On Cesar Chavez Day

cesar chavez
Photo Credit : Joann Cornejo

Today is Cesar Chavez Day. It’s a good day to remember that the poorest and most exploited people in farming aren’t farmers – they are the farm workers.

Although Chavez fought his fights in the western United States, with the United Farm Workers, the struggle for decent wages and conditions for farm workers is both global, and far from over.

I’ve excerpted the most powerful parts of a much longer speech that Chavez gave on November 9, 1984. Well worth a read today, of all days.

“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, 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.