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Cesar Chavez and me

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Guadalupe Gamboa, second from left, with Cesar Chavez, far left, and other leaders of the farmworkers' movement. Guadalupe Gamboa, second from left, with Cesar Chavez, far left, and other leaders of the farmworkers' movement.

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I was lucky enough to work with some of the heroes of the farmworker organizing movement. Here’s what I learned.

In honor of Cesar Chavez Day today, and the recent release of the film Cesar Chavez, guest blogger Guadalupe Gamboa shares his experiences with the US farmworkers’ movement. Gamboa is a senior program officer in Oxfam’s US regional office and a founder of the Equitable Food Initiative. In May, he will receive the Shelley Davis Memorial Award for 2014 from Farmworker Justice.

In 1967, I got in a car with a friend and drove all night—from Sunnyside, Washington to Delano, California—to find Cesar Chavez.

I was a student at the University of Washington at the time, and what I’d heard about Chavez resonated with me. I grew up as a farmworker, and so found myself drawn into the struggle to organize and empower the people who work so hard to bring food to our table—but are often so invisible and silent. Farmworkers were the lowest of the low in Yakima Valley (where I’d grown up), and here’s this guy fighting for the rights of farmworkers.

That night, we started looking for Cesar in the more affluent parts of town. We eventually ended up in the barrio, in a little house where his office was. There he was, a small, indigenous-looking guy, surrounded by a group of workers.

He was very charismatic, and you could see the impact he’d had on the workers. They comported themselves differently, they were engaged and proud and had a sense of self-worth—which was sorely lacking in Yakima Valley. He didn’t waste any time putting me and my friend to work; he immediately assigned us a task.

In time, I was lucky enough to work with some of the heroes of the organizing movement: not just Cesar Chavez, but Dolores Huerta and Fred Ross, Sr. These leaders improvised as they went along: they were very detailed, and they knew how to build a base in a neighborhood. In trainings, they taught us how to organize:  how to talk to workers, hold house meetings, sign them up, and motivate them to take action.

Back then California was controlled by growers’ interests. They were strong enough to break a strike quickly, so the union came up with the idea of the boycott. If sales of grapes stopped, the growers would have to respond. Along with some other students from farmworker backgrounds, we got the University of Washington to remove grapes from campus–the first college in the country to do so.

I got involved with a strike in the hops industry after I visited a picket line one day in the Valley. As the strike spread to other ranches, we called for help from the United Farm Workers in California, and they sent folks to help. Dolores Huerta came, and we had a vote that was almost 100 percent for the union. While we didn’t end up with a contract, that’s what really drew me into the farmworker movement for good.

In the 1970s, I worked on the second major grape boycott for about seven years. I got room and board and $5 a week; we had to find our own accommodations. (Once we were lucky and a seminary put us up–the food was good.) I went to Pittsburgh, New York, and Toronto, over two years, working with Marshall Ganz, and gathering support from other unions and organizations. The Catholic Church invited us to speak from the pulpit and to hold meetings with parishioners.

We targeted Dominion (a major supermarket chain), and would hold picket lines four days a week.  We would hold billboards outside stores and subway stations and get people as they were coming out or going in. Cesar would come to speak at rallies. It was a very effective boycott, and the growers felt the pressure. At the time, it seemed like drudgery; we didn’t realize we were making history.

These days, I have new hope for our movement. And I invite you to join us by supporting today’s farmworkers. There’s no better way to spend your working days and nights.

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