California’s Central Valley is nothing like the postcard pictures of the Golden State everyone imagines. There are no surfers, no beautiful people sipping designer coffees or juices. This is farm country, some of the best and most productive in the country, and maybe even the world. It is flat, it is dry, it is dusty and, especially in the summer, it is hot. Drivers zip past on the highways, moving between two places they consider more important, not noticing the hunched over figures in the fields. These farm workers are the reason I am able to eat; they provide the labor that allows the produce I – and all of us – rely on to make it to the grocery store and local restaurant. And yet we drive past, our gaze rarely turning, and our thoughts only of the destination ahead.
Just off Highway 58 about a half hour east of Bakersfield in the foothills of the lower Sierra Nevada Mountains lies the tiny town of Keene, California, home of the recently created Cesar E. Chavez National Monument. Created in 2012, the Monument, largely consisting of the former headquarters of the leader in Latino civil rights, is as easy to pass by as the workers Chavez spent his life fighting for. Turning down a narrow, steep driveway, I find myself transported into a different world, one in which human dignity is celebrated regardless of the background, profession, or immigration status of the human.
The beautiful foothills in Keene.
Visitors to the small Monument are greeted by flowering gardens on their way into the former headquarters of Chavez, his wife Helen Fabela, and their United Farm Workers (UFW) movement. A short film plays in a small auditorium, explaining the significance of the site.
The gardens are lovely and well manicured, fitting in well with the surroundings.
Originally a quarry and later the site of the Stony Brook Sanitarium, the land was vacant when the UFW was looking for a permanent headquarters. However, farm owners and politicians were so opposed to Cesar Chavez and his movement (death threats were a common occurrence) that any property would have to be purchased by a third party with no known affiliation to Chavez. And so it was done, with the leaders of the movement and their families gradually moving in over the early 1970s. The property was close to the workers the movement represented, and yet isolated for safety.
The remainder of the building is a museum to the life and struggles of Cesar Chavez, with artifacts (like his Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously in 1994) and photographs. Walking through, I found myself asking why this man, arguably as important to Latino civil rights as Martin Luther King, Jr. was to African-American, is relatively unknown.
Chavez’ office is perfectly preserved.
Cesar Chavez was born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, but after his family lost their home in the Great Depression, they moved to California to become farm workers. Dropping out of high school to work in the fields so that his income would enable his mother not to have to work, he became active as an organizer in the Community Service Organization, and in 1962, founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the UFW) along with Delores Huerta.
Chavez was instrumental in organizing the 1965-66 strike of grape workers, most of whom were Latino, and a boycott of table grapes for higher wages for the workers. Other strikes in California and other states were equally successful, and the famous “Salad Bowl Strike” – again for higher wages for farm workers – became the largest such event in United States history in the early 1970s.
Photos of the early days of the movement are especially fascinating.
Cesar Chavez began UFW as a grassroots movement, but also led efforts to utilize the movement to enable farm workers to bargain collectively, a move that ultimately resulted in the creation of California Agricultural Labor Relations Board. The movement fought not only for higher wages, but also for better working conditions for farm workers, such as the banning of the short-handled hoe, a tool that forced workers to bend over nearly to their toes.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Chavez also undertook a number of fasts to garner public attention for the efforts of the UFW and the plight of the farm worker. His longest, in 1988, lasted for 35 days, during which he lost 30 pounds and developed health problems that may have contributed to his death in 1993.
Cesar Chavez is buried here at the Monument, along with his wife.
Today, the legacy of Cesar Chavez lives on through the current work of the UFW in defending the rights of farm workers, and in their advocacy work on behalf of undocumented immigrants. Their headquarters remains on the Keene property. Teresa Romero, Secretary-Treasurer of the organization, spoke with me about some of their current initiatives.
“We are active in three states today on behalf of farm workers, both those who are Latino and those who are not,” she tells me. “We work to get them living wages, a work environment more conducive to their health, and help to get the word out that these are not subhumans. Undocumented workers are the reason people are able to get food in this country. They work hard, they pay taxes, and they just want to make better lives for their families.”
An early sign and logo for UFW is on display.
UFW recently launched a “Take Our Jobs” campaign in response to the hateful anti-immigrant and “America first” rhetoric coming out of the Trump Administration, in which they offered farm jobs to any American who desired one. At last count, the number was in the single digits.
“These are not jobs that Americans desire,” Teresa says. “Mass deportations of undocumented workers will not lead to more American jobs, but to less American food.”Today, as I write this, the temperature is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Bakersfield, and farm workers are out in the heat and the dust, bent over, working harder than I have ever worked in my life at a salary most people would scoff at, making sure that people like me have food in stock at our grocery stores. For those who face incredible hardship to come to this country, this is the future that awaits them, working under largely terrible conditions for minimal pay just so that their children might one day live a better life. And yet, today Donald Trump again called for all those who try to cross America’s southern border to be deported immediately with no hearings and no compassion.
Mr. Trump, I would encourage you to learn from the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement. Human dignity is worth more than angry rhetoric, and these people are more deserving of praise than you are. I ask you to try to spend a day in their shoes, hunched over, picking the food you eat. Perhaps that will restore a bit of your humanity.
I leave Cesar E. Chavez National Monument feeling better than when I came in. Despite all of the hatred he endured, Cesar Chavez fought on behalf of those who had nothing, battling for basic dignity for a population that until then had none. His work continues, and Teresa and the UFW persist, leading the struggle for equality that sadly still needs to be fought in the United States. They will win that struggle with time, and I will be proud to stand with them.