Today’s Protests Against Racism Carry Echoes of Farmworker Equity Struggle
Across this nation, there are vehement peaceful and sometimes violent protests against the insidious racism that is literally suffocating our citizens. Many are desperately searching for the next Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, or Rosa Parks to galvanize the efforts and unify the people.
Alas, no single leader has emerged.
During the national farmworker movement, Cesar Chavez became the undisputed leader and founder of the United Farm Workers Union and became the face of fasts, strikes, boycotts, and pickets. However, there were many other valiant individuals who made significant contributions to the success of la causa who have been rarely acknowledged or recognized.
Books have not been written, movies have not been made, or memoirs published of these unlikely heroes. History is replete with anonymous figures whose life mission was to deliver the American promise to disenfranchised populations. Like the masked figures in the current racial unrest, they risked their lives to effect change and advance social causes without personal fanfare.
The national farmworker movement was no exception.
There are many lieutenants, captains, and foot soldiers who remain in the shadows of history. But they were on the front lines during marches, pickets, boycotts, and strikes — willing to suffer gross indignities, arrests, injuries, or death.
Delano Grape Strike
Chavez appointed Robert Bustos — El Capitán — then only 23 years old, to lead an historic march from Delano to Sacramento to publicize the Delano Grape Strike. Just as the march began, the Delano police blocked the road with 30 police officers dressed in riot gear. Travelling through 53 communities and spending the night in 25 towns, he kept the march focused and the momentum alive.
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The marchers crossed Highway 99 three times, marching through back roads as Bustos called out instructions. Agustine Lira, co-founder with Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, performed satirical skits for the farmworkers on the back of flatbed trucks. The skits and protest songs captured the reality of the disposed workers and offered aspirations.
A people’s history flips the script. When we look at history from the standpoint of the workers and not just the owners, the soldiers and not just the generals… we can begin to see society more fully, more accurately. The more clearly we see the past, the more clearly we’ll see the present — and be equipped to improve it.
In 1962, Jim Drake, just out of the seminary, organized farmworkers in the Goshen area and learned much about organizing from Chavez. He led a labor camp rent strike three months prior the historic Delano Grape Strike. Farmworkers complained about increased rent for their dilapidated housing and united to withhold rent until improvements were made. Eventual court action rescinded the rent increase. He would later lead the California Grape Boycott from 1965 to 1970.
Douglas “Pato” Adair, left graduate school in 1965 to join the movement and became an editor of the Union’s El Malcriado, known as the voice of the farmworker. One time, he visited the home of a strike breaker and was flattened by the father.
Epifanio Camacho was one of the first farmworkers to engage Chavez for strike support. His employer failed to make good on a promise to increase wages to fellow rose grafters, who performed a tedious and highly skilled operation. For his courage, Camacho was blackballed from the rose graft industry.
Texas Melon Strike
One of the most courageous chapters in the national farmworkers movement occurred during the Starr County, Texas melon strike in 1966. Farmworkers faced violence and intimidation from the notorious Texas Rangers. Eugene Nelson formed the Independent Workers Association and led farmworkers to demand improved wages and an end to the collusion between state and local law enforcement authorities, the judicial system, and melon growers.
A union member, Magdaleno Dimas, was severely beaten by Texas Rangers after he was suspected of carrying a weapon near a melon packing shed. Daria Vera and Irene Chandler were the only women willing to literally lay down their lives to block an international bridge that was the entry point for Mexican strikebreakers. After the striking men were arrested, the brave women chose to stay in defiance of the deputy sheriffs. The success of the melon strike improved the availability of toilets and drinking water, and increased wages.
Pioneers for Social Change
There is no doubt that Chavez captured the imagination of the American public to publicize and mitigate the deplorable plight of farmworkers. But to dismiss the undaunted agency of ordinary men and women in the farmworker struggle and other social movements is to misrepresent history and disregard the power of voices that were never in the spotlight.
When the discovered stories are finally told of the invisible actors during the Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation, and the Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, it will expand the historical narrative beyond the face of the leader. It will make room for anonymous faceless and masked figures to take their proper place as pioneers for social change.
About the Author
Paul A. Garcia is a retired educator. He has written commentary pieces on education and issues that affect the Latino community. He has a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from Fresno State/UC Davis.