“La Causa” on the Road

Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994

Dennis Dunleavy

CESAR CHAVEZ IS gone now, but the United Farm Workers’ recent re-enactment of his 1966 march from the fields of Delano to Sacramento paid tribute to the movement he founded. The 320-mile march culminated on April25 at the steps of the State Capitol with as many as 15,000 people waving UFW banners and demanding pretty much the same things they did nearly thirty years ago.

The roots of the UFW movement in the 1960s were enmeshed in the collision of social forces, the economic desperation that came with the end of the bracero program and the determination of a leader who possessed charisma and vision.

During the early years, the UFW spread its message everywhere: “Na Basta!” The backbreaking work in the fields, subhuman wages, inadequate housing and little hope of advancement were confronted under the banner of the farmworkers’ black eagle. With cries of “iViva la Causa!” and “1St Se Puede!” for almost a decade and a half the winds of change and reform swept through the fields of California and spread across the country.

Times have changed. Public apathy toward farmworker rights reigns, and anti-immigrant bashing has become popular. The union’s ranks have dwindled, from 70,000 in the 1970s to about 15,000.

Rights gained by the workers have been eroded. Wages that were $10 an hour are now $5—or less for some workers. Health care is limited. In parts of California, where housing is extremely expensive and the market is tight, workers live in overcrowded conditions and pay high rents. A few years ago as many as 700 farm workers, who were mostly undocumented, were found living in caves and makeshift shelters near Salinas. Recent stories have surfaced of families paying as much as $500 a month to share a garage with no access to toilets or a shower.

When Chavez died last year, more than 35,000 people came to pay tribute. What we have again seen in this recent demonstration of solidarity is a sense that with the re-enactment of an historic event, sacrifice and tribute can again help to unite people in struggle.

A few of the marchers were veterans of the first march, and remembered the marches, hunger strikes and boycotts with a sense of pride and nostalgia. But most were a younger generation, learning to forge their response to injustice.

During the late ‘70s the UFW lost favor among the rank-and-file workers, in part because many felt they were not allowed to share in the decision-making process of the union. Chavez, although still a workers’ hero, was not democratic in his leadership style.

This recent march represents an attempt by the present UFW leadership of Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta to breathe new life into a movement. The spirit of Chavez—its willingness to try against all odds—lives. The conditions and times are difficult, but farmworkers are prepared to fight once again.

July-August 1994—ATC 51