Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Movement
Probably no movement among Latinos received more national attention than the struggle by Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) to organize the migrant farm workers. Calling for a nationwide boycott of California grapes and a March from Delano, in California's Central Valley, to the state capitol in Sacramento-among other actions-Chavez and the ATWA combined issues of race and labor relations into a single movement.
The Tale of the Raza
Chicano author Luis Valdez assessed the larger impact of this struggle for La Raza (The Race), as well as for the workers.
The revolt in Delano is more than a labor struggle. Mexican grape pickers did not rnarch 300 miles to Sacramento, carrying the standard of the Virgin de Guadalupe, merely to dramatize economic grievances. Beyond unionization, beyond politics, there is the desire of a New World race to reconcile the conflicts of its 500-year-old history. La Raza is trying to find its place sun it once worshipped as a Supreme Being.
La Raza, the race, is the Mexican people. Sentimental and cynical, fierce and docile, faithful and treacherous, individualistic and herd- following, in love with life and obsessed with death, the personality of the raza encompasses all the complexity of our history. The con- quest of Mexico was no conquest at all. It shattered our ancient Indian universe, but more of it was left above ground than beans and tortillas. Below the foundations of our Spanish culture, we still sense the ruins of an entirely different civilization.
Most of us know we are not European simply by looking in a mirror-the shape of the eyes, the curve of the nose, the color of skin, the texture of hair; these things belong to another time, another people. Together with a million little stubborn mannerisms, beliefs, myths, superstitions, words, thoughts-things not so easily detected- they fill our Spanish life with Indian contradictions. It is not enough to say we suffer an identity crisis, because that crisis has been our way of life for the last five centuries ....
Although he sometimes reminds one of Benito Juarez, Cesar is our first real Mexican-American leader. Used to hybrid forms, the raza includes all Mexicans, even hyphenated Mexican-Americans; but divergent histories are slowly making the raza in the United States different from the raza in Mexico. We who were born here missed out on the chief legacy of the Revolution: the chance to forge a nation true to all the forces that have molded us, to be one people. Now we must seek our own destiny, and Delano is only the beginning of our active search. For the last hundred years our revolutionary progress has not only been frustrated, it has been totally suppressed. This is a society largely hostile to our cultural values. There is no poetry about the United States. No depth, no faith, no allowance for human contrariness. No soul, no mariachi, no chili sauce, no pulque, no mysticism, no chingaderas....
The pilgrimage to Sacramento was no mere publicity trick. The raza has a tradition of migrations, starting from the legend of the founding of Mexico. Nezahualcoyotl, a great Indian leader, advised his primitive Chichimecas, forerunners of the Aztecs, to begin a march to the south. In that march, he prophesied, the children would age and the old would die, but their grandchildren would come to a great lake. In that lake they would find an eagle devouring a serpent, and on that spot, they would begin to build a great nation. The nation was Aztec Mexico, and the eagle and the serpent are the symbols of the pattia. They are emblazoned on the Mexican flag, which the marchers took to Sacramento with pride.
Then there is the other type of migration. When the migrant farm laborer followed the crops, he was only reacting to the way he saw the American raza: no unity, no representation, no roots. The pilgrim- age was a truly religious act, a rejection of our past in this country and a symbol of our unity and new direction. It is of no lasting
significance that Governor Brown was not at the Capitol to greet us. The unity of thousands of raza on the Capitol steps was reason enough for our march. Under the name of HUELGA we had created a Mexican-American patria, and Cesar Ch;ivez was our first Presidente.
Huelga means strike. With the poetic instinct of the raza, the Delano grape strikers have made it mean a dozen other things. It is a declaration, a challenge, a greeting, a feeling, a movement. We cried Huelga! to the scabs, Huelga! to the labor contractors, to the growers, to Governor Brown. With the Schenley and DiGiorgio boycotts, it was Huelga! to the whole country. It is the most significant word in our entire Mexican-American history. If the raza of Mexico believes in La Patria, we believe in La Huelga.
The route of the pilgrimage was planned so that the Huelga could reach all the farmworkers of the San Joaquin Valley. Dependent as we were on each farmworking town for food and shelter, we knew the raza would not turn us down. "Mi case es suya, " is the precept of Mexican hospitality: "My house is yours."
The Virgin of Guadalupe was the first hint to farmworkers that the pilgrimage implied social revolution. During the Mexican Revolution, the peasant armies of Emiliano Zapata carried her standard, not only because they sought her divine protection, but because she symbolized the Mexico of the poor and humble. It was a simple Mexican Indian, Juan Diego, who first saw her in a vision at Guadalupe. Beautifully dark and Indian in feature, she was the New World version of the Mother of Christ. Even though some of her worshippers in Mexico still identify her with Tonatzin, an Aztec goddess, she is a Catholic saint of Indian creations Mexican. The people's response was immediate and reverent. They joined the march by the thousands, falling in line behind her standard. To the Catholic hypocrites against the pilgrimage and strike the Virgin said Huelga!
The struggle for better wages and better working conditions in Delano is but the first, realistic articulation of our need for unity. To emerge from the mire of our past in the United States, to leave behind the divisive, deadening influence of poverty, we must have unions. To the farm workers who joined the pilgrimage, this cultural pride was revolutionary. There were old symbols--Zapata lapel buttons- and new symbols standing for new social protest and revolt; the red thunderbird flags of the NFWA, picket signs, arm bands....
The NFWA is a radical union because it started, and continues to grow, as a community organization. Its store, cafeteria, clinic, garage, newspaper and weekly meeting have established a sense of community the Delano farmworkers will not relinquish. After years of isolation in the barrios of Great Valley slum towns like Delano, after years of living in labor camps and ranches at the mercy and caprice of growers and contractors, the Mexican-American farmworker is developing his own ideas about living in the United States. He wants to be equal with all the working men of the nation, and he does not mean by the standard middle-class route. We are repelled by the human disintegration of peoples and cultures as they fall apart in this Great Gringo Melting Pot, and determined that this will not happen to us. But there will always be a raza in this country. There are millions more where we came from, across the thousand miles of common border between Mexico and the United States. For millions of farmworkers, from the Mexicans and Philippinos of the West to the Afro-Americans of the South, the United States has come to a social, political and cultural impasse. Listen to these people, and you will hear the first murmurings of revolution.