On the 23rd anniversary of the death of Cesar Chavez
In the years since our dear brother, friend, and community leader Cesar Chavez passed away, I’ve had the occasion to think about the blessings in my life and how my family found itself in the middle of a historic movement. I learned the native ways from my grandfather who took us on many outdoor trips. As a young child, I remember walking with him as he searched for medicinal plants use for his work as a “Curandero”. These early environmental excursions to the outdoors were my entry and what soon became my life’s passion and connection to nature. It was during these treks that my grandfather told me about his farm labor organizing work. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I had the chance to learn about the great United Farmworkers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) and it’s contributions to Latinos and labor.
While in college, my brothers, friends and I gathered food to feed the striking farmworkers in the grape fields in Delano, CA. On one of our first winter break trips to Delano, we all met Cesar Chavez at the 40 Acres United Farm Workers (UFW) headquarters. I knew immediately he was going to be someone we could follow anywhere and into the world when he was organizing. The history of my grandfather’s organizing work in the 1930s in San Diego County immediately had all the relevance in the world. I knew this stuff, although I never picked crops, I knew farm work from my family history. Our ancestors lived off the Sonora desert for generations, as gathers and farmers, and those stories and my subsequent calling to gardening became evident to me and where I was headed in life.
I am an Assistant Scout Master and Venturing Crew Advisor with the Boy Scouts of America. My work with the Scouting programs has kept me outdoors for most of my non-school time. As I learned later from my elders, this was my destiny and I was to be a person who cared and worked for others. I was born into activism with my own family and the love of social justice led me to join Cesar and the movement. I was ready and understood what had to be done – had to be done now.
Being around Cesar Chavez and his family gave us time to see and watch him work with the union and his family. My initial inclination was that he was a hard working person who was an inspiration to all who worked with him. After his fast of 1972, we saw a different Cesar not seen by the media or masses who followed his work. He went to Arizona (Mt. Lemon) for a few weeks to heal up from the fast. He hiked daily, and continued to grow in strength with longer hikes in and around the canyon. He loved being in the natural world, surrounded by fast moving streams and playing simple games like playing horse shoes and eating healthy. I believe our long talks led me to improve my own eating habits and Cesar gave me a book to read which helped me go vegetarian for many years. Learning to eat healthy and organic in the early 70’s was not easy. There was no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to shop in and grocery stores rarely carried organic products.
Cesar’s activities outside of organizing revealed to me that he liked being outdoors. He enjoyed taking his family beach camping to Carpentaria Ca. The things he did with his family often showed us that Cesar was connected to the natural wonders, and led his family to enjoy it with him.
In later years of his union life, Cesar had more time to work his organic gardens. As small time gardener since early youth myself, this was an area where I felt comfortable talking with Cesar. Our last long conversation was at La Paz where he was preparing his annual winter garden. La Paz is the union headquarters and home in Keen CA. That was the winter of 1992, probably October or November. Cesar’s gardens varied in sizes but usually he grew everything on about 2 to 3 acres, and he set up his own drip irrigation system. Cesar Chavez never used pesticides on his food production. I saw him one more time in February in Los Angeles for a funeral mass for a long union supporter Fr. Olivares. I stood just a few feet away with Jackson Brown who played for the service. Cesar smiled slightly when our eyes met but I recall most is that he looked very tired that day.
Sadly, this was our last meeting, as a few months later he was called to walk to the other side on March 23, 1993.
As I look back I can see it was my destiny to meet and know Cesar. His presence was powerful. For anyone who had the chance to talk with Cesar, you would know immediately that he was an inspiration and what he envisioned for farm workers we could also wish for ourselves.
Our talks about gardens and the natural world we lived in are the best memories I have to share about my times with Cesar. Whenever I here talk about aquaponics gardening, I can recall that coldish day at La Paz (Keene CA) when Cesar and I last spoke in length. We talked at length about the future of aquaponics gardening and the understanding that our ancestors had already proven this system with the creation of the gardens of Xochilmilco in Mexico City, in the 8th century by the Nahua people.
Our meeting, the connection of our families, and now my life’s work in environmental and conservation education had its roots in the many times I spoke one on one with one of the most inspirational people in my lifetime. Knowing him up close and our personal, our family connections, makes my work more meaningful. I like to think Cesar would smile at what I’ve done with my time working to connect people back to our innate connection to the natural world.
Albert “Abby” Ybarra
Environmental Education Specialist