United We Stand

By Tommy Purvis

Posted October 21, 2011 in Feature Story

Few people outside of the big growers and the workers who toil in the fields under the harsh desert sun took note when Gov. Jerry Brown let the Fair Treatment of Farm Workers Act spoil on his desk at the end of June. The vetoed bill would have been the most significant progress for the beleaguered farm workers movement. Gov. Brown signed the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in the mid ’70s. That historic swipe of the people’s pen is still the high-water mark for the mostly forgotten laborers that suffer worse conditions today. The exploitation so severe it leaves the exhausted workforce to drop dead in the summer heat as they ponder what the perished leader of the farm workers movement, Cèsar Chàvez, would do in their current times of trouble.

The Law of the Fields

Currently, the California Rural League Assistance estimates there are at least half a million migrant farm workers in the state at any given time. In the Coachella Valley alone there are at least 100 mobile home parks full of proud hard workers who live in conditions that would remove dogs from communities in most American cities. The Desert Mobile Home Park on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribal land is the most well-known, but certainly not the worst of these colonias. It is known as “Duros” (from park owner Harvey Duro Sr.) to those who live on the dirt roads in small trailers that are placed on a few hundred small and tightly squeezed lots. After recent improvements were made by park management there is still no grass and shade for the children to play in the often extreme heat. The people who work in the fields to cultivate and bring to market grapes, bell peppers and onions often do not have enough food to feed their own families.

A single row of trailers on the perimeter line of the park was recently razed after a septic tank leaked waste for years into the soil beneath the homes.

For the people of Duros and the rest of the workers struggling to make ends meet in the fields the United Farm Workers (UFW) made a push for Gov. Brown to sign a compromise bill. A late night protest at the capitol the night the bill was vetoed was described as being highly personal by UFW staff. Some workers went on a 187-mile march mile from Madera to Sacramento to bring attention to the need for the bill. It’s the first of such marches from the UFW in years. It was met with busloads of supporters at the capitol and an online petition to persuade Brown to change his mind.

An amendment known as SB126 was added to the ’70s era legislation as compromise after the UFW action. In terms of incrementalism it will remove some of the obstacles farm workers, who want to join a union, face from growers. But those who think about the plight in the pair of hands that picks their produce as they make selections in the grocery store should not find solace in the legislation.

“The laws in the books are not the laws in the field,” says Maria Machuca, the communications director for the United Farm Workers.

Remembering Cèsar Chàvez

Veterans Memorial Park in downtown Coachella and numerous other buildings and historical sites in the now sprawling area represent the steps that led to the mountain top moment the United Farm Workers (UFW) were able to climb three decades ago. The historic places of interest, still well preserved, point towards the path of a people-powered solution for today’s struggle. The National Park Service made recent trips through town to survey key landmarks and monuments for consideration in the forthcoming Chàvez National Memorial. The first such honor extended to a Mexican-American.

The park behind city hall was after all the nucleus of a community organizing laboratory for the flourishing farm workers union in the mid ’60s and the following decade.

Cèsar—as those in downtown who respect him would often call him—would often spend the night in a small United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) field office across the street when he was in town to organize. His desk was in the center of the room with a mural on the wall that used to feature the iconic United Farm Worker (UFW) Aztec black eagle. The image still represents the severity of the struggle in the fields. A hand painted portrait and mural of him with the workers was under the black eagle’s wings that were immortalized in numerous murals in San Diego’s Chicano Park. Today, the brick wall inside Casa del Trabajador has been painted egg shell white and replaced with a single collage portrait of Che Guevera.

There are currently over 50 public educational facilities named in the honor of Chàvez but the elementary school across town is the only dedication ceremony Cèsar got to attend in person. And that was near his death two decades ago. A historical timeline mural of Latino contributions to American society will eventually be blocks long. It will soon have an expansive Chàvez section. Mayor Eduardo Garcia along with the much of the rest of the city brass has the names and numbers on speed dial of different volunteers and organizers who are still alive. The access is quite the accomplishment because in the early days, city leaders would turn on the water sprinklers to disperse the campesinos that often would assemble in Memorial Park when the UFWOC field office across the street was full.


The July 4, 1969 edition of Time Life Magazine with Cèsar on the cover featured the Coachella-to-Calexico March in an issue titled “The Grapes of Wrath: Mexican-Americans on the March.” This pilgrimage or the peregrinaciòn was also considered for National Park Service status. When the people started to walk there were not many other than the workers. But when the freedom marchers arrived near their destination, almost 100 miles away, they were joined by organized labor, religious groups, minorities, students and celebrities. In many instances the border fence with Mexico was a rally point for farm workers on both sides of the divide to meet in occupation and solidarity of their cause.

Even today a person can stroll through downtown Coachella and pass by the man who served as the driver and bodyguard for Chàvez when he was in town or the woman who was a much needed secretary. One can visit the homes of multiple families that would risk their safety to let him spend the night. There are those who would cook, and those would clean, and those who would wash clothes after long days of work in the field. Then there those who still adorn their knickknack shelves with invaluable UFW artifacts and light candles to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The city was disappointed after the numerous third tier recommendation sites were overlooked for others in Bakersfield, Yuma and Phoenix.

It is each one of these UFW volunteers, supporters and organizers spread across the Coachella Valley and the rest of the entire nation who are connected by a movement that was much bigger than their individual contributions but would have perished without their collective efforts. These people are the ones who would carry the water for change that will grow for multiple generations to come. The simple fact remains: If there never was a Cèsar Estrada Chàvez, then there could not have ever been a President Barrack Obama.

And the credit is not due to an anglicized version of a bumper sticker slogan that became so cheap, used-cars salesman used it for radio spots in the DC area over Inauguration Weekend.

It comes form the blueprint that was experimented with in the Coachella Valley to agitate the workers and their supporters, unite them for change, and then, of course, get out the vote. The techniques from here are what won the Iowa Caucus and the numerous primaries that would follow the Chicago senator’s improbable victory.

The Road to Martyrdom

In terms of peaceful revolution the UFW is the most eloquent proof that the ballot is the bullet with the truest aim. But far too many of those who rally against social injustice often forget that it remains their duty to keep the weapon locked and loaded with the appropriate ammunition.

In 1968, the emerging farm worker union chose to devote a full-time effort to Sen. Robert Kennedy’s California Democratic presidential primary campaign. The movement that would lead to martyrdom, that is the last in a string from the ’60s movement to be gunned down, took a barnstorm tour through the IE in route to Los Angeles. That journey is commemorated on the backside of the bust of his slain brother in front of Fontana City Hall. Bobby—as those who respect him would often call him—spoke in the Fontana days before the tragic scene unfolded at the Ambassador Hotel. He was walking with the co-founder of the UFW, Dolores Huerta, to thank the thousands of volunteers in the numerous Latino barrios that worked together from the desert to the sea to pave a path to victory when the shots rang out.

Story of Self

On that day that remains as tragic as the black in the UFW flag some East Los Angeles precinct rolls will vote for Kennedy by margins of nearly 100 percent. It was the first of hundreds of UFW-organized political campaigns that would eventually lead up to the election of the current President 40-years later. On that day African-American dominated precincts across the nation experienced the same turnout.

Marshall Ganz is a former UFW staffer turned Harvard lecturer that took lessons learned from the Calexico field office, and numerous other UFW campaigns and efforts, to create a training seminar for volunteers known as Camp Obama. The curriculum which included training for volunteers to explore and share their “story of self” also came with details on ways to persuade voters to go to the polls. It would create a new generation of organizers that would climb their way up the campaign ranks to empower numerous other volunteers to organize for the unlikely candidate with the foreign sounding name. The end result of the process done right is what Ganz describes as “civic capital,” a commodity that ideally the people get to cash in for their effort.

When the election cycle was through components of the organizing technique were put into a 90-minute lecture titled “Distributed Leadership in the Obama Campaign” for Massachusetts Institute of Technology students.

Huelga! Huelga! Huelga!” 

Long before the polo grounds became famous for a rhapsodic weekend music festival, Alfredo Figueroa, was a proud member of the “Coachella Four.” The photo of him in Time Magazine— with his red UFW flag and guitar—on the pilgrimage to Calexico captivated a nation.

But it is Figueroa’s story of self that will live on as an example forever.

He found his place in the struggle the day his actions were able shut down a smooth-talking politician during a Fourth of July speech. It happened a year to the day before Time released the article. Figueroa found himself and the rest of the farm worker movement feeling disenfranchised when his congressman, Rep. John V. Tunney, that at the time represented the 38th district that spread from Indio to Blythe along the U.S.-Mexico border, had wavered on his commitment to the movement. The farm workers and other mostly Latino organizations were what made his election possible after Edward Kennedy visited the area to introduce his campaign.

Hundreds of campesinos were part of a 1,000-person audience as Rep. Tunney spoke. The congressman was deep into his speech and still did not mention the on-going struggle the farm workers had been engaged in against the growers. But he had now found time to speak rather fondly about the on-going Vietnam War, and Figueroa was fed up. In one motion he unfolded his flag, held it high and stood up. It was then that hundreds of farm workers began to clap and scream as one, “Huelga! Huelga! Huelga!”

To restore control the sound person raised the volume for Tunney’s mic to cause a horrible feedback that drowned out the congress man’s voice. He continued to deliver the speech but no one could hear over the farm workers loud singular voice for the next 10 minutes. Law enforcement came to shut down the speech for good. Cèsar had met with the farm workers at the Woman’s Club of Coachella, but for his own reasons, was not there when this spontaneous act of civil disobedience took place.

“For the Benefit of All”

The police started to take pictures of the crowd to use later to identify Figueroa and three others as the instigators charged with disruption of a public assembly. The group served two months in jail before the California State Supreme Court ordered them to be released. The disarray took a tremendous toll on Figueroa’s life and also caused the death of a man. Jim Caswell had come to Coachella from Canada for his health and became a UFW supporter. The local doctors refused to visit the jail to treat Jim. He made constant appeals for care to no avail. He lost over 100 pounds in jail and died a few weeks after his release.

Rep. Tunney lost his re-election bid.

Today Figueroa is still accessible and organizes against the development of solar energy farms in the desert along the Colorado River due to the desecration of tribal lands and the environmental calamity that will follow.

The voice of the farm workers movement lives on through his voice, and the voice of his nephew, Cuauhtèmoc “Temo” Figueroa. Temo was immortalized in a Rolling Stone article as a well dressed and foul mouthed union organizer turned national field director for the still expanding Presidential campaign a few weeks after the Texas primary. It was a speech Temo gave in Riverside at a get-out-the-vote rally the weekend before Super Tuesday in ’08 that alone was enough to move at least one first-time Obama volunteer to became an organizer and drive to El Paso a few weeks later for the campaign.

Figueroa has advice for those who feel jaded about the current struggle of the workers that has left the fields and spreads across other employment sectors. He says there is too much self-centered talk coming from the leader in Washington D.C. to solve the problem. Instead, he advises those who feel disenfranchised to tune out the chatter and unite to move for action.

Figueroa also offers wisdom from the Colorado River Indian Tribes whose blood still pumps strongly through his veins: “Among all, we do all, for the benefit of all, like the fingers on the hand, all together at the wrist of the human race.”



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