My brother and leader Cesar and Dolores Huerta (co-founders of United Farm Workers Union, UFW) came to their place in history with the help of one of the worlds best organizers Fred Ross. I like so many youth and farmworkers were swept up by the tsunami of hope that was created by the farm worker organizing movement.
When Filipino workers went out on strike in 1965 their strong leader Larry Itliong went to Cesar and Dolores and asked for the Mexicans to join them in what is now called The Great Grape Strike. I got to work with many of the Filipino leadership, the other workers and volunteers of so many cultures and races while being an organizer. No one believed that you could organize farm workers and win contracts. Not even the then AFL-CIO.
In 1970 I started out with a women led lettuce strike in Center Colorado called Dicho y Hecho or Said and Done. Soon I was elected the president of this young strike and before we knew it we became part of the United Farmworkers.
Running a strike with little or no money is most difficult and you are faced by daily challenges that would drive most crazy. Cesar was paying us all including himself and Dolores only $5 a week and $10 for food. He told us that the poor and other supporters would feed us. And they did. I can say that I and all the organizers and boycotters earned our wages. We were not there for the money but for la causa. It was a movement for freedom and justice. We had many community supporters who helped us in oh so many ways.
Cesar with only an 8th grade education was an avid reader of technical books and from them he brought the professional experts to help his movement learn not only from other unions and movements but from business planners and expert managers.
There are some who have had criticisms of Chavez and the union and even those of us close to the center saw some issues we might have handled differently. But you must understand that we were fighting for our lives, our enemies were many and we were learning to fly this most complicated plane while building it in mid air. And it was not always a smooth ride. All major movements are complicated pieces of art and sometimes the pieces don’t smoothly fit together. And these complications come with organizing. Our movement would push us to get up each day and pick up our flags and off we would go to do what some called Gods work. And yes Cesar was a very religious and spiritual person.
I love it that my union and its leaders were not afraid and made us believe in ourselves and we all exceeded the expectations of those who watched us dream and do the impossible everyday. This wonderful yet imperfect union gave us farm workers, youth and many city dwellers the vision that we could change the world through organizing and boycotts. It showed urban Chicanos and other Latinos and white progressives that we could and should stand up for our rights.
It is interesting that when Fred Ross first met Cesar that he got Cesar’s attention by talking about fighting police brutality in Cesar’s Barrio of Sal si puedes (get out if you can) in San Jose California.
There were a lot of lessons I and others learned working for the union and there were many more we had to unlearn that a racist society had pressed upon us. When I joined the union I had been involved in the cultures of violence and drugs. It was with the union that I learned what I needed to change to become an organizer of the poor. And since then I have used nonviolence and love as my platform for change. I also learned the power of the vote not only on a union contract but in local and national elections. It was there at the Union that I learned that I must put my fate in the hands of the poor.
But let us be clear that one of the unsung heroes of our union was and is Helen Chavez. As Cesar’s wife and mother to his children she was an active member of the union. She gave the union and us members the support and encouragement we needed. She was a strong and smart woman who spoke her mind and did what the union needed at its most difficult periods. She was not afraid of the future because she was helping to create it. Strong women like Helen and Dolores Huerta made us even smarter and stronger.
In 1992 Cesar introduced me as a speaker at the United Farmworkers Convention in Delano as one of the great organizers from the old days. At that time I was the Western Regional Director of Amnesty International. It made me proud to get such a strong recognition but in my heart of hearts I knew that I was but an average UFW organizer. I knew the great organizers and I was average compared to them but an average UFW organizer was better than many other community organizers. We were taught well and motivated to make it work.
Cesar passed in 1993 and I rejoined the farm workers movement and became the Founding Director of the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. Today the union is led by President Teresa Romero, and Paul Chavez (Cesar’s son) as Director of the Foundation overseas the many other wonderful projects which are the legacy of Cesar such as the many housing projects, multiple radio stations, an educational center and many more programs. Cesar left a foundation for us so that we could continue to build hope, nonviolence and love for everyone.
While I had other heroes like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hammer, Corky Gonzalez, Ries Lopes Tijerina, Rosa Parks, Burt Corona, Jose Angel Gutierrez and many others I must say that my union was the biggest influence in my life . It is because of this history that I have been able to work with gangs, environmental justice, gay rights, women’s rights, voting rights, immigrant rights and human rights world wide.
Cesar was a wonderful creation of our time and he in turn decided not only to be on the right side of history but to create history. Cesar was the best we had… and some of us were lucky to know and work with him.