Reading about the farm workers’ struggles and seeing video footage of the abuses strikers faced during the grape boycott was an intense emotional experience. Actually arriving in Delano and seeing the grape fields was just as powerful—the winding wooden vines were dried up and bare for the winter. The entire field is thick with the legacy of the farm workers who for generations have worked and struggled for better conditions. For my classmates and I, La Paz and the National César Chávez Center in Keene, CA is a worthy landmark and tribute to the strong legacy of a man who lived fighting for justice. In the 1960s when the United Farm Workers was just beginning, this place was not even a dream, with former farm laborers working as business administrators and a piece of land for themselves and for people to fight for better conditions in the fields.
Chávez’s leadership continues to affect and motivate La Paz residents and UFW members. The way he saw strengths in people who could not yet see those qualities in themselves was one of the ways he was striving for social change, not just a union or a contract (Morton p. 22). He motivated people to see beyond their immediate goals and aspirations to greater possibilities for the future. Even though none of us ever got to meet him, we were inspired through others’ stories of him, seeing people doing things they had never imagined, and knowing that as youth we hold the possibilities of the future in our hands. It is now our responsibility to learn from our history and find strength in these figures, these ideas, and the movement to not only see beyond our wildest dreams but also inspire others to do what they never thought possible.
Part of our program was to engage in a service project to help maintain La Paz as the beautiful institution it is, and one morning we worked on gardening outside of the museum. Taking care of the land is part of indigenous traditions that are often drawn on by Mexican and Mexican-American people. Working with the land is a sacred duty and privilege that we were honored to participate in for the benefit of the center. Our guide encouraged us to try the posture used in farm stoop labor and really experience the backbreaking labor many workers must do every day.
Afterward, our guide led us on a tour of the old hospital where many organizing materials were being stored. They let us take posters and books about organizing, feeding our curiosities and imagining what work we will all go on to do, carrying the legacy of the farm workers with us. Education has always been fundamental to the farm workers’ social movement and union organizing—educating themselves and each other about their shared histories, educating the masses about the injustices in the fields, and educating youth about how they are part of the movement. The UFW has long “provided a far more rigorous education than found on most campuses,” (Shaw p. 39) and continues to provide strong educational services. One UFW employee told us about the law apprenticeship program where people are trained to become lawyers without ever attending formal law school. We participated in continuing this tradition by spending time in this place and learning from these inspirational people. Their history is our history and lays the foundation for our futures.
The history of La Paz could be felt throughout the landscape, especially when we went on César’s morning hike. As a group, we walked and remembered the histories we have read, heard, and seen. Near the top by the reservoir, José the professor, José the jornalero, Pablo, and I stood together on a large rock overlooking the valley and read quotes César could have written from the very same spot. The spirituality of the place and the connections we developed with each other, the land, and all the people we met there were almost tangible. We did get the chance to meet UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, and see for ourselves how the issues she has been fighting for decades are still present to different degrees and in different forms. For our protest of the use of methyl iodide, a harmful pesticide, we used posters found in the aforementioned hospital, with the tagline “STOP THE POISONING.” Using the same posters used for the original grape strike was powerful, but it is a tragedy that after years of resistance, farm workers are still being poisoned by the chemicals doused on crops in commercial agribusiness.
Other organizations started by the UFW are still thriving, such as radio campesina in Bakersfield. Culture has always been an important part of movement building, and sharing music, stories, and information has helped people organize, animate, educate, and motivate the masses to action. Our class got to record a show talking about our activism and experiences learning about César Chávez and the UFW. Together, we sang “De Colores,” a symbol of our solidarity with the movement and our love of people, the Earth, and hope for the future.