“Because we have suffered, and we are not afraid to suffer in order to survive, we are ready to give up everything – even our lives – in our struggle for justice.”*
Like many Latinos my age, I have waited with great anticipation for the movie about Cesar Chavez to be released. It seems I cannot get enough information about the events that in fact formed my personality to a great extent. I was born in 1962, just when Mr. Chavez was deciding to become a full time organizer despite his success in more conventional employment. Consequent to my age, my perspective of what the union was doing during that time is significantly skewed from what history records in the minds and yes, the very hearts of those that were actively fighting the good fight.
So when my uncle (78) declined an offer to go see the movie with a nephew of mine (really a second cousin), I was somewhat set back. I was even more shocked that when I spoke to my mother (73) about it she said virtually the same thing. She made it clear that she won’t see that movie. Her argument is that they were there, they know what it was like. No movie could ever tell what really happened.
So for the past few days I have been thinking about what they must feel .
Things I remember about the days of union building are few, but very strong memories for me. I remember that my now deceased aunt and uncle opening their home in Arvin, California so that Mr. Chavez would have a place to sleep. I remember the sounds of hurried steps making preparation for his arrival. I remember the smell of food cooking, and the flurry of activity when he arrived. His presence was very significant, and the mood was always serious.
I remember marching outside our city’s De Giorgio park and local Safeway store chanting, “Chavez Si, Uvas No!” The grape boycott seemed all consuming and it was only in recent years that I allowed myself to pay for grapes at a store. Somehow it was imprinted in my brain that it was OK to buy them from a fruit stand, or even grab a bunch off an unsuspecting grower’s vine, but buying them from any of the large corporations that caused us so much grief in those early years of my life continued to be taboo.
I remember both the shock and the pride when the image of my uncle being manhandled by a peace officer made the cover of El Malcriado, the Union paper.
I remember the excitement of trips to Keene to help work on the Union headquarters, La Paz. My father and uncles working on buildings and plumbing, women making picket signs. Mr. Chavez right there alongside, helping with his own hands . It was hard work followed by good food, and music. There always seemed to be music with both traditional songs and those made popular by the Teatro Campesino, those irreverent songs that mocked everything, even ourselves.
I remember that later, in the 70’s my mother was enrolled at Cal State, Bakersfield. She wanted to be a teacher and as such never missed an opportunity to expose me to anything she thought would provide a lesson. It was at Cal State that I witnessed many a play by the theatrical group launched by Luis Valdez. (http://www.elteatrocampesino.com/About/missionhistory.html) I learned the songs, key refrains from some of the saucier plays and quickly became the clown in our family.
I remember that my first trip to Sacramento was in a large bus and that we traveled to the State Capital to make our voices heard. Again their was laughter, music and a sense of pride and adventure. I remember feeling anxiety and worrying about what would happen to me if my family was taken to jail. Later, as an adult, in 1997 I choked back emotion when I sat in a legislative committee meeting room inside the Capital building as a participant recalling my youth and feeling proud at how far I had come.
There are memories of working in the fields with my cousins, my mother, my friends, my aunts and uncles. I remember bartering my mom’s bean and steak tacos (burritos) in trade for Ding Dongs (not allowed in my house) and ham and cheese sandwiches. I now understand what foolish trades these were. As a teenager, I remember feeling annoyed by the lessons from my aunt on how to care for my skin so that I wouldn’t damage it or age prematurely. I recall the feelings around the fatal heart attack my grandfather suffered in the fields and when my favorite silly uncle lost an eye to a wayward orange tree branch.
Every time I drive through the Central Valley of California and see the workers out there, toiling to feed us, it all comes back. No joke. I am filled with pride to know what its like, and anger that this work is still not valued as it should be.
So when my mom told me that no movie could ever depict what it was really like, I understand. When my uncle said the same thing with an incredulous tone, I understand. To them, this movie trivializes the feelings. To me, this movie brings back feelings. To those too young to have first hand knowledge of the struggle, those that will see it in the future, I hope it will trigger feelings of curiosity, pride and self worth.
How can anyone feel less than they deserve if they understand how hard others have fought for them?
It is so important that people of all walks of life see this movie. We all need to know where our food comes from, and who actually grows it for us. We all need to know together, regardless of race, ethnicity or culture, we can accomplish anything. We all need to know that as long as one of us suffers, we all suffer.
The word Huelga means strike, but it also connotes a union of people demonstrating against injustice. The nuances of our memories conveyed to the heart ensure that we truly understand what really happened. Those that were not there cannot possibly capture the feelings of those that were there.
So, much respect to the emotions of those that suffered for us. I get it. You don’t need validation through a movie of your life. Your dignity was played out in action. Your pride strengthened in struggle. Your legacy cemented in sacrifice.
No one can ever convey all that really happened, but talking, sharing, learning, researching and just plain keeping it on the forefront of our daily life will keep us together and focused on the dignity we were handed back when Mr. Chavez and Dolores Huerta said, Si se puede!
Viva Cesar Chavez!
* The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation is the intellectual property owner of Cesar’s name, voice, image, and likeness, speeches and writings.