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Cesar Chavez discusses farm labor rights

BROADCAST: 1967 | DURATION: 00:38:43

Synopsis

Cesar Chavez discusses the United Farm Workers effort to gain rights for farm laborers and his childhood that led him to become a labor rights activist.

Transcript

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Studs Terkel I suppose one of the most dramatic aspects in all history at all times is when a people have a difficult time--a people anywhere in the world--and out of that group of people emerges someone who speaks for them--their dreams, their aspirations, and justice. In the case, dramatic case in India, of course would be Gandhi. In early American Revolution, certain spokesmen came along, whether it be Jefferson the aristocrat or one of the men leading the colonials. In the case of Mexican Americans there's one figure emerges in the middle of this 20th century. His name is Cesar Chavez and perhaps many of the listeners know of the Farm Workers Association and the dramatic march in California in the Delano country. And campaigning--campaigning, indeed striving for minimal aspects of right and Mr. Chavez is here under the auspices of the John A. Ryan forum. And I thought I'd--I've read of Mr. Chavez a great deal, Cesar Chavez, and I always admired him. I think of you right now, it's been somewhat exhausting for you, these three, four years, you know, since the group itself was called the--what, the National Farmworkers Association?

Cesar Chavez Its--that's been changed lately because we merged with another group in California that was trying to--also attempted to organize farm workers into union. And we are now called the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and it's affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of how this became--how you yourself came to be the person you are, too. There was--we know of the Selma Montgomery March that was so dramatic in which the Negro people were fighting for elementary rights. There was a march that you led. How this came to [be?], this march 300 miles of Southern California territory.

Cesar Chavez Well, there's a lot of history behind that march. There's many years of organizing and trying to get people together to protest, to claim those rights that are so, you know, fundamental. A right to live, a right to have enough to eat, and so forth. But the idea of the march came some years back when myself and others like me were involved in a legislative battle in California trying to obtain old-age assistance for the aged Mexicans who were not citizens but had worked there for 40, 50, and 60 years and came to the end of their working days and they didn't have a way to live. And, so, I was proposing a march from the Mexican border to Sacramento We were able to get the legislation [sent?] and it [never?] came about. But I got that idea from reading Gandhi in India and the dramatic march to the--

Studs Terkel You did read Gandhi?

Cesar Chavez Yes. And as I read it I began to--well, not to imitate him because that's impossible, he was a saint, you know. But the idea of a march is very appealing, it's--you talk about organizing or togetherness or cooperation, marching is a form of--I don't think there's any other form, and this includes meetings, where people feel some togetherness and brotherhood. They're doing the same thing, it's a very relaxed thing, it's--and above all, you're gaining. You see that you're physically making progress because you're walking.

Studs Terkel That is, you are walking.

Cesar Chavez You are walking--

Studs Terkel Something physical is involved, too.

Cesar Chavez Yeah. And I, for maybe 10 years or so, toyed around with the idea that farm workers would probably have to do this to dramatize their plight and the need for some social change. So, it was [that?].

Studs Terkel Before I ask you about the farm workers, their plight, and the fact that they--this is the neglected group that, in a way, John Steinbeck memorialized in "The Grapes of Wrath", of course. And you, in the case of Mexican Americans and the grape pickers, have made come a reality. [Unintelligible] I want to ask about Cesar Chavez, how he came to be, and reading Gandhi. But the march, you also--it had--it was sort of religious in nature, too, it was a labor, there was a labor struggle involved--at the same time you carried banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and you sang.

Cesar Chavez Yes, the whole feeling of--there's no reason why a movement has to be dry and sad, you know. Movement can be joyous, and can be "alegre" as we say

Studs Terkel Alegre, a nice tempo.

Cesar Chavez A nice feeling, tempo and it has to be because one, it's very difficult to survive, you know, because it's not a day or a week, you know, it's years and years. But also, you know, the--it's all groups, of course, it's all groups. We as Mexicans, or Mexican Americans, have a very rich tradition and we're attempting to incorporate these traditional things that are part of the culture and so forth into the things we're doing. It's a lot to easier to explain to people and for people to understand when you incorporate those things that are so much a part of them. The--having our Lady of Guadalupe in a banner in front, you know, was a very--no, it was no real stroke, it was no real great idea, it just came because she's been involved in two or three revolutions in Mexico. And, in fact--

Studs Terkel Zapata used her, too?

Cesar Chavez Zapata and all the movements where the poor were involved, she was there. So this was, like, accepted and we sang songs and we have a lot of color and a lot of red and black and white and we get criticized sometimes for these things

Studs Terkel You see the connection here, you say, between the culture, the people, their very lives and here is their--THE patron saint. So, it's not just something removed from life, it's part of very life

Cesar Chavez Part--yes. Part in using all of those experiences that we've had and incorporating them in such a way that we can come together and demand, or ask, or plead with or whatever the word--for whatever the proper word is--to gain those rights that we want.

Studs Terkel It was a singing march, then? Songs. Do you recall--not to ask you to sing, but if you can, great--do you recall, these are songs that everyone knew from childhood?

Cesar Chavez Yes, and then we also learned a lot of songs that or, rather, we sang a lot of songs that we learned from the Civil Rights Movement and a lot of old folk songs and labor songs that are part of the tradition here in America, too.

Studs Terkel There is a connection then, in short, perhaps if we could draw some threads together because it's the life of Chavez that, to me, is so thrilling. Cesar Chavez himself, our guest. The connection between the Negro revolution and the Mexican Americans campaigning for their elementary rights is not a remote one.

Cesar Chavez No, no it isn't. It's, in the first place, it involves people and secondly involves people who are striving for certain rights. I would say that a lot of, a lot of courage and a lot of willingness to do things came to the Mexican American because of the example, the beautiful example that the Negro set, and is setting, you know, demanding these rights. Particularly the whole idea of nonviolence is very appealing to us. I think it's very appealing to all people. And so, it's not, it's not a distant thing. I think it has an awful lot of things in common.

Studs Terkel How did you--now we come to the story--Yuma, Arizona. You're about 38 now, 39. Cesar Chavez, who is the spokesman, you might say the spirit of it, though you will deny, of course, you will speak of others, your colleagues who are part of it. Did you yourself--how did--where did you get this? Your childhood? Yuma, Arizona. Suppose we go back to that?

Cesar Chavez Well, it's a very long story, it's not, it's not an interesting or dramatic story, it's just a very simple story. My father had a small plot of land there that was left to him by my grandfather who homesteaded the land, who, in turn, came from Mexico as a--well, he was a peon in the--this is before the Mexican Revolution--and he escaped bondage there and came to Texas and then went to Arizona. And somewhere along [then?] he became a citizen and he homesteaded the land and then my father grew up there and I was born there. Then, during the Depression, he lost that piece of land he had, so we went to California, we became migratory workers. And I must have been around eight, I guess, eight or nine years old then. And we joined the migratory stream and we crisscrossed that state for maybe 15 years or more until, well, most of us got married and then [it?] sort of broke up the family. And some of us, after having our own families, continued the migratory stream and others not so much. Then, oh, about 1950, there was a movement in California, a very quiet movement, but a very effective movement called the Community Service Organization. That movement was being helped by the Industrial Areas Foundation of Chicago who Saul Alinsky heads. And Saul and Fred Ross who was the West Coast director for the IAF in those days was the chief organizer among Mexican Americans. It was a civic group and I, through the influences of a priest, I joined the movement and began to learn things and--but most of all began to have an opportunity to see a organization develop and learn from Fred Ross, and some from Mr. Alinsky. And, so, I began to get ideas--

Studs Terkel Were you--

Cesar Chavez That the farm workers could do something, although we were not organizing farm workers directly. We were working with them but most of the things that we were doing then--I became an organizer for a while and I went on the staff and had tremendous experiences with them and [all of?] my life's changed and they gave--it opened new vistas and gave me ideas. And, so, the idea, of course, was that if it works here why couldn't it work for a union with farm workers?

Studs Terkel When you were eight, you were nine and now you became part of a migrant family. Your father--was your father involved now and then with strikes that [lost, defeated, and attempts that were made? Did you see things as a little kid?

Cesar Chavez Yes, there were--well, I recall some of the examples, for instance, one of the things that I recall because it is even so today--he has, he [usually? seriously?] joined about every farm worker union that came around. See, everybody was in California trying to organize farm workers and so he's preserved many of the membership cards from various unions, maybe six, seven, eight unions. And whenever there was a strike he was the first one who [would?] join. Most of the strikes were short lived. We ourselves made some strikes. When I--when we grew and, you know, to a little older and we were working out in the fields, we wouldn't have protest strikes, we would--it wasn't a real organized strike, it was a protest and we would quit the job and we would argue with the farm labor contractor or the grower. We would quit or we would try to get the people to walk out and it was an organized thing, but it was a protest. We were saying we don't want the conditions, we want--we want [agua?] and some change. And usually what it amounted to was that you would leave or you'd get fired and then you'd probably get another job and that was a constant protest, and not only ourselves, but many, many families. And--but one of the vivid memories that I have on unions--this was, I'm not--it must have been during the heyday of the CIO in 1937, 38. They were trying to organize some of the prune pickers in Santa Clara Valley in--that's in San Jose, near San Jose. And together with that they were also organizing the fruit sheds where the prunes are processed. And I remember my father and my uncle joining the union, and remember having the organizer come to the house and talk to him about the union, and remember my father talking to my mother about the union. I remember my uncle, my mother and some of the other adults, you know, concerned about whether they would win now--whether the union would win or concerned with maybe their own safety and these things. I don't remember, really, all of the details, but I do remember there was sort of an exciting thing because it was, you know, different and I didn't understand why but as kids, you know, we stayed up later than usual to see what was happening and wanted to be around.

Studs Terkel It's something you as a little kid remember, of these Mexican American families, and that your father and his friends--even though they failed, even though it missed--they were trying for something. You knew a life that could be, that was better.

Cesar Chavez Many, many people tried. 40, 50 years have been trying, even possibly longer. I think some--there are some recorded things way back in the--before the turn of the century--when the Chinese were organizing and the Japanese initiating the slowdowns and the Chinese--

Studs Terkel The Chinese farmworkers on the coast?

Cesar Chavez On the coast, the ones that

Studs Terkel Railroad workers, too?

Cesar Chavez Well, these are the ones after the railroads were built, you know, they were displaced, they were gotten rid of and they had no place to go to but to agriculture. This is how the farm labor contractor developed, you know, the Chinese would come to the farm and say, "Do you need any work done?" The grower would say, "Yes." "Well, I have in San Francisco, I have 200, 300 Chinese who would like to work." So he became the middleman and it became a very--even to this day--a very, very bad system.

Studs Terkel You--perhaps even, we'll continue because as we talk to Cesar Chavez, it's be back and forth, free association, a story of your life. You mentioned contractors, farm labor. In "Grapes of Wrath", which you know, I know, very well, John Steinbeck's novel dealing with the Oklahoma people coming to California. The contractor, then, of course, the farm laborers are left out of the Employment Practices Act, aren't they?

Cesar Chavez Si. We are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. When the New Deal came around and the industrial workers got that New Deal, you know, we didn't get a New Deal. We were excluded and the workers the--or rather the growers--lobbied and did a very good job on Roosevelt and the New Dealers by convincing them that somehow agriculture was different and somehow those people who work in agriculture were also different. But it wasn't only--as we analyze this and as we ask ourselves why, in that great period when so much social change has been taking place, why was this group of workers excluded? And I've come to realize, and not as a charge, you know, but just trying to really understand it, we know that the growers have a lot power and have a lot of power and influence, money and so forth, but I think that one of the reasons is that if you look across the land and you see who does the working in the farms, you'll see that a very large majority of the workers are minority group people: Negroes, Mexicans, Filipinos, Arabians, Japanese, people from the West Indies. And I somehow think that that probably also played a part in it, that there was discrimination there against these groups. So the concern wasn't as deep there as if we had been, you know--

Studs Terkel Caucasians. Whites.

Cesar Chavez Caucasians.

Studs Terkel They didn't count--they don't count as much. You're talking now about the New Deal, a very enlightened and thrilling labor period, it would seem. Yet, deep, deep down there was the fact that some, almost subconsciously, excluded, if not consciously.

Cesar Chavez Right. Right. And it's very difficult to understand. And, so, while you can get very excited about the New Deal, you know, when you come to that black spot, you know, it's very difficult to understand why.

Studs Terkel And so, in a sense, as you said earlier, the Negro revolution not accidentally played its role, too, in the Farm Workers Association drive, too. There is this double thread here [unintelligible].

Cesar Chavez There is. There is, very much so. We had--see, our movement over there in California, we wanted very much to have a nonviolent movement along with what we were doing and we had been following the Civil Rights Movement and we started the strike and two days later--in fact, the following day after I started the strike I called on--I didn't know the people in the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CORE but I put in calls to their national offices and explained to them what we were doing and they hadn't heard about it yet. They, it wasn't news, really. And I asked them if they could send one man each, you know, to come and be with us. And they very gladly complied immediately. So, about the third or fourth day of the strike we had some young fellows that came to be with us and they began to talk to us or answer questions about nonviolence and while we never had any formal--I never agreed that we should have any formal sessions on nonviolence but I wanted to know some of their experiences like, for instance, what happens when you get hit? And to see if we could understand, you know. And as we--as the strike continued we, all of us, not because we wanted to but because we had chosen this philosophy, had to pass through these trials. And happily enough, all of us have been able to remain

Studs Terkel Here again the Gandhi-esque approach to it, at the same time the strength, the--not passive at all. Active,

Cesar Chavez Active. Now, there's, of course, always a question, in my mind--I don't think that nonviolence should be used only as a tactic but it's a very powerful weapon. And anybody that says nonviolence is not power is mistaken. It's very powerful. There aren't any weapons against it. There's no way it can be challenged, there's no way it can be--it's devastating, it's just like a sail full of wind and then all of a sudden it rips and there's nothing there. You just can't get a hold of it, but it's there. And--but it's a, I think, a more beautiful thing if it can be perfected like Gandhi, for instance, where it becomes a way of life and not as an expedient or not as a tactic. And we haven't done that. And it would be a very beautiful thing but I don't know that we can. But it's a goal anyway.

Studs Terkel Cesar Chavez is our guest. A moment ago you were speaking, it was quite poetic as you were describing the power of nonviolence. Yourself, as far as formal education, it was almost all self-education, is it not, in your case?

Cesar Chavez Yes, there isn't--I do understand, there isn't a migratory worker my age or even a little older--a little younger--who had the ability to go to school. I went to, as a lot of other farm workers I'm sure, I went to something like 37 schools, grade schools, and I was able to complete--

Studs Terkel 37?

Cesar Chavez To complete through the seventh grade and the beginning of the eighth grade. And it was so difficult to go to school. You know, there were schools we went to one day, schools that we went to for a week, schools that we went to and they wouldn't take us in because we happened to be of a different color, you know, or a different background. Schools that we went to which were segregated three ways: Mexicans in one school, Negroes in the other one, and the Anglos in the other one. And days that we couldn't go to school because we didn't have shoes or days we couldn't go to school because we just didn't have anything to eat. And, so, all of these things, but somehow we were able to get a little schooling. And then the rest I've just learned from associating with good men.

Studs Terkel You know, I'm thinking as we hear Cesar Chavez talk, we think of two aspects of our country: one we know about and we don't know about at all. And just telling us now, so little known it is, the deprivations of the people, in this case the Mexican Americans of the Southwest. And Woody Guthrie, as you know, Woody does Dust Bowl ballads, and one of the songs is "Pastures of Plenty". And the lines are so directly connected with you and [everything?] "You know I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes, I slept on the ground in the light of your moon. On the edge of your city, you'll see us and then we come with the dust and we go with the wind", and he goes on, "California, Arizona"--which you know well, Cesar Chavez--"I make all your crops, well it's up north to Oregon to gather your hops, dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine, to set on your table your light sparkling wine." And somehow it's this aspect that is now becoming recognized, thanks to you and your colleagues and your march and your organization. I suppose it's hard for us, again, people living in the city, part of what is known as an affluent society, yet we know there are deep, deep, deep--more than pockets of poverty, but the valleys of them. The farm workers yourselves, you weren't even getting minimum minimum wages for a while, isn't it?

Cesar Chavez Well, our organizing drive is the fact that a very small percentage of the total workforce--see, this country has run on the assumption that farm workers are different and agriculture is different and there is a contradiction here that it's a very sad thing that those who harvest the food don't have food themselves. And just like those who work in a shoe factory not having shoes to wear, it's a very--but in this case it is more so because it's food, the most necessary thing in life, the indispensable thing in life. And with the advances, you know, the technology in our country, all the advances, the richness, all these things, and it just doesn't fit, it just shouldn't be there. And the wonder is that with all of these things that are happening in our country that we ourselves permit it to be there. It's one of the evils, of course, there's others, you know, like racial discrimination and so forth. But this is another evil and getting mad about it doesn't really change anything. And wishing to do something doesn't really change anything but getting in there and working, you know, just slowly and with patience and bringing the idea and the understanding to the worker himself that something can be done. Now, we've been in the struggle now for five years--it'll be five years next month--but only a year-and-a-half in a strike. We've had some dramatic victories but when you consider the whole workforce in America it's just a very small number of people that are affected by the gains. So we have people working now at two dollars an hour, and with some very important gains. Not so much those material gains like money and better working conditions--they're important--but even more important the, I think, the most important thing is that somehow, you know at long last, there's that dignity that, you know, has been returned to us. Not because the word sounds nice and because dignity is a good thing, no, because what it does to men, you know, and to their families, and to--it changes the whole life, you know, it's just, it's a very beautiful thing to have it happen. But even though, you know, all these dramatic victories and experiences it's a very small group. Now our job is to get the farm worker to organize himself. We can't do it, it would cost about a million dollars a month or, say, a million--it would cost no less than five million dollars a year if we were to staff up--to have a paid staff with all of the money needed to send people all over the country. But we have more than that--we have people, and these people now have some, they've seen some victories, they have courage, and it's a movement. A movement with ideas and that can't be stopped.

Studs Terkel Of course, this point that Cesar Chavez is talking about, this point you mention, this very key point, this intangible that are so powerful. A man's sense of personal worth. I mean, for all these years, I suppose, with migrant farm workers, Mexicans, minority groups: feeling you're nobody, you're told you're nobody. Thus it affects the child, it affects the father, it affects the mother, and suddenly the recognition that there's something you can do. You are somebody.

Cesar Chavez And this becomes very evident. For instance, some--oh, just, difficult to explain, to put in words the experiences. For instance, as you're working, yourself, or, you know, gaining or learning a lot more than, you're getting more than what you're giving, but imagine a group of workers who are--have been working with the same employer for, say 12 years, or 15 years or five years. And then the strike is won and then they go and they sit at a table right across from him. And for the very first time meet as man to man. It's a great feeling. And it also carries, you know, just to the very last worker in that [ranch?]. It doesn't matter if there's a thousand or two of them or a hundred, you know, it carries to the very last man. And then that also carries into the families and to the kids. And it's--

Studs Terkel It affects every aspect of life.

Cesar Chavez Every, every

Studs Terkel A sense of personal worth to someone.

Cesar Chavez That's the most important thing.

Studs Terkel Yes. I suppose when, during that march, when word came that one of the large distillers gave in, that is, you didn't know whether you were going to win or lose in these union--

Cesar Chavez Yes.

Studs Terkel And that must have been some moment.

Cesar Chavez It was a very dramatic moment. The--this was on the fourth of April of last year.

Studs Terkel 1966?

Cesar Chavez 1966. We had been on strike, oh, about eight months and the call came in a day before. We were at Stockton, California and we were just gathering there that day and a call came in and I say this because it was sort of a shock when it came in. Although we wanted victory and we needed victory very badly, all of us expected that when victory came it was going to sort of arrive in a--with loud music and trumpets and victory was, you know, and that when the growers called it was going to be a very formal thing. We'd never had the experience, we didn't know what--and, so, we're in Stockton and there was a telephone call for me and I went and I got the call. And there was a voice on the other side of the line and said that he was with [Shandley?] and he wanted to recognize our union and sit down to write a contract. Of course, I thought he was kidding, and I said, "You're kidding," you know, and I hung up on him. 'Cause we'd had similar calls, you know, all during the strike. Then I was getting ready, I was walking out of the room and the phone rang again, I came back and I answered it and he called back again, with the same voice with the same message, so I took it more seriously. And--

Studs Terkel What happened when you announced it? When you told it?

Cesar Chavez Well, when it was announced--it's one of the things that can't be described with words but it was a feeling that--

Studs Terkel There's that, the sound of the machine here at this dramatic moment, asking Mr. Chavez what happened that moment, and I know it's very difficult to describe, that triumphant moment.

Cesar Chavez Well, as it usually happens in a thing, in a development of this sort, I made the announcement as undramatically as I could. And I suppose it was at least 15, if not 30 seconds, of complete disbelief. Then it sort of began to register on different people. There was great joy, of course, jubilation. A lot of tears. And, well, all the things that go together with it, with a announcement like this. It was, a great celebration took place right then and there. We had carried with us [Shandley?] boycott signs, so someone suggested that we should burn them. And we did. And no sooner than we burned them, so, then we had about a half an hour rest, we were marching, side of the road, and someone suggested we should immediately make some more signs, new signs for the other, the other struggle. But the announcement was very dramatic. It came, thanks to God, at a time when we really needed it. It was eight, over eight months struggle, but these, the--some of the amazing things. There were a lot of near miracles that have taken place in this movement and one of them was the willingness of the people to persist for so long. Eight months is a long time when there's no experiences, when they've never before had any victories, when really no union's ever been built and all the attempts have been defeats. In fact, from the time we got the first recognition, the contract, the morale of the people was even higher than the beginning. And, at this point, there are some workers there who could have gone back to work in those places, who settled the dispute, but they don't want to go back to work. They say that, "No, I want to stay and see the whole thing through because I want to see that other workers get those things that I could have got--that I already got--because of settling a contract with my employer and other workers have because [they] return back to work. I want to see the thing through". It's a movement. A lot of--it's a new thing. An awful lot of liberty in the movement. I'm the oldest one in the movement.

Studs Terkel You are, at 38?

Cesar Chavez Well, I'm the oldest of the leadership, you know, and--

Studs Terkel My young colleagues have come up to join you.

Cesar Chavez Oh, yes. We have--most of our organizers are, with the exception of the director of organization, the director of the organizing drive--all of our organizers are right out of the fields and the oldest one is 23 or 24. Oh, the development is something

Studs Terkel You say this, I suppose to you, Cesar Chavez, beginner, I suppose there's a joy, too, in seeing these young guys become leaders, too?

Cesar Chavez That's--nothing can compensate that. No amount of money or prestige or personal recognition will. It's as good and as satisfying to see other people begin to develop. It's really great.

Studs Terkel I think in the story of Cesar Chavez, if I could be a little dramatic, and yet drama sometimes is right, too, there's a parable here, too, of a man and a people. And though he hasn't said it, he turned down a job for $21,000 a year to be the Peace Corps director for some of the Latin American countries to still work at $1.25 an hour in Delano, to work with his colleagues, with his people. And this, too, is the satisfaction that you see now. You've still a number of rivers across cross, though, there's still about six or seven tough obstacles ahead. Always a struggle.

Cesar Chavez Always a struggle. I suppose we'll be struggling for the next 20 years but in the meantime some progress has been made. There are a number of very difficult things we have to resolve. But the best, the biggest one and the best one has been resolved and that is that the movement is on and it's marching, it's got legs and it's going.

Studs Terkel One last question of Cesar Chavez: What do you want out of life now?

Cesar Chavez Well, I think that I wanted to see some concrete proof that it could be done and that's been accomplished, although it's in a very small way, but it's been accomplished. Now, I'll accept anything that comes. I have--if everything goes well I have a number of years to give to it. And if the workers want me, I'll be there. You know, someone asked me when--at what point would you consider the workers organized? And I said at that point when the workers no longer want me or those who began the movement, then they'll be organized and they'll feel then that they can do it on their own.

Studs Terkel Then you'll know you're not needed anymore, yet we know there's always a Cesar Chavez, represents something, an aspiration, and a hope, the realization of a human being, people. I'm delighted and honored to have you as my guest. And we're going to hear music for the rest of the program.

Cesar Chavez And we're very happy to be here, it's my pleasure.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much, Cesar Chavez of the National Farm Workers Association.

Cesar Chavez Now the new group--the new name is United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.

Studs Terkel What's the Mexican--the Spanish word for good luck? For joy? For triumph?

Cesar Chavez "Buena suerte."

Studs Terkel "Buenes?"

Cesar Chavez

Studs Terkel I suppose one of the most dramatic aspects in all history at all times is when a people have a difficult time--a people anywhere in the world--and out of that group of people emerges someone who speaks for them--their dreams, their aspirations, and justice. In the case, dramatic case in India, of course would be Gandhi. In early American Revolution, certain spokesmen came along, whether it be Jefferson the aristocrat or one of the men leading the colonials. In the case of Mexican Americans there's one figure emerges in the middle of this 20th century. His name is Cesar Chavez and perhaps many of the listeners know of the Farm Workers Association and the dramatic march in California in the Delano country. And campaigning--campaigning, indeed striving for minimal aspects of right and Mr. Chavez is here under the auspices of the John A. Ryan forum. And I thought I'd--I've read of Mr. Chavez a great deal, Cesar Chavez, and I always admired him. I think of you right now, it's been somewhat exhausting for you, these three, four years, you know, since the group itself was called the--what, the National Farmworkers Association? Its--that's been changed lately because we merged with another group in California that was trying to--also attempted to organize farm workers into union. And we are now called the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and it's affiliated with the AFL-CIO. I'm thinking of how this became--how you yourself came to be the person you are, too. There was--we know of the Selma Montgomery March that was so dramatic in which the Negro people were fighting for elementary rights. There was a march that you led. How this came to [be?], this march 300 miles of Southern California territory. Well, there's a lot of history behind that march. There's many years of organizing and trying to get people together to protest, to claim those rights that are so, you know, fundamental. A right to live, a right to have enough to eat, and so forth. But the idea of the march came some years back when myself and others like me were involved in a legislative battle in California trying to obtain old-age assistance for the aged Mexicans who were not citizens but had worked there for 40, 50, and 60 years and came to the end of their working days and they didn't have a way to live. And, so, I was proposing a march from the Mexican border to Sacramento We were able to get the legislation [sent?] and it [never?] came about. But I got that idea from reading Gandhi in India and the dramatic march to the-- You did read Gandhi? Yes. And as I read it I began to--well, not to imitate him because that's impossible, he was a saint, you know. But the idea of a march is very appealing, it's--you talk about organizing or togetherness or cooperation, marching is a form of--I don't think there's any other form, and this includes meetings, where people feel some togetherness and brotherhood. They're doing the same thing, it's a very relaxed thing, it's--and above all, you're gaining. You see that you're physically making progress because you're walking. That is, you are walking. You are walking-- Something physical is involved, too. Yeah. And I, for maybe 10 years or so, toyed around with the idea that farm workers would probably have to do this to dramatize their plight and the need for some social change. So, it was [that?]. Before I ask you about the farm workers, their plight, and the fact that they--this is the neglected group that, in a way, John Steinbeck memorialized in "The Grapes of Wrath", of course. And you, in the case of Mexican Americans and the grape pickers, have made come a reality. [Unintelligible] I want to ask about Cesar Chavez, how he came to be, and reading Gandhi. But the march, you also--it had--it was sort of religious in nature, too, it was a labor, there was a labor struggle involved--at the same time you carried banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and you sang. Yes, the whole feeling of--there's no reason why a movement has to be dry and sad, you know. Movement can be joyous, and can be "alegre" as we say in Alegre, a nice tempo. Happy. A nice feeling, tempo and it has to be because one, it's very difficult to survive, you know, because it's not a day or a week, you know, it's years and years. But also, you know, the--it's all groups, of course, it's all groups. We as Mexicans, or Mexican Americans, have a very rich tradition and we're attempting to incorporate these traditional things that are part of the culture and so forth into the things we're doing. It's a lot to easier to explain to people and for people to understand when you incorporate those things that are so much a part of them. The--having our Lady of Guadalupe in a banner in front, you know, was a very--no, it was no real stroke, it was no real great idea, it just came because she's been involved in two or three revolutions in Mexico. And, in fact-- Zapata used her, too? Zapata and all the movements where the poor were involved, she was there. So this was, like, accepted and we sang songs and we have a lot of color and a lot of red and black and white and we get criticized sometimes for these things but-- You see the connection here, you say, between the culture, the people, their very lives and here is their--THE patron saint. So, it's not just something removed from life, it's part of very life itself. Part--yes. Part in using all of those experiences that we've had and incorporating them in such a way that we can come together and demand, or ask, or plead with or whatever the word--for whatever the proper word is--to gain those rights that we want. It was a singing march, then? Songs. Do you recall--not to ask you to sing, but if you can, great--do you recall, these are songs that everyone knew from childhood? Yes, and then we also learned a lot of songs that or, rather, we sang a lot of songs that we learned from the Civil Rights Movement and a lot of old folk songs and labor songs that are part of the tradition here in America, too. There is a connection then, in short, perhaps if we could draw some threads together because it's the life of Chavez that, to me, is so thrilling. Cesar Chavez himself, our guest. The connection between the Negro revolution and the Mexican Americans campaigning for their elementary rights is not a remote one. No, no it isn't. It's, in the first place, it involves people and secondly involves people who are striving for certain rights. I would say that a lot of, a lot of courage and a lot of willingness to do things came to the Mexican American because of the example, the beautiful example that the Negro set, and is setting, you know, demanding these rights. Particularly the whole idea of nonviolence is very appealing to us. I think it's very appealing to all people. And so, it's not, it's not a distant thing. I think it has an awful lot of things in common. How did you--now we come to the story--Yuma, Arizona. You're about 38 now, 39. Cesar Chavez, who is the spokesman, you might say the spirit of it, though you will deny, of course, you will speak of others, your colleagues who are part of it. Did you yourself--how did--where did you get this? Your childhood? Yuma, Arizona. Suppose we go back to that? Well, it's a very long story, it's not, it's not an interesting or dramatic story, it's just a very simple story. My father had a small plot of land there that was left to him by my grandfather who homesteaded the land, who, in turn, came from Mexico as a--well, he was a peon in the--this is before the Mexican Revolution--and he escaped bondage there and came to Texas and then went to Arizona. And somewhere along [then?] he became a citizen and he homesteaded the land and then my father grew up there and I was born there. Then, during the Depression, he lost that piece of land he had, so we went to California, we became migratory workers. And I must have been around eight, I guess, eight or nine years old then. And we joined the migratory stream and we crisscrossed that state for maybe 15 years or more until, well, most of us got married and then [it?] sort of broke up the family. And some of us, after having our own families, continued the migratory stream and others not so much. Then, oh, about 1950, there was a movement in California, a very quiet movement, but a very effective movement called the Community Service Organization. That movement was being helped by the Industrial Areas Foundation of Chicago who Saul Alinsky heads. And Saul and Fred Ross who was the West Coast director for the IAF in those days was the chief organizer among Mexican Americans. It was a civic group and I, through the influences of a priest, I joined the movement and began to learn things and--but most of all began to have an opportunity to see a organization develop and learn from Fred Ross, and some from Mr. Alinsky. And, so, I began to get ideas-- Were you-- That the farm workers could do something, although we were not organizing farm workers directly. We were working with them but most of the things that we were doing then--I became an organizer for a while and I went on the staff and had tremendous experiences with them and [all of?] my life's changed and they gave--it opened new vistas and gave me ideas. And, so, the idea, of course, was that if it works here why couldn't it work for a union with farm workers? When you were eight, you were nine and now you became part of a migrant family. Your father--was your father involved now and then with strikes that [lost, defeated, and attempts that were made? Did you see things as a little kid? Yes, there were--well, I recall some of the examples, for instance, one of the things that I recall because it is even so today--he has, he [usually? seriously?] joined about every farm worker union that came around. See, everybody was in California trying to organize farm workers and so he's preserved many of the membership cards from various unions, maybe six, seven, eight unions. And whenever there was a strike he was the first one who [would?] join. Most of the strikes were short lived. We ourselves made some strikes. When I--when we grew and, you know, to a little older and we were working out in the fields, we wouldn't have protest strikes, we would--it wasn't a real organized strike, it was a protest and we would quit the job and we would argue with the farm labor contractor or the grower. We would quit or we would try to get the people to walk out and it was an organized thing, but it was a protest. We were saying we don't want the conditions, we want--we want [agua?] and some change. And usually what it amounted to was that you would leave or you'd get fired and then you'd probably get another job and that was a constant protest, and not only ourselves, but many, many families. And--but one of the vivid memories that I have on unions--this was, I'm not--it must have been during the heyday of the CIO in 1937, 38. They were trying to organize some of the prune pickers in Santa Clara Valley in--that's in San Jose, near San Jose. And together with that they were also organizing the fruit sheds where the prunes are processed. And I remember my father and my uncle joining the union, and remember having the organizer come to the house and talk to him about the union, and remember my father talking to my mother about the union. I remember my uncle, my mother and some of the other adults, you know, concerned about whether they would win now--whether the union would win or concerned with maybe their own safety and these things. I don't remember, really, all of the details, but I do remember there was sort of an exciting thing because it was, you know, different and I didn't understand why but as kids, you know, we stayed up later than usual to see what was happening and wanted to be around. It's something you as a little kid remember, of these Mexican American families, and that your father and his friends--even though they failed, even though it missed--they were trying for something. You knew a life that could be, that was better. Many, many people tried. 40, 50 years have been trying, even possibly longer. I think some--there are some recorded things way back in the--before the turn of the century--when the Chinese were organizing and the Japanese initiating the slowdowns and the Chinese-- The Chinese farmworkers on the coast? On the coast, the ones that were-- Railroad workers, too? Well, these are the ones after the railroads were built, you know, they were displaced, they were gotten rid of and they had no place to go to but to agriculture. This is how the farm labor contractor developed, you know, the Chinese would come to the farm and say, "Do you need any work done?" The grower would say, "Yes." "Well, I have in San Francisco, I have 200, 300 Chinese who would like to work." So he became the middleman and it became a very--even to this day--a very, very bad system. You--perhaps even, we'll continue because as we talk to Cesar Chavez, it's be back and forth, free association, a story of your life. You mentioned contractors, farm labor. In "Grapes of Wrath", which you know, I know, very well, John Steinbeck's novel dealing with the Oklahoma people coming to California. The contractor, then, of course, the farm laborers are left out of the Employment Practices Act, aren't they? Si. We are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. When the New Deal came around and the industrial workers got that New Deal, you know, we didn't get a New Deal. We were excluded and the workers the--or rather the growers--lobbied and did a very good job on Roosevelt and the New Dealers by convincing them that somehow agriculture was different and somehow those people who work in agriculture were also different. But it wasn't only--as we analyze this and as we ask ourselves why, in that great period when so much social change has been taking place, why was this group of workers excluded? And I've come to realize, and not as a charge, you know, but just trying to really understand it, we know that the growers have a lot power and have a lot of power and influence, money and so forth, but I think that one of the reasons is that if you look across the land and you see who does the working in the farms, you'll see that a very large majority of the workers are minority group people: Negroes, Mexicans, Filipinos, Arabians, Japanese, people from the West Indies. And I somehow think that that probably also played a part in it, that there was discrimination there against these groups. So the concern wasn't as deep there as if we had been, you know-- Caucasians. Whites. Caucasians. They didn't count--they don't count as much. You're talking now about the New Deal, a very enlightened and thrilling labor period, it would seem. Yet, deep, deep down there was the fact that some, almost subconsciously, excluded, if not consciously. Right. Right. And it's very difficult to understand. And, so, while you can get very excited about the New Deal, you know, when you come to that black spot, you know, it's very difficult to understand why. And so, in a sense, as you said earlier, the Negro revolution not accidentally played its role, too, in the Farm Workers Association drive, too. There is this double thread here [unintelligible]. There is. There is, very much so. We had--see, our movement over there in California, we wanted very much to have a nonviolent movement along with what we were doing and we had been following the Civil Rights Movement and we started the strike and two days later--in fact, the following day after I started the strike I called on--I didn't know the people in the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CORE but I put in calls to their national offices and explained to them what we were doing and they hadn't heard about it yet. They, it wasn't news, really. And I asked them if they could send one man each, you know, to come and be with us. And they very gladly complied immediately. So, about the third or fourth day of the strike we had some young fellows that came to be with us and they began to talk to us or answer questions about nonviolence and while we never had any formal--I never agreed that we should have any formal sessions on nonviolence but I wanted to know some of their experiences like, for instance, what happens when you get hit? And to see if we could understand, you know. And as we--as the strike continued we, all of us, not because we wanted to but because we had chosen this philosophy, had to pass through these trials. And happily enough, all of us have been able to remain nonviolent. Here again the Gandhi-esque approach to it, at the same time the strength, the--not passive at all. Active, non-violent Active. Now, there's, of course, always a question, in my mind--I don't think that nonviolence should be used only as a tactic but it's a very powerful weapon. And anybody that says nonviolence is not power is mistaken. It's very powerful. There aren't any weapons against it. There's no way it can be challenged, there's no way it can be--it's devastating, it's just like a sail full of wind and then all of a sudden it rips and there's nothing there. You just can't get a hold of it, but it's there. And--but it's a, I think, a more beautiful thing if it can be perfected like Gandhi, for instance, where it becomes a way of life and not as an expedient or not as a tactic. And we haven't done that. And it would be a very beautiful thing but I don't know that we can. But it's a goal anyway. Cesar Chavez is our guest. A moment ago you were speaking, it was quite poetic as you were describing the power of nonviolence. Yourself, as far as formal education, it was almost all self-education, is it not, in your case? Yes, there isn't--I do understand, there isn't a migratory worker my age or even a little older--a little younger--who had the ability to go to school. I went to, as a lot of other farm workers I'm sure, I went to something like 37 schools, grade schools, and I was able to complete-- 37? To complete through the seventh grade and the beginning of the eighth grade. And it was so difficult to go to school. You know, there were schools we went to one day, schools that we went to for a week, schools that we went to and they wouldn't take us in because we happened to be of a different color, you know, or a different background. Schools that we went to which were segregated three ways: Mexicans in one school, Negroes in the other one, and the Anglos in the other one. And days that we couldn't go to school because we didn't have shoes or days we couldn't go to school because we just didn't have anything to eat. And, so, all of these things, but somehow we were able to get a little schooling. And then the rest I've just learned from associating with good men. You know, I'm thinking as we hear Cesar Chavez talk, we think of two aspects of our country: one we know about and we don't know about at all. And just telling us now, so little known it is, the deprivations of the people, in this case the Mexican Americans of the Southwest. And Woody Guthrie, as you know, Woody does Dust Bowl ballads, and one of the songs is "Pastures of Plenty". And the lines are so directly connected with you and [everything?] "You know I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes, I slept on the ground in the light of your moon. On the edge of your city, you'll see us and then we come with the dust and we go with the wind", and he goes on, "California, Arizona"--which you know well, Cesar Chavez--"I make all your crops, well it's up north to Oregon to gather your hops, dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine, to set on your table your light sparkling wine." And somehow it's this aspect that is now becoming recognized, thanks to you and your colleagues and your march and your organization. I suppose it's hard for us, again, people living in the city, part of what is known as an affluent society, yet we know there are deep, deep, deep--more than pockets of poverty, but the valleys of them. The farm workers yourselves, you weren't even getting minimum minimum wages for a while, isn't it? Well, our organizing drive is the fact that a very small percentage of the total workforce--see, this country has run on the assumption that farm workers are different and agriculture is different and there is a contradiction here that it's a very sad thing that those who harvest the food don't have food themselves. And just like those who work in a shoe factory not having shoes to wear, it's a very--but in this case it is more so because it's food, the most necessary thing in life, the indispensable thing in life. And with the advances, you know, the technology in our country, all the advances, the richness, all these things, and it just doesn't fit, it just shouldn't be there. And the wonder is that with all of these things that are happening in our country that we ourselves permit it to be there. It's one of the evils, of course, there's others, you know, like racial discrimination and so forth. But this is another evil and getting mad about it doesn't really change anything. And wishing to do something doesn't really change anything but getting in there and working, you know, just slowly and with patience and bringing the idea and the understanding to the worker himself that something can be done. Now, we've been in the struggle now for five years--it'll be five years next month--but only a year-and-a-half in a strike. We've had some dramatic victories but when you consider the whole workforce in America it's just a very small number of people that are affected by the gains. So we have people working now at two dollars an hour, and with some very important gains. Not so much those material gains like money and better working conditions--they're important--but even more important the, I think, the most important thing is that somehow, you know at long last, there's that dignity that, you know, has been returned to us. Not because the word sounds nice and because dignity is a good thing, no, because what it does to men, you know, and to their families, and to--it changes the whole life, you know, it's just, it's a very beautiful thing to have it happen. But even though, you know, all these dramatic victories and experiences it's a very small group. Now our job is to get the farm worker to organize himself. We can't do it, it would cost about a million dollars a month or, say, a million--it would cost no less than five million dollars a year if we were to staff up--to have a paid staff with all of the money needed to send people all over the country. But we have more than that--we have people, and these people now have some, they've seen some victories, they have courage, and it's a movement. A movement with ideas and that can't be stopped. Of course, this point that Cesar Chavez is talking about, this point you mention, this very key point, this intangible that are so powerful. A man's sense of personal worth. I mean, for all these years, I suppose, with migrant farm workers, Mexicans, minority groups: feeling you're nobody, you're told you're nobody. Thus it affects the child, it affects the father, it affects the mother, and suddenly the recognition that there's something you can do. You are somebody. And this becomes very evident. For instance, some--oh, just, difficult to explain, to put in words the experiences. For instance, as you're working, yourself, or, you know, gaining or learning a lot more than, you're getting more than what you're giving, but imagine a group of workers who are--have been working with the same employer for, say 12 years, or 15 years or five years. And then the strike is won and then they go and they sit at a table right across from him. And for the very first time meet as man to man. It's a great feeling. And it also carries, you know, just to the very last worker in that [ranch?]. It doesn't matter if there's a thousand or two of them or a hundred, you know, it carries to the very last man. And then that also carries into the families and to the kids. And it's-- It affects every aspect of life. Every, every aspect. A sense of personal worth to someone. That's the most important thing. Yes. I suppose when, during that march, when word came that one of the large distillers gave in, that is, you didn't know whether you were going to win or lose in these union-- Yes. And that must have been some moment. It was a very dramatic moment. The--this was on the fourth of April of last year. 1966? 1966. We had been on strike, oh, about eight months and the call came in a day before. We were at Stockton, California and we were just gathering there that day and a call came in and I say this because it was sort of a shock when it came in. Although we wanted victory and we needed victory very badly, all of us expected that when victory came it was going to sort of arrive in a--with loud music and trumpets and victory was, you know, and that when the growers called it was going to be a very formal thing. We'd never had the experience, we didn't know what--and, so, we're in Stockton and there was a telephone call for me and I went and I got the call. And there was a voice on the other side of the line and said that he was with [Shandley?] and he wanted to recognize our union and sit down to write a contract. Of course, I thought he was kidding, and I said, "You're kidding," you know, and I hung up on him. 'Cause we'd had similar calls, you know, all during the strike. Then I was getting ready, I was walking out of the room and the phone rang again, I came back and I answered it and he called back again, with the same voice with the same message, so I took it more seriously. And-- What happened when you announced it? When you told it? Well, when it was announced--it's one of the things that can't be described with words but it was a feeling that-- There's that, the sound of the machine here at this dramatic moment, asking Mr. Chavez what happened that moment, and I know it's very difficult to describe, that triumphant moment. Well, as it usually happens in a thing, in a development of this sort, I made the announcement as undramatically as I could. And I suppose it was at least 15, if not 30 seconds, of complete disbelief. Then it sort of began to register on different people. There was great joy, of course, jubilation. A lot of tears. And, well, all the things that go together with it, with a announcement like this. It was, a great celebration took place right then and there. We had carried with us [Shandley?] boycott signs, so someone suggested that we should burn them. And we did. And no sooner than we burned them, so, then we had about a half an hour rest, we were marching, side of the road, and someone suggested we should immediately make some more signs, new signs for the other, the other struggle. But the announcement was very dramatic. It came, thanks to God, at a time when we really needed it. It was eight, over eight months struggle, but these, the--some of the amazing things. There were a lot of near miracles that have taken place in this movement and one of them was the willingness of the people to persist for so long. Eight months is a long time when there's no experiences, when they've never before had any victories, when really no union's ever been built and all the attempts have been defeats. In fact, from the time we got the first recognition, the contract, the morale of the people was even higher than the beginning. And, at this point, there are some workers there who could have gone back to work in those places, who settled the dispute, but they don't want to go back to work. They say that, "No, I want to stay and see the whole thing through because I want to see that other workers get those things that I could have got--that I already got--because of settling a contract with my employer and other workers have because [they] return back to work. I want to see the thing through". It's a movement. A lot of--it's a new thing. An awful lot of liberty in the movement. I'm the oldest one in the movement. You are, at 38? Well, I'm the oldest of the leadership, you know, and-- My young colleagues have come up to join you. Oh, yes. We have--most of our organizers are, with the exception of the director of organization, the director of the organizing drive--all of our organizers are right out of the fields and the oldest one is 23 or 24. Oh, the development is something [astounding?]. You say this, I suppose to you, Cesar Chavez, beginner, I suppose there's a joy, too, in seeing these young guys become leaders, too? That's--nothing can compensate that. No amount of money or prestige or personal recognition will. It's as good and as satisfying to see other people begin to develop. It's really great. I think in the story of Cesar Chavez, if I could be a little dramatic, and yet drama sometimes is right, too, there's a parable here, too, of a man and a people. And though he hasn't said it, he turned down a job for $21,000 a year to be the Peace Corps director for some of the Latin American countries to still work at $1.25 an hour in Delano, to work with his colleagues, with his people. And this, too, is the satisfaction that you see now. You've still a number of rivers across cross, though, there's still about six or seven tough obstacles ahead. Always a struggle. Always a struggle. I suppose we'll be struggling for the next 20 years but in the meantime some progress has been made. There are a number of very difficult things we have to resolve. But the best, the biggest one and the best one has been resolved and that is that the movement is on and it's marching, it's got legs and it's going. One last question of Cesar Chavez: What do you want out of life now? Well, I think that I wanted to see some concrete proof that it could be done and that's been accomplished, although it's in a very small way, but it's been accomplished. Now, I'll accept anything that comes. I have--if everything goes well I have a number of years to give to it. And if the workers want me, I'll be there. You know, someone asked me when--at what point would you consider the workers organized? And I said at that point when the workers no longer want me or those who began the movement, then they'll be organized and they'll feel then that they can do it on their own. Then you'll know you're not needed anymore, yet we know there's always a Cesar Chavez, represents something, an aspiration, and a hope, the realization of a human being, people. I'm delighted and honored to have you as my guest. And we're going to hear music for the rest of the program. And we're very happy to be here, it's my pleasure. Thank you very much, Cesar Chavez of the National Farm Workers Association. Now the new group--the new name is United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. What's the Mexican--the Spanish word for good luck? For joy? For triumph? "Buena suerte." "Buenes?" "Buena." "Buena."

Cesar Chavez "Suerte"

Cesar Chavez "Suerte."

Studs Terkel "Buena suerte."

Cesar Chavez "Gracias."