Sermon: “Cesar Chavez & the Farm Workers’ Movement”

By Benjamin Bolaños

Play Corrido de Cesar Chavez

That’s called Corrido de Cesar Chavez. It’s Tex-Mex Mariachi style music.   And I hate it.  Not the lyrics but the music.   I really really do.  German Polka music in Mexico?   Not really my thing.  However, regardless of my lack of affinity for this type of music, it does evoke strong memories for me.  I’ve been running away from Mariachi music for a long time.  Or at least I thought I was.  But it’s not really Mariachi music that I’ve tried to keep at arm’s length.  It’s what it culturally represents for me.   It anchors me to a time, place, a history I’ve battled with internally, again and again. The music has power over my identity and the path I forged for myself:  Latino, Hispanic, Salvadoran, Mexican, immigrant, the migrant worker, the outcast, outsider, the great unwashed, the spic, the illegal…. All  labels used to define my identity.  See, that music, its harsh melody, that accordian noise, reminds me of those labels. They are like chains to me, a prison, a monolithic omnipotent force that you cannot ever escape, forever shackled to my being, my mind and soul.   But assimilation, to belong, was the other power force.  Assimilation was the antithesis, the remedy, and the medicine  to those labels, to the music. Assimilation meant opportunity and a sure way out.  It was the language of the powerful.  

So why do I tell you this?  Because that music is the song of the oppressed, the melody of the unwashed and the poor, the language of the immigrant, now embodied in many different forms and especially in our iconic American Latino leaders like Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta or our modern hispanic prophets.   It has been my path to try to reclaim this part of myself, this Chavez in me, the farm worker, the immigrant, the Mariachi music that I keep pushing away but that which I and we desperately need.  Its harshness and its melody is mine and your liberation. 

When I was about 13 years old I was sent off to the fields with migrant workers for a part of a summer.  My recollection is that I had mouthed off to my father, something like “this home is like a prison…”  insert the stare of death from my father, the look of annihilation, Yes, my physical well being is now in jeopardy, run child run into the woods for safety…call CPS because it’s gonna get real …”   and the next thing I know I was signed up to work tying tomatoes for a part of the summer.   Now my mom thinks these were two separate incidents.  Who knows?  I’m just gonna say I’m right and I putting those two stories together right now and now it’s true. See how easy it is to construct history?  Not that hard… Ok moving on.

My dad had asked a friend of his, Tony, to take me out to the fields.   I would get up around 4am or so and head to the fields with Tony and meet the rest of the migrant crew.  On my first day I was assigned, well I don’t know, what looked to me like hundreds of rows of tomato plants.  At the time I couldn’t fathom finishing all of these once Tony showed me how to tie to tomato plants.  I was given rolls of string attached to a one-arms length stick.  Speed, precision, and endurance was the name of the game.  The more rows you completed (well),  the more you got paid.  We started early of course to avoid the hottest part of the day.   It was unbelievably hard, hard, hard work.  It was ritualistic and monotonous hard labor.   I can still see and feel the movements of that type of work.  It’s muscle memory attached to an idea of hard labor, powerlessness, and economic injustice.

Holding the string, letting it slip through gloved hands repeatedly, then tightening each piece of string around each pole, bending over again and again in the scorching sun for pennies….There is a lamentation in those movements, a rhythm that speaks to me to this day.  A song of sorrow with bits of strength and hope in it; the beauty of a threaded string holding life together, a plant, all the while the work broke us and paid little in return.

To make matters worse, I learned later, Tony, in order for me to save face and my father, would many times re-do the work I had done.  That makes me feel really really sad even today.  A poor job would have meant less money for him and others that summer.  I was humbled.  This unknowingly was one of many introductions to migrant work injustice.  What I made that summer I could have made two weeks working at a factory or even a fast food joint, neither of those promising on fair pay and worker’s rights either.   I sometimes think of that summer as a baptism.  Chavez baptizing me with not water but with pain, hard work, and lots of humility.    

Play Yo Estoy Con Chávez

I was 20 years and listening to Led Zeppelin at EMU (pause) when Chavez passed away in Arizona.  Chavez was 66 years old.  While I was entrenched in learning everything about European history, once again desperately assimilating and simultaneously figuring out my own agency, Chavez had amassed a litany of accomplishments all in the name of justice for migrant workers and their families.  After fighting fascism in Europe during WWII he returned to a nation attempting to curb the efforts made by not only American minorities but women as well.  They had earned their credentials as American citizens because of the war and the work done on the homefront.  And to put it mildly, as many of those who came back from the war ,“I wasn’t gonna take that crap.” Thus he began to learn and follow the teachings of Gandhi and nonviolent civil disobedience.  He established the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta and by 65 called for a strike against grape growers in CA  The March from Delano to Sacramento was a 345 mile march and brought national attention to La Causa.  He called for a boycott of nonunion grape growers which lasted five years ending in a victory for the UFW in terms of wages and collective bargaining rights.  In 68, in February and March, Chavez fasted for 25 days to rededicate himself to the struggle for justice and nonviolence. In 1983, he kicked off his grapes of wrath protest to bring awareness to the use of pesticides that was poisoning farm workers and their families, which if you pay attention to the news is once again a problem in the central valley.  His last fast was in 88, again to rededicate himself to the fight for migrant workers rights and their health.  

And I here I am. A 20 year old college kid.  And here is this iconic figure whom I am in constant battle with, like Jacob and his angel.  And this one, like all warrior angels, wanted me to surrender, to be beaten, so I could be changed for the better .  

I accepted the challenge.  My history research seminar was the last class I had to take before completing my degree.  It was my senior thesis class.  I was gonna write something on French feudal political freedom during Louis XIV, in other words really freaking boring. But I took on something I hadn’t expected.  I would drive around the valley surrounding Harrisonburg quite a bit those days.   I would see many Mexicans or other Latinos in the apple orchards or in other seasonal farm work for that area.  And I kept wondering what their story was?  How did they get here to VA?  Later I found out they migrated from many parts of the U.S. and this was a temporary stop for them as they moved up to New York then back to Florida, Texas and of course California.  But here in VA many had decided to stay and I learned that they were  “settling out”  and finding jobs in the other fastest growing industry, poultry plants.  As apple orchards declined more money could be made in these turkey or chicken plants.  I must been out of mind to do this but instead of writing about feudal liberties in the early 1700’s, I began to interview the people I saw in the fields and those going in and out of these poultry plants.  And what I mostly concentrated on was not only the history of the migrant presence in this area but how had the roles of these Mexican women changed.  The wives, the mothers, daughters, sisters of  my brown skinned brethren.  

This is what called to me.  I had surrendered.  I knew I had to do this regardless of the price I would pay for it.  I spent hours, days, talking to women, talking to their husbands, recording, transcribing, writing, observing, hanging out.  In short, life was hard for these people whom I had passed many times.  there was no union to protect them.  Those that worked in the poultry plants were non-unionized.    The plants had simply and deliberately recruited migrants in order to replace the unionized white men and women who could demand for better wages and rights as they had repeatedly done in the late 70’s and 80’s.  Now with this new batch of hard working Mexicanos, they could pay them less than their previous white counterparts but more than the apple orchards could.  The Mexican women I interviewed though had found a new kind of liberty, a sense of their own agency that invariably strained their relationships with their husbands.   The politics of domesticity and femininity among these poor undocumented immigrants mirrored the lives of other women who found a voice and sense of their own self-worth in the years after world war II.  And here I was as a witness to this change, this hardship, this injustice in the changing economy of the valley,  that to me few noticed.   And maybe that’s what God wants to us experience from time to time before we take action.  To listen and witness then move, rouse, and ready for battle.    I didn’t get the grade I wanted.  It was part historical and part sociological and I think my professor wanted all historical.  I thought to myself “Screw him.”  I didn’t care.  This was a greater calling and I  surrendered to it and it changed me, profoundly.  This battle for my identity, the victory clearly went to Chavez through Jesus. Simple as that.  

Play This Hard Land

I move lands in 2001.  I left the busy political climate of DC where I worked for a Catholic educational think tank nonprofit and found my way to California, sunny, oceanic , aquatic, california, seeking a different dream.  Settled in Alameda for a bit then Redwood city.  Before I left I had only enough savings for six months rent and a bit more and had miraculously landed a job with MACSA, a San Jose Mexican community non-profit that was starting two schools in the area. They wanted me to help start one in Gilroy, which had higher rates of migrant worker kids and 1st generation families.  Once again I found myself in a place I hadn’t imagined 20 years before but in hindsight was probably inevitable.  Fate.  

The more I pushed away the more somehow I was placed in situations I couldn’t refuse.  I studied this community, learned its history, observed like before, recruited students and teachers, ate dinner with their families, immersed myself in the values of this diverse and vibrant Mexican Chicano community.  I met Chicano political leaders, writers, novelists like Rudolfo Anaya who wrote Bless me Ultima, educators, musicians, union leaders.  Cesar Chavez was in the blood of these people.  The prophet of these people.   Through that culture I and my colleagues were able to find resources and support as we battled traditional educational systems and the powers that feared us.  Somehow, radically educating brown migrant kids was a major threat and we learned quickly that traditional power in whiteness and racism is deeply entrenched in systems albeit in educational district policies, local government policies  and in local leaders we once trusted.  Even chicanos found themselves battling against the rights of Migrant worker kids without even realizing it.  They were a threat to their own new found privilege social position.   

Regardless of the ugliness of educational and local politics, these students were some of the most beautiful and gifted kids I have ever taught.  And I’ve taught a lot of students.  They were alive in a way that my current Palo Alto kids are not.  For these migrant kids they had a sense that the education we were giving to them was truly significant.   For them it was a true gift and a right.  They consumed it like food.  And they loved you for it.  And we loved them.  Power was not in the hands of the local leaders or the district or the board or up in Sacramento but in these children.  These poor undocumented immigrant children.  God’s angels showing us the way to a better future.

Play Trabajo, Quiero, Trabajo

I leave you with this…
Dirt, heat, thirst, hunger, struggle, exploitation, racism, poverty, illegal, undocumented, uneducated, spic, wetback, scapegoat, pesticides, chemical, poison, disease, asthma, cancer, pain, death, mothers, children, union, nonunion, strike, strike breakers, riot, protest, violence, nonviolence, whole foods, safeway, injustice, justice, life, clean water, real food, starve, fast, eat, famine, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, wheat, seed, soil, land, property, Native, forgotten, Dakota, Chavez, Huerta, Jesus, perseverance, hope, California, American, citizen, Kingdom, redemption, atonement.   Amen.  


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