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Si, se puede!

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Lupe Rodriguez remembers a time when her people labored in the fields of California from dawn to dusk for less than $10 a day. She remembers how they died at young ages from diseases that could easily have been controlled or prevented. She remembers how their bosses mistreated them, denying them fresh drinking water, shade, rest breaks, and bathrooms.

Lupe was only 15 at the time, but she remembers it as though it were yesterday. As a migrant farm worker, her most basic human rights were violated. She can still see the planes flying overhead, dumping pesticides on the grapes she was picking. The toxins kept the bugs away, but they also made 20-year-olds look like 35-year-olds before long.

"I was tired of all the misery and living in misery and never getting out of misery," Lupe, now in her late 50s, said. "I was tired of the discrimination in the fields. I used to say that if someone came and declared a Huelga (strike) one day, I'd be the first in line."

And that's exactly what happened. When the call to Huelga sounded, Lupe was one of thousands of migrant workers who walked off the fields. Over the next 20 years, her involvement in the United Farm Workers Union would earn her so many death threats, police once had to keep guard in front of her house. Her car was bombed. She lost her job four times. Friends and neighbors told her that her six children would never amount to anything. But Lupe never once regretted her participation in the Huelga.

This is the story of how an impoverished group of laborers took on one of the biggest industries in the United States -- and won. If you still don't believe that a single person can alter the course of history, read on!

We'll start our story in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. All across the United States, African Americans were fighting for the rights of people of color through rallies, protests, and sit-ins. Yet, the sufferings of migrant farm workers, mostly Mexicans and Filipinos, were ignored.

It dawned on a migrant worker named Cesar Chavez and a community organizer named Dolores Huerta that if anyone was going to tackle the injustices they faced, it would have to be them. So they set about the daunting task of uniting tens of thousands of people with no real home base, money or resources.

"My father really had faith in what he was doing. He felt deeply that he could change things without having to resort to violence," Anthony Chavez, Cesar's youngest son, told Nick and me. "All eight of us kids would come home from school and take turns folding 30,000 leaflets, and then on Saturdays and Sundays we'd pass them out. Dad would drive out to the fields in a broken down Volvo, wearing a flannel shirt and working boots, and talk to the workers. They could relate to him because he was one of them."

In May of 1962, Cesar and Dolores held their first meeting to talk to farm workers about improving their situation. A few months later, the National Farm Worker's Association (soon to become United Farm Workers) was born. They came up with a symbol (an Aztec eagle), a motto (Si, se puede -- Yes, it can be done), and a plan. Somehow, they had to convince the State government to pass laws permitting farm workers to organize into unions. So they marched over to the State capital, which was 340 miles away! On March 17, 1966, a group of 70 migrant workers in Delano, California, walked off the fields and headed toward Sacramento.


This is Shangrila! / My good friend Pistolera just got...

"Even Cesar didn't think we would make it all the way to the capital in the beginning," said 85-year-old Manuel Delgado, a retired migrant worker. "It was a risk for us because we had no medical attention. But every time we got to a new town, people would give us food and a place to sleep. When we would leave, even more people would join us. By the time we got to Sacramento, there were thousands of us. Even [white] Americans had joined us."

Farm workers were granted permission to form a union, and they sent a strong message that they would stand up for their rights from now on. La Causa (The Cause) had officially begun.

Under the leadership of Chavez and Huerta, the United Farm Workers launched a series of boycotts that placed their plight further in the limelight. In 1965, they asked Americans to stop buying grapes until growers treated its workers more fairly. The campaign quickly spread across the nation, and within five years, a significant number of Americans had stopped buying grapes, devastating the fruit market. Growers finally gave in to the public's demands and accepted the union contract.

Lettuce was next on the farm worker's agenda. The UFW asked America to boycott lettuce to protest growers' decision to contract with another union. Chavez was thrown in jail for refusing to obey a court order to stop the boycott, but that only amplified his cry for justice. Supporters held a 24-hour vigil outside his cell, and Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy (the widows of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy) were among his many visitors.

By this point, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta had become major forces in the Civil Rights Movement. Cesar practiced the philosophy of nonviolence. He held three widely publicized hunger strikes that protested everything from the denial of free and fair elections to the crushing of farm worker rights. His hunger strike against pesticides lasted 36 days and was continued by a series of politicians and celebrities, including Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, and Whoopi Goldberg.

"During the past few years I have been studying the plague of pesticides on our land and our food," Cesar said in 1988. "The evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be. The solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless."

Sadly, Cesar Chavez died in his sleep five years later. Nearly 50,000 people participated in his funeral procession. One year after his death, 17,000 farm workers and supporters repeated the 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento. President Clinton awarded him the United States Medal of Freedom, and several states have recently declared his birthday (March 31) a holiday. Bridges, parks, schools, museums, and streets are named in his honor. He became the very symbol of the Civil Rights Movement for Latinos.

Dolores Huerta and Lupe Rodriguez continue to lead lives of activism. Dolores gravitated toward feminism and has since become a vital part of the Feminist Majority. She has helped pass legislation for Spanish-language driver's license exams and voting ballots. She has been arrested more than 20 times for her involvement in various strikes and protests, and still bares the scars from her last rally in San Francisco, when a policeman hit her, perforating her spleen. Teresa Carrillo, associate professor at San Francisco State University, says she is still as fiery as ever.

"She once told me that to be a community organizer, you have to give your entire life. That is what it takes, but that is what it deserves," Currillo said. "And that's what Dolores Huerta has done."

Lupe Rodriguez, meanwhile, has a message for those who doubted her when she walked off the fields back in the 1960s.

"They used to say to me, 'Lupe, you are a very smart woman. Why do you want to join a union? Your children are never going to make it if you do that.' I would tell them: 'I am fighting for the children. I am fighting for humanity. What we are fighting for, we will get in the future. Si se puede.'" Lupe remembered.

"Today, I would say all of that and add that all six of my children went to college!" she laughed.

But the plight of migrant farm workers continues. Many still face lousy working conditions, discrimination, and shoddy benefits. Fortunately, we now have a way to help. UFW's website (http://www.ufw.org) lists fruit, vegetable and flower growers that respect the civil rights of its workers. For example, Coastal Berry (the nation's largest strawberry grower) just signed a major pact with UFW this past month that will provide workers with a medical and dental plan, paid holidays and job security. You can support this company by buying their produce and/or dropping them a line of thanks.

PictSweet Mushrooms, on the other hand, haven't had a union contract since 1987. You can register a complaint with Ruben Franco, the general manager of PictSweet Mushroom farms, at 805-642-3253. You can also ask Pizza Hut (a big purchaser of PictSweet) to negotiate with good faith with the United Farm Workers. Dash them an email through UFW's website


And remember: Next time someone tells you it can't be done, just say "Si, se puede!"

- Stephanie


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - A secret clause and the loss of native lands
Nick - It's ours so we're taking it back! Get off of our island!
Stephanie - Si! Hablo English, German, French, Portuguese, Swedish and Greek
Nick - Mr. Swiss! Can I order a pizza?