Through family history, member
connects with farm workers’ struggle
By Emily Forest
SPEEA Wichita Council Rep
and SPEEA Diversity Committee
Back in the spring of this year, my son had a Triton (campus) tour at
the University of California, San
Diego (UCSD). We attended
with my Aunt Annie and Uncle Billy Avila. At
UCSD, there is a glorious mural of Mexican heritage. I asked my aunt, “Tia, what is this all about?”
She began to explain to me the struggle of our ancestors and how Cesar Chavez was the equivalent of
Martin Luther King Jr. for the Latinos.
She and my uncle enlightened me about Chavez
and the farm workers’ efforts, including the boycotts, along with the Bracero Program (meaning
manual labor) which happened in the 1940s.
Our family was brought into the U.S. (Kansas)
in the early 1900s for railroad jobs. Much like
those of the farm workers, the railroad (RR)
made a deal with the Mexican government for
“We are NOT Slaves! We are NOT Animals! We are
NOT Alone!” Cesar Chavez,
On the Delano Grape Strike,
She and my uncle elaborated on the “ranchitos”
accommodations built by
the RR) where my uncle’s
family lived. They were
populated with shack-like
homes, which were small,
desolate, and ramshackle –
made of railroad ties, “not
fit for a dog,” as my uncle
recalls. Soon the railroad
found the chemicals in the
ties were making people sick.
Several years later, the RR revamped the living
quarters to large, long shacks segregated into
small living areas. The men had to work for the
RR and the women would split up the chores (and
the children) around the ranchito or would go to
another job. They would leave before the sun came
up and return long after the sun was gone. These
Mexican communities looked out for one another
and supported each other, which is what my uncle
remembers to be the best part of the ranchito life.
These families were the poorest of poor, wearing
the same clothes for days. They had no running
water, indoor plumbing, or electricity. The shacks
were not insulated. You could see the sunlight
peering in between the boards as well as feel the
frost accumulate on the interior walls in the winter. There were community restrooms (outhouses)
and a well for water. Most of these families would
often wonder when they would get their next
meal, and sometimes it would be days.
"All Hispanics are connected to the farm workers' experi-ence." Cesar Chavez, 1984
The ranchitos are long
a memory of the past
and have since been
removed (during the
mid 1960s), which was
likely due to the work
of Cesar Chavez as the
Latino movement was
beginning to spread.
I see how my ancestors struggled as well
as other ethnic groups
for the wealth of the
corporations and the
land owners. It was our
blood, our pride and our desire for a better life
that made some men millionaires.
Even though our struggle isn’t as well-known as that
of the plight of the African American community
with Martin Luther King Jr., it does not mean it
isn’t any less important to the history, heritage, and
culture of us who are Mexican Americans.
Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed!!!!
Cesar Chavez, 1984
Editor’s Note: National Hispanic Heritage Month
continues through Oct. 15. This year, the United
Farm Workers (UFW) union celebrates the 50th
anniversary of the end of the Delano grape boycott
which Cesar Chavez and others led to improve
working conditions and pay for the farm workers. Founded by Chavez, UFW is the largest farm
workers’ union in the country.
Inspirational labor leader
In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez and a few others
set out to organize a union of
farm workers. Nearly everyone
told them it was impossible.
An ardent advocate of nonviolence, Chavez was one of the
most inspirational labor leaders of the 20th century, with
an influence that stretched far
beyond the California fields.
He was born in 1927, the second of five children
and the oldest of three brothers. His parents,
Librado Chavez and Juana Estrada Chavez, ran
a farm, grocery store, garage and pool hall in
Arizona's North Gila Valley, near the California-Mexico border. In 1938, the family was evicted
from the land they had worked for nearly 50 years.
"We left everything behind," Chavez recalled.
Chavez had to adjust to his new life as part of
the migrant farm labor force. During the harvest
season, everyone in the family had to pitch in
to put enough food on the table and they lived
"under a tree, with just a canvas on top of us, and
sometimes in the car." And the work was hard.
Working lettuce with a short-handled hoe, Chavez
remembered, was "just like being nailed to a cross."
Encouraged by Fred Ross, a well-known community organizer, Chavez quit his job in a lumber yard to become a full-time organizer for the
Community Services Organization (CSO). In
1962, he moved to Delano, Calif., with his family and Dolores Huerta, a CSO colleague. There,
they established the National Farm Workers
Association (NFWA), lobbied for a minimum
wage and unemployment insurance for farm
workers and advocated farm workers' right to
Source: AFL-CIO ( www.aflcio.org)
About the SPEEA
This SPEEA committee works on providing information and education to
increase understanding and promote union
involvement with all segments of SPEEA.
All SPEEA-represented employees are welcome to join.
Join us – the second Wednesday of every
month at 4 p.m. (PST) at SPEEA offices
in Everett, Tukwila and Wichita.
Wichita Council Rep Emily Forest (right) is shown here with
her aunt, Annie Avila, at a mural in San Diego showing
Cesar Chavez, former leader of the United Farm Workers
union. When Forest asked her aunt about the mural, she
learned a lot about her family’s history related to farm workers’ struggles.