I grew up in Arvin, California. This small town sits at the foot of Bear Mountain, toward the south-eastern end of the Central Valley. I recall that if it were a good year, the snow level might reach down past the foothills to the town itself, which inevitably led to an abundant display of wild flowers in the spring. In the mountains, toward the Tehachapi Pass, nuzzled into a small set of hills is Keene, the location of the United Farm Workers Union offices/compound, recently named a National Monument. The monument is part of a property known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz. When we went there for meetings, or to work on the property itself, or to work on boycott signs etc, it was simply called, La Paz. Besides the occasional trip to see the snow, going to La Paz was as close to going into nature as I got.
I remember the huelga days, through the eyes of a child.
I remember the rush of activity at my aunt’s home one afternoon when she announced that Cesar would be coming to the house for a meeting. I didn’t quite understand why or what for, but it was exciting. For me, though, hanging out with cousins (I am the second oldest of the group) was all that mattered. The camaraderie of adults joined together by a cause would trickle down to the children, who with every passing event grew stronger in their own perception and self-awareness.
I was about ten years old (1972) when I became acutely aware of what was going on and started asking questions. I learned about working conditions, wages, boycotts, and fasting. I learned about fairness, basic rights, speaking out, and struggling to make life better. I learned to march in protest.
Chavez once said that “self-dedication is a spiritual experience.” He spoke of his belief that farm workers felt pride in their hard work, expertise, and talent in helping crops grow to produce a bounty that ironically gentle hands would harvest to feed the world. Their work was in part a labor of love and respect for the Earth itself.
He was correct. When my family joined in the struggle for justice, I learned about the right to feel proud of who my mom and dad are, and the work they did to keep our family fed and in good health. I learned over the years that their work was more than just a paycheck. In learning to be proud of my ethnicity and culture, I learned also of racism.
I grew up knowing that the land my father managed was not ours, but that its bounty was a direct result of his dedication and commitment to the crops, and for that, we could all be proud. His old truck wore a bumper sticker that read, “When you talk bad about a farmer, don’t talk with your mouth full.”
In learning that the growers finally signed contracts and that people as far away as England cared about where and how their food was grown, I learned to value my parents and their labor. Ultimately, I learned to value myself. I learned that I could do anything I wanted if I planned well, worked hard, remembered who I am, and celebrated myself accordingly. Celebrating oneself is not a naturally occurring phenomenon amongst the humble.
From Cesar, I learned that we all need help sometimes (communities) and that learning from others (MLK, Gandhi) is just as smart if not smarter than trying to do it alone without input.
So when I finally accepted an invitation to go backpacking in Yosemite, an invitation I balked at for years, I jumped in with both feet. I asked questions, researched, bought equipment and most importantly, I said to myself, “Si Se Puede!” (I can do this!)
That said, I was like many grown-ups, keenly aware of all the things that could go wrong, not the least of which was what my hair would look like after sleeping in the wild. One trip was all it took. I was hooked. But why? What is it about mountains that make us feel alive? For me, it was knowing in retrospect, at the end of it all, that in fact, I did it and I did not die.
I will not lie to you, I didn’t think of much beyond surviving that first trip. I stared down Half Dome. It was the kind of feeling you get when you stand up to a bully; a little scared, a little excited, heart racing, and looking around to see who has your back. I took pictures and when it was safe, I looked back and reflected. We were there. We did that. We saw that. We made it back. Look how far we went.
But a more meaningful change occurred inside of me as well. Like Cesar said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.” I wanted to go back. I wanted to see what else I could see, feel, touch, experience. Each trip we faced different mountains, different water crossings, different challenges. Each trip, I thought, I can do this!
I felt I was changing. I knew that in facing and conquering mountains I was conquering any doubts I had about what kind of person I am. Sir Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” He and Cesar both knew that once a challenge was met, the challenged would be changed forever.
Being a great strategist, Cesar learned from each mistake, and each triumph. Likewise, I have learned a lesson on each trail, water crossing, pass, and mountain. Sometimes those lessons are about the trekking, about the process; how to make something happen. The lessons are about learning to get from one point to another without getting wet, slipping, falling, etc. Sometimes those lessons are more about content and meaning than process.
About community, Cesar said, “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with them. The people that give you their food, give you their heart.” In the mountains, we share food, not only because it lightens our loads, but because it lightens our hearts as well. The community of hikers and backpackers is at once conjoined and distant. There is a respect for privacy and the sacred experience of being with oneself in the wilderness. At the same time, there is an understanding that if help is needed, help will be provided, even if it’s in the form of a bowl of chicken soup.
More frequently, the lessons for me are reflective, about myself. I truly am more than I think I am. I am bigger than my problems and obstacles. It’s a matter of having the courage to discover the boundaries of my own comfort zone and then expanding them. It’s a matter of paying attention to what I say to myself when I’m doing something scary and then living the self-talk. The lessons I have learned on a mountain are just as applicable in my day to day life. When I come across an injustice, I no longer fear the challenge of addressing the issue. I just plan, organize and seek assistance.
I was a lucky child in that I was able to grow up with parents, family, friends and neighbors that were part of La Causa and as a group, we grew in self-pride, self-worth, and self-determination. Learning to confront seemingly unsolvable problems with educated grace and calm, despite feeling fear and trepidation is one of the greatest lessons that can be taught to a child. It is a lesson I learned from being around Mr. Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union.
But this was not the only lesson. Perhaps even more importantly, we learned that we matter. We learned that we can make our own contribution to society in whatever fashion we choose. Some of my generation of children whose parents were/ are UFW Union members have become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and law enforcement officers. All have become better people through our shared knowledge that we are not powerless…that we matter. Cesar wanted that. He wanted us to know we matter so that we would be strong enough to effect change.
Now it is up to us to teach our children, and our children’s children, and our neighbors’ kids, and our kids’ friends, and pretty much anyone that will listen, that going out into the wild unknown is good for our body, mind, and soul. It’s not just about seeing the land, it’s also about seeing ourselves in it, a part of it. Take your kids out into the world, so that they don’t believe they belong in the periphery. Once we teach our children that we belong to the world and the world belongs to us; once we teach them that we all matter, we secure their future of inclusion. Once they feel included, they will feel their own power to effect change; to be the change.
When the mountains call they whisper, “Teach the children to love climbing mountains.” Pass it on.
César E. Chávez National Monument, Keene, CA