It was a Saturday sunrise in the summer of 1966. The cool darkness kept the birds from chirping, as we quickly made lunch to take with us to work. The foreboding stillness of the early morning hours forewarned us of the impending events. When I stopped to pick up my carpool of friends, I was told we would be hoeing weeds. But they were expecting trouble in the fields. This was 1966; there was always trouble in the fields, so what else is new? When you are 17 years old it is easy to mistake moral danger as an opportunity for adventure. We would take a side road and arrive early.
The work was easy that morning. It was still cool and there were few weeds to hoe. I could tell something was amiss . . . the work was too easy . . . the fields were uneasily quiet. Where were all the other workers? When noon came we were allowed a break. We all ran to the car to eat our hastily made lunches and drink some cool water.
There was a gathering on the other side of the vineyard. My friend Joe said; “Let’s check it out!” As we approached the gathering across the field, we encountered some UFW workers. We were informed this was a Huelga. They said; “Don’t return to work after lunch . . . will you back us?”
With a nod of support we turned to walk away. Then all hell broke loose. I ducked into the cool underbrush of the grape vineyard, as the heat of injustice literally raced across the crossroads of my life. Unarmed strikers engaged the fury of hired strike breakers armed with clubs. Swirls of fertile farmland dust swelled in the turbulence of social oppression. Just as the dust began to settle, in came law enforcement to arrest anyone that looked like a striker. Like common criminals we were rounded up; some were beaten and others were released. I managed to break away through the cover of the vineyards. My life, dragged into the turmoil, would demand an explanation. It would demand an answer.
Will Rogers once said; “The only thing I know is what I read in the papers!” Trust me, I can tell you right now; the conservative news media of the 1960’s gave only a one sided version of what was happening in the fields of Kern County.
That Sunday, The UFW was holding a rally to support the strike. It was to be held in Bakersfield Central Park. I was told Cesar Chavez would be there. So I went to the rally. They had food, drinks and entertainment. But I was there to seek answers. That was a big mistake; but possibly one of the best mistakes I have ever made. When I arrived, I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was immediately singled out as one of the people who had crossed the picket line. I was cornered by several of the supporters. But before they dispensed with me, they said that Cesar wanted to talk to me. I had seen him leading the fiesta parades on Baker Street. And I may have seen him speak at a CSO meeting. But this was my first opportunity to speak directly with him. We would talk for 20-30 minutes. During that discussion, Cesar explained to me what he was trying to accomplish for the farm workers. But his explanation went beyond that. He explained to me that La Causa was for the betterment of all Latinos. His cry for solidarity was to promote better working conditions for the farm laborer. His cry for solidarity was for the preservation of our right to seek an education. His cry for solidarity was to promote our general right to seek a higher quality of life.
This 30 minute talk changed my life.
I can thank Cesar for saving my life that sultry summer afternoon. After our talk ended, I was allowed to leave unaccosted. His instructions to me and to his followers were: seek the support of the farmworkers and also seek the support of all Latinos. In my case, my friends and fellow students. And so La Causa broadened. I completed high school and went to college. In college, we provided support through the “Chicano” movement. In return, the avenues of higher education were opened to the Latino. . . this was the legacy I received from Cesar Chavez.
The concept of “Solidarity” that we so proudly and defiantly embraced during the 60’ and 70’s may seem altruistic today. But it was empowerment through solidarity that we brought about change. When Cesar died, it was the solidarity of death that brought American dignitaries to the Delano Memorial Services. I was privileged and honored to be the county official as Chief Deputy Registrar; called upon to sign the permit for burial of Cesar Chavez in the National Chavez Center at La Paz . . . . . “Viva La Causa”