I was only 21 when I met Cesar Chavez. I was a blue collar factory worker, commuting college student and volunteer campus boycott organizer at Grand Valley State University, near Grand Rapids, MI. I had a chance to go with an area group to see first hand the lives of farm workers in California, harvesting celery in the fields near Oxnard and company owned farm worker housing called Cabrillo Village in November, 1974,
As I was walking outside the UFW Oxnard Service Center I ran into my hero, Cesar.
I was in awe of him. Here he was inches from me. Dumbstruck, I quickly put out my hand to shake his hand, I babbled my name and waited for the most awesome handshake in the world to come. It did, and I was crestfallen. It was limp, not strong and firm like I expected my great, all powerful leader should have. Later, I was told that he shook hands this way to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, a drawback of shaking too many hands over too short a time period.
It now makes me laugh and it is one of my fondest memories.
Later I was one of thousands in Cesar’s legions, the $5 a week room and board folk from all over the world. I helped run the boycott office in G.R. We were a small boycott office but we were told by staff at La Paz that we did mighty things. At one time we manned a Mexican restaurant with boycott supporters all day on Sunday’s. Marshall Chavez, owner of the El Sombrero (no relation to Cesar) was one of Cesar’s earliest supporters going back to the late sixties. He donated his restaurant, all proceeds made on Sunday and the upstairs of his restaurant for the boycott office. Here the famous “wet burrito” was born and lots of money was sent to help the union. When El Teatro Campesino did an area fundraiser for us, we introduced them to the wet burrito. They took it back to California. The UFW boycott not only got 27 million Americans to stop eating non-union grapes, lettuce and Gallo wines in 1976, it changed American culinary history by introducing the first successful wet burrito to the country.
My own history was changed forever. I still live with the consequences today. One detailed memory is forever seared into my brain. I almost paid with my life for “la causa.”After leaving G.R. on my second wedding anniversary I arrived in Orange County to work for over two months on Proposition 14.
As the huge orange ball of a luminescent sun arose over the LA freeways, we boycotteros stood ten-feet apart, on both sides of a six lane highway waving to cars and trucks passing by on their way to work. We stretched out for three miles holding our 10 foot wooden furring strips with signs attached to the tops reading “Governor Brown says vote yes on 14,” or “Jane Fonda says vote . . .” we waved, we smiled, or we grimaced when someone gave us the finger. The site of so many people working together in line on each side of the highway was an eye opener for sleepy commuters.
As I was standing by a corner near a traffic light I noticed from the corner of my eye, behind me, that a white, foreign made, compact car had come to a stop when the light turned red. The driver was a middle class appearing women dressed in a blue business suit and skirt (I will never forget.) She leaned over towards the passenger side of the car as if she were going to ask for directions, or so I thought. She started to roll down the window.
I promptly laid down my sign on the pavement, walked a few steps towards her car and bent down. As my face came level with the fully open window, her hand was already pulling a shiny object from an opened glove compartment. With two hands, she gripped the handle of a pistol that was pointed directly at me. It was only inches from my face.
I froze, terrified. My chest constricted. I said nothing. My mind went blank There were no flashes of past life. Thank God I had not eaten any breakfast that morning. With a determined and grim look on her face, this woman who looked strikingly like Michelle Bachman decided my face was fair game for her bullets. Fortunately, there was no Florida “stand your ground, kill at will” law in those days. Then, just as quickly as she had pulled out the deadly weapon she put it back into the glove box. She gave the closed glove box door a final pat. The light turned green and she drove away giving me one last, grim, tight lipped look. I stood there inwardly shuddering. I was too shocked to think about getting her license number and never reported her to the police. I’ve often thought about why this stranger threatened me. I believe she did not like what my sign had to say nor did she like C.C. and the UFW.
I returned from L.A. forever changed by this and the union’s loss of Prop. 14. I immersed myself in the labor movement, became editor of the local monthly labor newspaper and taught high school students about social justice, the labor movement, Cesar and the UFW for 19 years. Today, 37 years later, I still do the labor newspaper, do labor news and analysis on public radio and use all my skills that I learned from those unforgettable times to continue the fight for all people for social justice.