How Cesar Chavez Inspired My Journey to Environmentalism

By Laura Torres

 

As we recognize Cesar Chavez Day today, I find myself reflecting on how Chavez’s life and teachings influenced my own life, and shaped my perspective of what it means to be an environmentalist.

In 1997, I transitioned from elementary to middle school. Beyond the superficial changes, (from collecting Lisa Frank stickers and wearing a lot of pink to wearing only dark colors, crazy hoop earrings and way too much eyeliner, and lipstick too) my mind was also transforming.

My English teacher Mr. Duenas, thankfully, recognized that many of my classmates were experiencing similar evolutions.  He was patient and understanding with his squirrely class, and treated us with respect. He became our advocate when he made it his mission to teach us about our Mexican-American history. I was immediately drawn to Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the many leaders associated with the farmworkers’ struggles. I also gained a new appreciation and understanding for what it meant to be a leader

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Learning about Cesar Chavez, I gained an understanding of what it looks like when communities like mine take a stand for their own health and wellness. The 1990’s was a difficult time for my community of Boyle Heights and I was familiar with struggle. As I learned about the violence Cesar Chavez and other farmers faced, I felt angry. However, I became inspired when I learned about his organizing. Upon understanding the story of the grape strike, I felt hopeful to know that people can make an impact and demand a life with dignity. And I felt empowered to know that I too could improve conditions in my own community.

Aside from the grape strike and hunger strikes that he is primarily known for, Chavez was concerned about the damage that humans cause to the earth. In learning about his life and the early work of the United Farm Workers, it is clear Cesar Chavez was creating a movement that was about much more than labor rights. He had a vision of a better quality of life for the poor, one in which the environment was healthy, too.

He was frustrated by the lack of awareness of threats to the planet, stating, “It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease. When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn.”

I began to question the conditions in my community. Chavez’s fight for a life with dignity made me see that my family experienced so many of the same struggles of working in painful conditions for low pay. This stuck with me through my college years, where I learned about how communities of color are the most affected by pollution. I thought of Boyle Heights, where I grew up, which is surrounded by freeways and adjacent to factories. I thought of the cement-covered LA River, and of the difficulties my community faces in accessing healthy food and open green space. Chavez’s analysis of power and his dedication to organizing made me feel the responsibility to organize and look at power structures in my own life. And this was the dawn of my professional career as an organizer; I want to know that I am active in reminding my community that we have power when we organize.

Cesar Chavez once said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate 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. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” This comment has stayed with me through my career, from my years as an education-focused organizer to present day.

I learned a lot in my time working with parents in my previous positions as a parent advocate, community organizer, and project manager for community gardens. Many of the parents I worked with were immigrants from Latin America, and I distinctly recall a nostalgia for the nature of their homeland. They shared how they raised their own food and grew up playing outdoors. Many lamented that their children would not experience a childhood in the hills, bonding with animals or simply being able to breathe fresh air. As I became friends with some of them on social media, they would marvel at my pictures of hikes. They were shocked that I could access the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains.  They had only known the San Gabriels as a faraway background or the Santa Monica Mountains as a place in which they worked for rich people but had no idea that they were public lands. I found myself spending time chatting with them about self-care by eating healthy food and the importance of spending time outdoors.  I saw the opportunity to connect our conversations on food to the legacy of Cesar Chavez.

Chavez was an environmentalist who grew organic food and incorporated hikes, meditation and prayer into his daily life. His connection to nature and his regular hikes were the self-care, which provided him with strength to continue to advocate for a life with dignity. His close connection to the land and tremendous respect for nature is a reminder that the word ‘environmentalist’ takes many shapes. Being an environmentalist goes deeper than knowing where the closest organic co-op is, or staying up to date on the latest eco-trends. It’s about having respect for the environment and a willingness to care for nature in our everyday lives.

In my own life, I seek time outdoors to clear my head, to relieve the stress of city life, and to rekindle my sense of adventure. I have come to believe that access to natural spaces is essential for improving one’s quality of life. I experienced the benefits of spending time in nature in my own life, and began to share it with friends
and family. I officially  joined Latino Outdoors as a volunteer in 2015 as I felt need to increase the representations of Latinos, and, more specifically, Latinas in the outdoors. Joining Latino Outdoors has helped me embrace my culture and connect with some amazing people. Being a part of this group reminds me of Cesar Chavez outlook, “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures”.
Access to nature has become a major part of my career, through advocating for an expanded Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area that would reach more Los Angeles-area communities and foster stronger connections to nature. I have no doubt that increased access to nature is beneficial for LA. I am grateful to combine my passion for conservation and preservation of history in my work.

The teachings of Cesar Chavez, by way of Mr. Duenas, had a profound impact on my life that continue to present themselves each day. Cesar Chavez is an example of someone who committed himself to organizing for an improved quality of life, while keeping his cultural practices and connecting with the environment. I am inspired to do the same as I work to connect Angelinos to public lands and preserve the great legacy of Cesar Chavez, at Cesar Chavez National Monument, and to expand his and the farmworkers’ story through sites across California and Arizona. Like Cesar Chavez, I am an environmentalist, because I believe it’s an essential part of living a better quality of life. On Cesar Chavez Day and each day forward, I will work to advocate for fair representation in our National Park System and speak up for opportunities to share the stories of Cesar Chavez and the many people who helped shape our country’s shared history. Si se puede!

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Struggle Continues; ¡La Causa Vive! by Cynthia Espinosa and Zoraida Martinez

Cesar_Chavez (1)

¡Si Se Puede! ¡Viva La Causa! These are words that as a farm worker, activist and Latinx, I found inspiring to grow food, take care of the land and inspire others that yes, we can. We can grow our own food, we can fight for our rights as human beings, yes we can create the space for our brothers and sisters to share their voice, passion, and gifts. This is what Cesar Chavez has inspired in me. Cesar Chavez, born on March 31, 1927 outside Yuma, Arizona, has left a mark of power, dreams, and pride to migrant farm workers, civil rights activists and Latinos. After his family lost their farm in 1938, his family and him became migrant farm workers throughout California area facing the hardship and injustices that migrant farm workers still face today. In 1965, Cesar along with Dolores Huertas founded the National Farmers Workers Association, later being named the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA) in Delano, California. Along with Filipino grape pickers in Delano, UFWA organized a Grape boycott in the U.S. and Canada along with having grape growers sign the union into their contracts with farm workers (The Cesar Chavez Foundation, 2012). Cesar Chavez work has left a mark to other civil rights organizations for migrant farm workers such as the Coalition of Immokalee Farmers in Immokalee, Florida and Justicia Migrante, Migrant Justice in Burlington, Vermont. The legacy of Cesar will grow throughout our history in many different environmental fields in which Latinos are present; from farm workers, to conservation of our National Parks. Cesar has left us with a foundation to move forward towards equality of growers and migrant farm workers, exemplary leadership among civil rights movements, and pride of our roots, from our culture to our hometown, Cesar wants us to always remember that ¡Si Se Puede!

 

cesar chaves talk

 

Up until the sixties, farm workers were mistreated and no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. During World War II, when there was a scarce amount of labor, migrants were being welcomed to the United States to be able to pick the fields. At this time the Bracero Program was initiated under President Truman. The amount of work that was to be done to the number of people actually being admitted to the US under this program was relatively small. There was an increase in migration from Mexico. It was decided that the program would be extended to have people legally in the US while working in the fields. In a span of sixteen years, there was an annual average importation of 200,000 Braceros per year. Although legally in the US, these migrants suffered the deterioration’s of living in the fields. Cesar’s saw the struggle of working in the fields and living in such poor conditions that he started a movement that would forever influence the movements to come.

 

The traction that the movement picked up was an incredible stepping stone for other movements to come. The sixties were a time for change that would be seen across the entire country. From the beginning, with the Civil Rights movement that made a tremendous impact on other movements as well to fighting for equality. All of these movements brought to light the injustices that were seen from schools to workplaces. The movement that Cesar Chavez created along with Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong influenced students in schools that saw how they were being marginalized because of skin color. A lot of Latinxs and Chicanxs saw a disparity in higher education and they started a movement for students to have rights in all levels of education, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán. A movement that until this day still runs strong all across the country seeking equality in higher education, a space in which the population of Latinxs enrolled and that graduate has not been high. M.E.Ch.A has been highly influenced by Cesar Chavez and the movement that he helped get started inciting more and more Latinxs to follow a higher degree than just high school.

 

A fair living wage and decent living conditions is what farmers demanded. An equal opportunity to send their kids to school and a chance to live a life without fear of getting deported at any time. Farm workers have seen so many injustices and the fight for better working conditions was achieved through hard work. There is no doubt of the influential power the Farm Workers Movement has caused in the country. People now are fighting for a living wage that can sustain their families because the cost of living keeps going up but wages have remained the same. People are fighting for better working conditions because they saw the power that lies behind numbers and a movement is starting to rise in which everyone, migrant or not, has better pay and living conditions. The struggle will continue but paving the way for those generations to come will make this country a better place for all those that need to “sacar a su familia adelante.”

 

cesar chavez 1

The fight that this movement taught us is that we need to continue looking for a way to move forward as a community. The toughest thing that we will face as a community is the adversity and the wall put by others in order for us not to move forward. The Latinx community will always have struggles but with unity and strength any setback that we get presented we will be able to overcome it. Fighting for better treatment at work and better wages will be a fight that will not be over soon but at least we are voicing our concerns and we are showing that we are here and we are not going anywhere. Cesar would be proud of what his movement has brought to the country and he would see that we are fighting the good fight y que ¡la lucha sigue!

References:

Mayo, A. F., Brummel, B., Lopez, G., Bolero, D., Pessah, M. M., In Wolfmeyer, D., Southern Poverty Law Center. Bill Brummel Productions (Firm). (2008). Viva la causa.

Southern Poverty Law Center: Teaching Tolerance Project. (n.d.). Latino Civil Rights Timeline, 1903-2006. Retrieved from:http://www.tolerance.org/latino-civil-rights-timeline.

The Cesar Chavez Foundation. (2012). About Cesar. Retrieved from: http://www.chavezfoundation.org/_page.php?code=001001000000000&page_ttl=About+Cesar&kind=1

United Farm Workers. 2016. http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=research&inc=history/03.html


Timeline of Latino Farmer Movements in the U.S.

I had the honor this summer to work, grow, and be inspired by Soul Fire Farm located in Grafton, New York. Soul Fire Farm ia family farm committed to the dismantling of oppressive structures that misguide our food system. I was a co-facilitator for the 2015 Black and Latino Farmer Immersion Program (BLFI) which was an incredible experience for me as a Latina, food justice advocate, and educator.

BLFI Session 1 participants and facilitators. Photo by: Jonah Vitale-Wolff

BLFI Session 1 participants and facilitators. Photo by: Jonah Vitale-Wolff

BLFI Session 2

BLFI Session 2 participants and facilitators. Photo by: Jonah Vitale-Wolff

As a Latina Environmental Educator, I had the pleasure to research and learn about the Latino Farmer Movement and History in the United States. This information was gathered to teach two 1-hour sessions in conjunction with Leah Penniman, food justice educator and farmer at Soul Fire Farm. The class was titled: “Black and Latino Farmer Movements”. The information below is a small portion of the great historical presence Latino had and continue to have in the U.S. Food system. The information that has been gathered includes farmer movements and historical anecdotes that are related to Latinos and farmland.

Latino Farmer Movement  Timeline

1903: More than 1,200 Mexican and Japanese farm workers in Oxnard, California organized the first farm worker’s union called the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA). “Later, it will be the first union to win a strike against the California agricultural industry” (Southern Poverty Law Center: Teaching Tolerance Project, n.d.).  

 Source: United Food and Commercial Workers 324. (n.d.) 1903 Oxnard Beet Sows of Seeds of Diversity. Retrieved from: https://www.ufcw324.org/About_Us/Mission_and_History/Labor_History/1903_Oxnard_Beet_Sows_the_Seeds_of_Diversity/

Source: United Food and Commercial Workers 324. (n.d.) 1903 Oxnard Beet Sows of Seeds of Diversity.

1933: Possibly the largest agricultural strike called El Monte Strike, was led by Latino unions in California. The strike was lead to protest the declining wages rate for strawberry pickers. By May 1933, wages went down to nine cents an hour. Growers agreed to a settlement in July including a wage increase of twenty cents an hour or $1.50 for a nine-hour work day (Southern Poverty Law Center: Teaching Tolerance Project, n.d.).     

1942: The Bracero Program starts. This program was created by executive order to allow Mexican citizens to work temporarily in the United States. The work for the braceros were low-paying agricultural work. A total of 4.6 millions people signed the Bracero contract. The program ends in 1964 (Bracero History Archive, n.d.).

1950: Agreement Governing Employment of Puerto Rican Labor came into place to hire Puerto Ricans for season agricultural employment in the United States (Missouri Farm Labor Bulletin: Division of Employment Security, 1950).

1965: Cesar Chaves and Dolores Huertas funded the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA) in Delano, California. Huertas becomes the first woman to lead such a union. They joined a strike started by Filipino grape pickers in Delano. They organized the Grape boycott in the U.S. and Canada. The grape boycott became one of the most significant social justice movements for farm workers in the United States (Southern Poverty Law Center: Teaching Tolerance Project, n.d.).

1965: Luis Valdez, American playwright, actor, and film director, funded the world famous theater called “El Teatro Campesino”. El Teatro Campesino was the first farm workers theater in Delano, California. Actors entertained and educated farm workers about their rights (Southern Poverty Law Center: Teaching Tolerance Project, n.d.) 

Source: San Francisco State University. (2007). Cultivating creativity: The arts and the Farm Worker’s movement during the 60’s and 70’s. Retrieved from: http://www.library.sfsu.edu/exhibits/cultivating/intropages/teatrocampesino.html

Source: San Francisco State University. (2007). Cultivating creativity: The arts and the Farm Worker’s movement during the 60’s and 70’s.

1993: Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Florida comes to place to raise 1 cent per tomato pound for farm workers (Keshari et. al, 2014). The Coalition of Immokalee Workers successfully created the Fair Food Program which growers, buyers, and corporations signed up to raise one cent per pound. Other sections of the Fair Food Program include: industry-wide implementation of a 24-hour complaint hotline and rapid complaint investigation, worker-to-worker education on worker rights and responsibilities,  human rights-based Code of Conduct with enforcable zero tolerance policies for forced labor, child labor, violence, and sexual assault, and industry-wide monitoring of the Fair Food Program (Fair Food Standards Council, 2014).

1995: Acequia farmers in San Luis Valley in Colorado joined other local activists-driven organizations to oppose and successfully defeat corporations and mining companies. If not stopped, the corporations and companies would have redeveloped land in San Luis Valley. The major concern was land take over and contamination of water supplies. Acequia farmers also joined protestors to secure a ranch in San Luis Valley (Peña, 2005).

2006: The Great American Boycott took place by immigrants, including Latinos. The boycott was a protest against a legislative proposal which did not go to Congress, however, it was a high vote from the House of Representatives (The Library of Congress, 2005). The bill would have made residing illegally in the U.S. a felony and impose stiffer penalties on those who employed non-citizens. What stood out in the Great American Boycott was that some California’s politicians and religious institutions urge people to not partake in the boycott. Three major companies were supportive of the protestors. The first company was Cargill Meat Solutions which closed 5 U.S. beefs plants and two hogs plants. 15,000 workers from Cargill attended the boycott. The second company was Smithfield Food of Virginia who stated on their press release it will take time during the boycott to help employees write to U.S. Senators and representatives demanding change of immigration laws.The third company, Tyson Food, shutdown meatpacking plants to have workers attend the boycott (Lendon, 2006).

2009: After a dead tragedy of a farm worker in Burlington Vermont, the organization Migrant Justice- Justicia Migrante, comes to light to build the voice, capacity, and power of the farmworker community and engage community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights.  Migrant Justice-Justicia Migrante, has been working on building networks of farmer workers, farmers and allies to pass legislature in Vermont to provide access to licenses regardless of immigration status (Migrant Justice, 2014).

Source: Migrant Justice. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.migrantjustice.net/

Source: Migrant Justice. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.migrantjustice.net/

2014: Migrant Justice-Justicia Migrante created the Milk with Dignity! Campaign to improve the livelihoods of dairy farm workers and farmers by enlisting participating retailers to purchase and provide premiums to dairy farms that comply with Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct. Migrant Justice-Justicia Migrante’s farm worker leaders have been engaged with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to learn their process in regards to the Fair Food Program (Migrant Justice, 2014).

References

Bracero History Archive (n.d.). About the Bracero Program. Retrieved from: http://  braceroarchive.org/about

Fair Food Standards Council. (2014). Fair Food Program Annual Report. Immokalee, FL: Justice Safer Espinoza. Retrieved from: http://www.fairfoodstandards.org/reports/ 14SOTP-Web.pdf

Keshari, S, Rawal, S, Longoria, E, and Fish, H. (Producers), & Rawal, S. (Director). (2014). Food Chains (Motion Picture). United States: Screen Media Films. 

Lendon, B. (2006, May 1). U.S. Prepares for ‘A day without an Immigrant’: Organizers plan massive boycott on Monday to stop business as usual. CNN. Retrieved from:

http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/04/28/boycott/index.html

Migrant Justice (2014). Milk with Dignity! Campaign. Retrieved from:

http://www.migrantjustice.net/milk-with-dignity

Migrant Justice (2014). Photo History Timeline. Retrieved from: http://migrantjustice.net/sites/default/files/2014-11%205%20anos%20de%20lucha%20%282%20paginas%29.pdf

Missouri Farm Labor Bulletin: Division of Employment Security. (1950). Recruitment of Puerto Rican Labor for Seasonal Agricultural Employment. (Bulletin No. 5). pp. 40-42  Retrieved from: https://www.vec.virginia.gov/vecportal/employer/pdf/ FarmPlacementHandbookPT2.pdf

Peña, D. (2005) Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y vida. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 

Southern Poverty Law Center: Teaching Tolerance Project. (n.d.). Latino Civil Rights Timeline, 1903-2006. Retrieved from: http://www.tolerance.org/latino-civil-rights-timeline.

The Library of Congress. (2005). Bill Text 109th Congress (2005-2006) H.R.4437.RFS. Retrieved from: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c109:H.R.4437.RFS: