Friday, July 29, 2011

In Memory of Richard Chavez

The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.
--Cesar Chavez

On Wednesday, July 27, 2011, Richard Chavez, age 81, passed from this world. Most people know of his brother, Cesar, but Richard was less a public figure than a foundation stone of the movement they both brought into being, the United Farm Workers.

Inseparable, they grew up during the Depression, first on the family farm near Yuma, Arizona and, when that was lost, as migrant farm workers in California’s orchards and vineyards during the 1930s and ‘40s. In the 1960s and for the next three decades, Richard worked full time in the farm worker movement, starting at five dollars a week, as did Cesar and the rest of the movement’s staff. It was Richard who designed the stylized black Aztec eagle that was to become the logo of the United Farm Workers.

There is much being said and written, these days, about unions in general, largely because of the union-breaking efforts currently underway in Wisconsin, and much to be said for both sides of the debate. I cut my teeth on Robert Kennedy’s The Enemy Within, an exposé of corruption within the Teamsters Union under Jimmy Hoffa. Yet, I also have read about the Ludlow Massacre, an attack by the Colorado National Guard on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado on April 20, 1914, called the deadliest strike in the history of the United States, in which women and children were killed mercilessly with machine guns and fire, along with striking miners.

I’ve worked hard all my life. I earned my university tuition working in a sawmill as first an off-bearer on the main saw and then a gang sawyer. It’s impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t done mill work what the conditions are like: the heat in summer and the frigid cold in winter, when snow blows in through the open sides of the building; the cacophony of saws screaming through wood, the clattering of machines and the thunk of logs rolling; the sheer physical exertion of it; and worst of all, the interminable boredom of doing the same repetitive tasks, day after day until the mind numbs. When I began working at the mill in 1964, I earned one dollar an hour.

In 1965, as a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, I took a job as a field laborer, harvesting bird of paradise plants. The day began before dawn and ended after sundown. As the day wore on, the loamy soil worked its way underneath my clothing, where it was annealed by sweat against my skin like fine sandpaper. The heat and humidity were overwhelming. There were no portable toilets and no water available. For this back-breaking stoop labor, I was paid ten dollars a day.

That experience left a profound impression on me. From that time on, I have had nothing but respect and gratitude for the field workers who produce and harvest our food. The union movement may have derailed a few times in its history, in excesses of all kinds. But I will forever be a staunch supporter of the United Farm Workers, who work tirelessly for the rights of people who are sprayed with insecticides, worked in triple digit heat, driven by bosses who think of them as machines or expendable sub-humans, and who go “home” at night to labor camps where they may sleep on the ground or in their cars, only to arise before dawn the next day and do it all again.

I have a passionate regard for the women and men who build and tend our infrastructure: steel workers, carpenters, agricultural laborers, linemen, electricians, welders, cannery and sanitation workers and the like. They put their bodies on the line, every single day that they go to work, and this country could not have been built nor maintained without them. It is in their behalf that I support unions and union products, despite the malfeasance of some union officials.

As I said, I’ve worked hard all my life, but I know I could not do what farm workers do, on a daily basis, month after sweltering month. And I would challenge anyone: go out in the fields for one day. Just one day. Put on you sun hat and stoop beneath the California sun, picking beans or lettuce or grapes for a day. If you make it the full 8 or 10 hours, you’re remarkable--but I’m willing to bet you won’t go back for more, the following day. Most of us, though, would have to be hospitalized, if we tried this.

The movement brought from nothing to become a force to be reckoned with in the agricultural industry, by the gritty determination, expansive vision and deep compassion of the Chavez brothers is, therefore, always going to have my support. We eat food cultivated and harvested for us by these humble people, every single day of our lives. We owe the farm workers and migrant laborers a huge debt of gratitude for our full bellies and for the wide array of foods available to us. So let’s give Richard Chavez our heartfelt thanks for a job well done and a life justly and truly lived in service to his fellow man, and wish him Godspeed, as he lifts off on the black wings of the eagle, to his just reward.

1 comment:

pburt said...

My mother taught freshman English at UCSB when you were there, I wonder if you knew her - Nancy Burt.