By Maria E. Garcia
A few weeks ago, when the United Farm Workers (UFW) posted that there would be a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, I posted a simple sentence on Facebook:” San Diego is anybody going?” Within a few minutes my friend Gloria Serrano-Medina responded with a simple “vamos” and with that one word a decision to be part of that celebration was made.
This would not be my first trip to the Forty Acres, the parcel of land in Delano, California that in 1966 became the headquarters for the United Farm Workers of America, the first permanent agricultural labor union in the United States.
The long hot road to Delano, 1969: Carlos LeGerrette drives the bus, the Tortilla Priest… and an encounter with Cesar Chavez
In September of 1969, when I was a San Diego State college student, I had the opportunity to go to Delano for the dedication of the Reuther building, in honor of UAW labor leader Roy L. Reuther.
The trip itself was an adventure. We left the Cardine Center on a very old WWII bus donated to the MAAC Center by the Marines. It seems that old military buses were being donated to non-profit agencies at that time. Leaving San Diego and traveling to a place I had never been was exciting in itself. Going to the place where the grape strike began was invigorating, exciting, scary and emotional.
Many of my friends from school were driving to Delano for the weekend but my mother’s birthday was that Sunday and I had to be back in San Diego, thus the decision to travel on that very old bus instead of riding with friends. Our trip was a long one not because of the distance to Delano but because the bus kept overheating and we had to stop over and over again and wait for the bus to cool enough to continue our trip.
At the 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday, September 26, I learned for the first time that the bus driver was Carlos LeGerrette! I have told the story of that bus trip several times but did not remember that he was the driver. Standing at the Forty Acres with Carlos, Linda, Gloria and a group of students from Oakland the story was retold and that was when Carlos said he was the bus driver.
Those of you who know Carlos are familiar with what I will refer to as his gift of gab. I recognize that others have another term for it. Carlos had talked his way into “obtaining” the bus which upon our return he would then deliver to the MAAC Center.
When we finally arrived at the Forty Acres in 1969, we were able to attend the dedication of the Reuther building. We listened and watched as the Teatro Campasino, which was founded in 1965 on the Delano Grape Strike picket lines, performed. We listened to many speeches.
I had two first experiences on that trip. During the blessing of the building, a very non-traditional communion was celebrated with wafers made from tortillas. Father Victor Salandini was one of the officiating priests. He would became known as the Tortilla Priest.
I also met Cesar Chavez. I remember thinking that Cesar was such a quiet person. Because of his leadership role, I thought he would be louder and more boisterous. In my very short conversation with him I found a modest, quiet man. I remember telling him that my mother was also born in Yuma and thanked him for all he did for us.
Last weekends’ trip would be different. Instead of a rickety non air-conditioned bus, we would drive up in the comfort of an SUV.
There was a small problem. We weren’t exactly sure the best way to get drive to Delano, however a friend told me I-5 to the 99 and follow the signs. I have a Tomme (GPS) but I like using it as a way to confirm that I am going in the right direction. The trip was uneventful as we drove along reading the names of places we had read about in books about La Huelga. Names like McFarland, where a cancer cluster linked to pesticide use emerged among children in that agricultural community, leading Chavez to declare a third grape boycott in 1984.
After reaching our hotel and being directed to “the best place to eat in Delano” we were off to explore. As it turns out the best place was really not even average but the server did share directions to the Forty Acres. Gloria and I kept sharing stories from picket lines and other Chicano movement stories. That evening Gloria checked the UFW web site and we learned that the first 1000 checking in would receive a gift bag. That cinched it for us. We were determined to be one of the first 1000.
Unknown to us the hotel was located less than 5 miles from the Forty Acres and we arrived there within a few minutes. The event was very well organized with volunteers directing us to parking, and with water, coffee and pan dulce available for everyone. There was a large white tent with hundreds of chairs, some booths with items to purchase or with information about such topics as health care. We signed in, picked up our gift bag and went off to find our seats. Gloria picked up coffee and we waited for the program to begin.
The atmosphere was festive, exciting and there was a very special warmth among the many guests. I carried a poster with the photo of the old bus from the 1969 trip and several people asked if they could take picture of it and of course I said yes. Sharing old memories and struggles was certainly part of the interaction among the many guests.
To our pleasure and surprise the program started within minutes of the ten o’clock starting time. Among the first to enter the room were Mrs. Helen Chavez, Cesar’s widow, Kris Kristofferson, the singer, Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the UFW and Robert Kennedy Jr. Kris Kristofferson has been a longtime supporter of the farm workers. In 2012 he donated five concerts to advance the work of UFW. One of the concerts which I had the pleasure of attending was held in San Diego with the remaining four concerts being performed throughout California.
There were many speakers which could have eventually become boring, but on the contrary it was rewarding to hear about past struggles and the new accomplishments and gains. Danny Valdez was there representing the Treatro Campasino and provided musical entertainment through-out the program.
The first speaker was Paul Chavez, Cesar’s son and himself a “keeper of the keys.” Paul quoted his father saying his father believed ordinary people could do extraordinary things. Two members of the California Assembly spoke– Rob Bonta, and Rudy Salas. Mr. Salas represents the lower Central Valley and is a supporter of social justice and public service.
The other Assembly speaker was Rob Bonta, the first Filipino American to be elected to the State legislature in the history of California. Mr. Bonta grew up in a trailer near the Cesar Chavez home. He witnessed firsthand the importance of collaboration between Filipino and Mexican American workers. He recently introduced a bill that the contributions of Filipino Americans be included when teaching California history.
Dolores Huerta was next on the program. Anyone who has ever heard Dolores speak knows how articulate and dynamic she can be. As the cofounder of the UFW she stood side by side with Cesar at meetings, negotiations, and every aspect of the farm workers movement. In 1988 while at a peaceful protest of then candidate George Bush she was severely beaten by a San Francisco Police Officer. She sued and won her case. She had to take a leave from the UFW to recuperate from her many injuries. After her recovery she spent a couple of years focusing on women’s issues.
At this weekend’s event she took time to talk about the indignities women faced while working in the fields. I had always thought of not having a toilet available as “embarrassing.” However, listening to Dolores speak I realized she was right, it was an indignity. Dolores is not only the voice for the farm workers but the voice for women everywhere. She is a women of great dignity. If you are not aware of Dolores’ role and contributions I urge you to take time and read about her.
Judge John Armington spoke about how he grew up watching every aspect of the union activities. He remembers the owners turning off the gas, lights and water hoping to force the farm workers to return to the field. His father, Mariano Armington, was the president of the Filipino Community of Delano. It was Mariano who made the motion to call for a strike by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee on September 8, 1965 against the grape growers. Within two weeks they were joined by the National Farm Workers Association and the UFW was born.
John grew up in Delano and spoke with great pride of the accomplishments of many of the sons and daughters of the farm workers. He shared the names of students that attended various colleges including Yale, Stanford and Harvard. John himself received a BA from the UCSD and a Masters from USC. In 1989 John received his American Jurisprudence award for legal research and appellate brief writing from Western State University.
After his speech I went over to talk to him for a few minutes and to thank him for the kindness he had shown my niece and nephew when he spoke at the Cesar Chavez breakfast a few months ago. As we spoke he told me he was writing a book that will include the stories of the accomplishments of those young people who grew up in Delano. This book will no doubt help us better understand many of the events that took place in Delano as well as the successes that came from the second generation group of young people.
Arturo Rodriguez is the President of the United Farm Workers of America. Arturo was born in San Antonio Texas, the son of a school teacher and sheet metal worker. He attended and graduated from La Salle High school in 1967. In 1971 he graduated from St Mary’s University. He learned about Cesar Chavez from a priest who had been to a march in the Rio Grande Valley. As a college student he became active in the grape boycott.
While working on his Master degree at the University of Michigan he organized support for the farm workers’ boycott. He first met Cesar in 1973. He worked at various positions within the UFW organization. In 1974 he married Linda Chavez, Cesar’s daughter. At this celebration Mr. Rodriquez spoke of the accomplishments that have been made by the UFW. The union has the highest paid tomato workers of any place in the country.
There are now many UFW members with full medical coverage and in some cases dental and vision benefits. The Robert Kennedy medical plan has become a regular part of their daily lives. The union offers life insurance to its members as well as discounts for many other services.
There are more effective, timely and consistent inspections of farms to enforce heat standards. They serve as a watchdog protecting members from physical abuse, or loss of wages abuse. The union has even worked to protect non-union members in their quest to improve the life of the farm worker. The UFW has worked with the White House to support the President’s order to protect immigration reform.
Robert Kennedy Junior represented his mother as well as his other family members. The Kennedy family has supported the UFW since the 1960s. Robert explained to the crowd that Mrs. Ethel Kennedy said that even under far different circumstances Robert Kennedy senior and Cesar would have been friends for the following reasons: Both men were small in physical stature; they were both devoted Catholics; and they both had a lot of children.
It was Cesar that Robert Kennedy first whispered to that he planned to run for president. According to Robert Jr. he had not shared this plan with his family. None of us will ever forget the horror the terrible night in Los Angeles when Kennedy was shot. Dolores Huerta was standing on the stage although not close enough to be injured but close enough to see everything that happened to her friend and supporter Robert Kennedy. Cesar was scheduled to be there but because he was so tired and was still weak from his fast he had gone home to rest.
At this point the names of striking workers, marchers, boycotters and full time staff members from1965-1970 were introduced. Unfortunately this part of the program was rather long and people seemed to lose interest. All of these folks not only deserve our attention but our gratitude for the many scarifies they made in those early years. A little known fact is that 95% of the strikers lost their car or their home in the early years of the strike.
Discouraged by the very long food line, Gloria and I made the decision not to eat lunch at the celebration. We decided to look for old friends. We soon ran into Natalie, Carlos and Linda Le Gerrettes’ granddaughter who was also looking for her grandparents. We continued to explore and ran into Robert Kennedy Jr. patiently posing with everyone for pictures. Not to be left out Gloria and I followed the example of others and asked to pose with him for a picture.
We soon found Linda and Carlos. Linda introduced us to a group of students from the Oakland who have been involved in research at the Forty Acres. I shared my old bus poster with the students and that was when Carlos shared his bus story.
The place of Cesar Chavez’ first fast and the place of his last fast
Gloria and I walked over to what had once been Huelga gas station, the first building constructed at the Forty Acres. It is now a museum. The walls are hung with pictures and posters. The room where Cesar spent his first fast is located here. There is a cross on the wall, a bed and a water pitcher. Like Cesar the room is very modest and yet you could imagine the history that was made in that building. We both agreed we were honored to have had the opportunity to be there and see everything.
From there we drove the short distance to the Paolo Agbayani Village. Agbayani Village was a retirement community that had been named after a Filipino union member who had a heart attack and died on the picket line. Today this village is a historical landmark and a museum. Its original purpose was to provide a home for those men who worked in the fields and supported the strike. Gloria and I had the privilege of being the only two visitors at that moment. Our tour guide walked from room to room explaining many of the things we were viewing.
The Village has a community kitchen, dining room and a garden. The private rooms are separated by a bathroom and there was a total of 59 units. This is also where Cesar spent his time when he decided to once again fast in the summer of 1988. This fast was not to protest for better salaries but to protest the use of the deadly pesticides. Cesar had a very strong belief that we had not done enough to protect the workers or children from the effects of pesticides.
He believed a fast would serve to focus on the dangerous of pesticides. Paul Chavez received a phone call from his mother telling him that his father was starting another fast. Once again his body would endure the abuse of a prolonged fasted.
We left the Agbayani Village and decided that Bakersfield would be our lunch/dinner stop. As we exited into Bakersfield we spotted a Sizzler and decide that would be our choice for dinner. We were just about done with our food when Gloria realized she did not have her cell phone. She walked out to the car to look for and returned within minutes. She explained that Helen Chavez and her daughter were also there having dinner. We walked over and asked for permission to take a picture with them. They were very kind and said yes. We exchanged pleasantries and thanked them for sharing Cesar with the public.
Our drive home was filled with beautiful memories of our very special day. The word incredible is often over used. Gloria and I agree that this weekend’s celebration was indeed incredible. The Forty Acres and the celebration was beyond any of our expectation. This experience will live in our hearts and memories for the rest of our lives.
There is a fitting post script to the celebration. On September 29, 2015 new EPA rules finally afforded farm workers nearly all of the same pesticide protections enjoyed by other US workers.