Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (8 page)

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
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“¡Cesar, cómo está?”

“¡Estoy bien!”

“¡Bueno—día—!”

“¡Buenos días!”

“¿Cómo está?”
another man said.

“¡Oh,”
Chavez answered,
“batallando con la vida!”
—“I
am still struggling with life.” He grinned.

A Filipino in his sixties came up with a fine wordless
smile and pumped Chavez’s hand in both his own. “That’s
one of the brothers,” Chavez explained when the old man
had gone; the term “brother” or “sister” is used to describe
a Union member, but it also has the connotation of “soul
brother,” and is so used by Chavez when addressing
strangers.

Father Mark Day, a young Franciscan priest who was
assigned to the farm workers in 1967, came up and greeted
Chavez heartily. The following Sunday, he said, the Catholic
churches of Delano would speak out in favor of the
workers’ right to form a union; hearing this, Chavez merely
nodded. Since 1891, papal encyclicals have affirmed the
workers’ right to organize—Pope John XXIII had even
spoken of their right to strike—but in Chavez’s opinion
Catholic help has too often taken the form of food baskets
for the needy rather than programs that might encourage
independence: a union and a decent wage would enable the
worker to escape from demeaning and demoralizing dependence
on welfare and charity. Although individuals in
the clergy around the country had lent sympathy to the
farm workers very early, and many outside church groups,
particularly the Migrant Ministry, had long ago come to his
support, with personnel as well as money, the clergy, Catholic
as well as Protestant, had denounced the grape strike or
dodged the issue for fear of offending the growers, most of
whom are Catholics of Italian or Yugoslav origin and contribute
heavily to the Church. In fact, when Chavez’s organization,
the National Farm Workers Association, began the
strike in 1965, the growers were able to pressure the Church
into forbidding NFWA to use the parish hall of Our Lady of
Guadalupe. (“I find it frankly quite embarrassing,” Father
Day has said, “to see liberals and agnostics fighting vehemently
for social justice among agricultural workers while
Catholic priests sit by and sell them religious trinkets.”)
Though more and more embarrassed by the example of
outside clergy of all faiths, many of whom had marched
in the Union picket lines, it was only recently that the
Delano clergy abandoned its passive stance and joined in
attempts to reconcile the growers to the Union. Now Father
Day spoke of the large Zaninovich clan, some of whom
came to mass here at Our Lady of Guadalupe. “If they
would just get together with their workers,” he said, “we
wouldn’t have any problems.”

Chavez looked doubtful, but he nodded politely. “Yes,”
he said after a moment, “this church is really coming to
life.” With Chavez, it is sometimes hard to tell when he is
joking and when he is serious, because he is so often both
at the same time.

More people greeted him,
“¿Va bien?” “¡Está bien!”
Most
of the people are jocular with Chavez, who has a warm,
humorous smile that makes them laugh, but after the joking,
a few stood apart and stared at him with honest joy.

A worker in a soiled white shirt with a fighting cock in
bright colors on the pocket stood waiting for a hearing.
Though Chavez is available to his people day and night,
it is on Sunday that they usually come to see him, and his
Sundays are all devoted to this purpose. “.  .  .  
buscando trabajo
,”
I heard the worker say when he had Chavez’s ear:
he was looking for work. He had just come in from Mexico,
and the visa, or “green card,” that he carried in his pocket
is the symbol of the most serious obstacle that Chavez’s
strike effort must face: the century-old effort of California
farmers to depress wages and undercut resistance by pitting
one group of poor people against another.

By the 1860’s the local Indians used as near-slaves in
Spanish California had been decimated; they were largely
replaced, after the Gold Rush, by Chinese labor made
available by the completion of the Southern Pacific railroad.
But the thrifty Chinese were resented and persecuted
by the crowds of jobless whites for whom the Gold Rush
had not panned out, and also by small farmers, who could
not compete with the cheap labor force, and when their
immigration was ended by the Exclusion Act of 1882, the
big farmers hired other immigrants, notably Japanese. The
Japanese undercut all other labor, but soon they too were
bitterly resented for attempting to defend their interests.
Even worse, they were better farmers than the Americans,
and they bought and cultivated poor ground that nobody
else had bothered with; this impertinence was dealt with by
the Alien Land Law of 1913, which permitted simple confiscation
of their land. (The land was subsequently restored,
then confiscated again after Pearl Harbor.)

The next wave of farm laborers in California contained
Hindus (Sikhs), Armenians and Europeans; they slowly replaced
the Japanese, who by 1917 were referred to as the
“yellow peril,” and after the war, for patriotic reasons, were
kicked out of their jobs to make room for red-blooded
Americans. Meanwhile, the European and Armenian immigrants,
less beset than the Asiatics by the race hatred that
has advanced the economy of California from the start,
were gaining a strong foothold; many were the parents of
the Valley farmers of today.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Mexican peasants
had crossed the border more or less at will. After the Mexican
Revolution of 1910, the starving refugees presented
the growers with a new source of cheap labor which, because
it was there illegally, had the additional advantage of
being defenseless. Cheap Mexican labor was pitted against
cheap Filipino labor; the Filipinos were brought in numbers
in the twenties. Many of the Mexicans were deported after
1931, when the Okies, Arkies and up-country Texans
swarmed into California from the dust bowls; the Depression
had caused a labor surplus beyond the wildest dreams
of the employers, and an effort was made to keep the border
closed.

Still, Mexicans were predominant in the farm labor force
from 1914 until 1934. In these years, because of their illegal
status, they tended to be more tractable than other groups;
the famous farm strikes of the thirties occurred more often
among Anglos and Filipinos. Despite their quiet nature,
the Filipinos refused to scab on other workers or underbid
them. “The Filipino is a real fighter,” Carey McWilliams
wrote in
Factories in the Fields,
“and his strikes have been
dangerous.” Few Filipino women had immigrated, and the
ratio of men to women was 14 to 1; predictably, the growers
dismissed the Filipinos as “homosexuals.” McWilliams
quotes the
Pacific Rural Press
for May 9, 1936, which called
the Filipino “the most worthless, unscrupulous, shiftless,
diseased semi-barbarian that has ever come to our shores.”
After the Philippine independence act of 1934, further importation
of the spirited Filipinos came to an end, and their
numbers have been dwindling ever since.

By 1942 the Chinese were long since in the cities, the
Japanese-Americans had been shut up in concentration
camps, the Europeans had graduated from the labor force
and become farmers, and the Anglos had mostly drifted
into the booming war economy of factories and shipyards;
the minority groups that remained were not numerous
enough to harvest the enormous produce that the war demanded.

The farm labor emergency was met by a series of agreements
with the Mexican government known collectively as
the
bracero
program, under the terms of which large numbers
of day laborers, or
braceros,
were brought into California
and the Southwest at harvest time and trucked out
again when the harvest was over. The
bracero
program was
so popular with the growers that it was extended when
the war was over. In Washington the lobbyists for the
growers argued successfully that Americans would not do
the hard stoop labor required in harvesting cotton, sugar
beets, and other crops; hence the need for the extension of
the
bracero
program. Everyone conveniently forgot that
the white fruit tramps of the thirties had done plenty of
stoop labor and that domestic workers of all colors would
be available to the farms if working conditions were improved.
But the Mexicans, whose poverty was desperate,
worked hard long days for pay as low as 60 cents an hour,
and were used to undermine all efforts by domestic workers
to hold out for better treatment; by 1959 an estimated four
hundred thousand foreign workers (including small numbers
of Canadians in the potato fields of Maine, and British
West Indians in the Florida citrus groves) were obtaining
work in an America where millions were unemployed.

Already the churches and citizens’ groups were protesting
the lot of the farm workers, and the domestic migrant
laborers especially, and at the end of 1964 Public Law 78,
the last and most notorious of the
bracero
programs, was
allowed to lapse. (This was the year in which a long-accumulating
sense of national guilt had permitted the passage
of significant poverty and civil rights legislation, and it
would be pleasant to assume that P.L. 78 was a casualty of
the new humanism, but congressional concern about the
outflow of gold was probably more important.)

The death of P.L. 78 was the birth of serious hope for a
farm union, but by 1965, when the grape strike began, the
growers had found another means to obtain the same cheap
labor. Under Public Law 414 (the Immigration and Nationality
Act of 1952, also called the McCarran-Walter Act),
large numbers of foreigners were permitted to enter the
United States as “permanent resident aliens” on a special
green visa card. “Green-carders” could become citizens
after five years’ residence (and hold social security, pay
taxes, and be drafted while they waited), but since the
Mexican may earn fifteen times as much for a day’s work in
the United States ($30 versus 25 pesos, or about $2), most
have declined this opportunity in favor of “commuting,”
i.e., they cluster around the border towns and take their
high harvest wages—an estimated $15 million worth in
1967—back to Mexico.

Today almost half the membership of Chavez’s union
hold green cards; they are welcome so long as they do not
work as scabs. The law specifies that no green-carders may
work in a field where a labor dispute has been certified, or
where a minimum wage (now $1.40 an hour) has not been
offered first to domestic workers, but enforcement of this
law has been desultory, to say the least. Many Mexicans,
with the active encouragement of the growers and the passive
encouragement of the Border Patrol of the U.S. Immigration
Service, have joined the numerous “wetbacks” (that
is, the illegal immigrants) as strikebreakers. As long as they
are excluded from legislation that guarantees collective
bargaining, the farm workers have no formal means to force
employers to negotiate. When their strike against the grape
growers was subverted by imported scabs and antipicketing
injunctions, they were driven to what the growers call an
“illegal and immoral” boycott. Originally this boycott was
directed against one company, the Joseph Giumarra Vineyards,
Inc., but Giumarra began selling its products under
the labels of other companies, and in January 1968 the
present consumer’s boycott against all growers of California
table grapes was begun.

In the autumn of 1968, according to the Fresno
Bee
of
November 3, an estimated twenty to thirty thousand wetbacks
were working in the Valley; though their presence is
illegal, there is no penalty for hiring them, and since they
are both economical and defenseless, the growers replace
their domestic force with
alambristas
(fence jumpers) at
every opportunity. “When the
alambrista
comes into a job,”
one of them is quoted as saying, “the regular workers are
out, just like that.” The Immigration Service picked up five
hundred and ten wetbacks in the Delano area in August
alone—about one fortieth of the lowest estimated number.

Loosely enforced, P.L. 414 is no improvement over P.L.
78, and it poses a moral problem as well as an economic
one: Mexican-Americans, most of whom have parents or
grandparents south of the border, have deep sympathy
with Mexican poverty and do not wish to get Mexicans into
trouble by reporting them to
la Migra
, as the Border Patrol
is known. Besides, many green-carders are innocent, having
been hired without being told, as P.L. 414 requires, that
their employer was the object of a strike; some of these people,
poor though they are, have walked off the job in a
strange country when they learned the truth, but most are
in debt for transport and lodging before they ever reach the
fields, and their need—and that of their families at
home—is too great to permit so brave a gesture.

The man with the fighting cock on his shirt was a Union
green-carder who did not wish to cross the picket lines. But
at that time there were more Union workers than Union
jobs—only three growers in the Delano area had signed
contracts with the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee—and
Chavez encouraged the man to take a job
wherever he could find it. He did not have to encourage
the green-carder to help the Union on the job by organizing
work slowdowns; the man was already complaining that
social security payments had been deducted from his last
pay checks, even though no one had asked for his social
security number.

Workers who cannot read, like this man, feel that they
are chronic victims of petty pay-check chiseling on the part
of both labor contractors and growers, not only on illusory
social security but on unpaid overtime and promised
bonuses. (In the first six months of 1967, the Department
of Labor discovered that nearly two hundred thousand
American laborers were being cheated by their employers,
mostly on unpaid overtime and evasion of the minimum
wage; this figure is probably only a fraction of the actual
number of victims.) Chavez feels that the labor contractor,
who sells his own people in job lots to the growers, is the
worst evil in an evil system that is very close to peonage;
the contractor would be eliminated if the growers agreed
to get their labor through a union hiring hall.

BOOK: Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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