The Latino Leadership and Cultural Club at BCC hosted a discussion about the life, challenges and triumphs of the great labor leader Cesar Chavez on April 5, 2017, at Berkeley City College. BCC students and faculty read excerpts of his life and his leadership in the struggle to create the United Farm Workers’ Union and establish fair policies for farm laborers. BCC students were able to learn about the man who brought unfair labor practices to the forefront.
Juana Alicia delivered a riveting personal account of the impact of Cesar Chavez on her life. Read her speech in its entirety below:
April 5, 2017
For Latino Leadership Club
Buenas tardes. Gracias a los presentes por su liderazgo y vision, y por esta invitacion graciosa a dirigir algunas palabritas sobre mi experiencia como campesina y organizadora con el sindicato de campesinos, el famoso UFW, fundado y dirigido por Cesar Chavez y Dolores Huerta.
Thanks so much for the leadership and vision provided by the Latino Leadership Club, and for this lovely invitation to speak about my experiences working with the UFW, the United Farmworkers Union, founded and directed by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
As a teenager, growing up in the very urban, inner city of Detroit, amidst the heating movements against the war in Vietnam, the rise of the Black Panther Party, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement in general, I was inspired to participate in the wave of conscious people determined to change the course of history, from one of violence and inequality to one of peace and full rights for every person. I was in high school on the first Earth Day, April 22nd, 1970, and there was great hope and excitement that we could change the world and reverse pollution and environmental damage. I myself was involved with the UFW boycotts of A&P Markets and began making posters for the farmworkers. When Cesar Chavez came to town, I went to see him speak, went up to him after his presentation, and he recruited me on the spot to work with the Union in Salinas. I left Detroit with my draft dodger boyfriend, went to Canada, and took a train to the west coast.
I split up with the boyfriend and hitchhiked down the coast to Salinas, where I connected with the Union’s local corralón or hiring hall, and got on the payroll for room and board and $5 a week, as an organizer. Originally, I was going to work on the newspaper, El Malcriado, but I was more interested in the vibrant organizing going on in the fields, so went to work picking lettuce, celery and strawberries. I worked in the thinning and hoeing, the lettuce and celery machines and picking apples, as part of a cadre of workers that defended folks’ rights to go to the bathroom, take breaks, listen to the radio, and resist the harassment of the mayor domos, the field bosses. I saw elders denied bathroom rights and women sexually harassed, company speedups and was caught in a deportation raid, right before payday. I participated in picket lines and the 1973 and 1976 labor strikes, where we were shot at by sheriffs and harassed by burly and corrupt Teamster Union members, seeking to replace our union of poor, immigrant Mexicans, Filipinos and Chicanos. One of my best friends took a bullet in her liver on one of those picket lines. I continued to make screen prints for the UFW, and participated in Latina organizing in Watsonville and Salinas. By the time my first child was born in 1976, I was suffering from pesticide poisoning with skin and respiratory afflictions, like everyone else in the fields.
There were so many lessons learned during the years I worked with the UFW, from 1971-‐1976. Most importantly was that of great respect for the campesinos that had come as braceros or later, the worker intellectuals that understood the history of the Mexican Revolution and the dreams of social equity it had professed. These were learned workers that had a rich legacy of
Agri-‐culture/agricultura, and understood the needs of the earth and natural systems. Their wisdom and bodies were and to this day, still are exploited by the agribusiness industry, that treats the earth as a sterile growing medium, and treats people as expendable commodities. I learned that a humble, determined and organized group of people can overturn a system of exploitation; I learned that over-‐arching, globalized capitalism can destroy a strike by using workers in another part of the world to compensate for the losses of a strike or boycott. I learned that international solidarity, as well as local organizing, is necessary to win the struggles for human rights and environmental justice. These were the years of President Richard Nixon’s frightful and shameful two terms, which ultimately ended in impeachment and his resignation.
Now, as we face an even more powerful oligarchy, the rule of money over all else, the example of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, the UFW and the workers that made the union, and still do, is more relevant than ever. You are ones we have been waiting for. Berkeley has it’s first progressive, Latino mayor, Jessie Arreguin. By 2020, Latinxs will be the majority population in California. Kevin De Leon, President Pro Tem of the California Senate, and other strong Latinx leaders are changing history and putting our state in the position of a national vanguard and resistance to deportation, proposing to make us a sanctuary state. Our state-‐wide resistance to the Trump policies is critical, to hold back the alt-‐right national trends. You will be the ones to use your educations and political strength to change history, and I am proud to be associated with you! Connect with our new municipal leadership, join solidarity organizations with Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights, connect with BCC’s own Rethink Social Justice activities, and with the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley. Every one of you is essential as we move forward, standing on the shoulders of the UFW, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.