their communities an award. I’m part of the school newspaper and I want to dedicate a special page to celebrating his legacy.
Recently I went to a park in the city of San Fernando that honors Chávez and his accomplishments with a statue and a huge mural. It’s important for people to know that his legacy will live on not only in history books, but in public spaces as well, because he had such a huge effect on our state. Even though this park is great, it doesn’t fully honor such an important man. It’s small and sits between railroad tracks and a busy street. It’s hard to reflect on what he did for immigrants when you hear noise from passing trains and cars.
Knowing that farm workers still live in conditions like what I saw at the camp shows me that we’ve already forgotten too much of Chávez’s legacy. We shouldn’t have to repeat the years of protesting for farm workers’ rights. No other families should have to face inhumane living conditions. They should not have to feel alienated in a country where everyone is supposed to be treated equally.
Hispanic Heritage Month is Sept. 15 – Oct. 15