A Farmworker Icon Turns 90: Gilbert Padilla

This week, Gilbert Padilla turns 90. Together with Cesar and Helen Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and several other inexhaustible farm-worker leaders, Gilbert Padilla founded the first viable farm-workers’ union, the United Farm Workers.

Padilla, a native of California’s central Valley, after serving with the United States Navy during the early 1940s, Padilla returned home and was bothered by the continuing maltreatment of farm workers. His effort to improve rural residents’ living conditions began in Tulare with the Community Service Organization. 1962 to begin the National Farm Workers Association.

Through their inspiration and heroic work, Gilbert and Esthert spent their lives fighting to improve the living conditions of farm workers. Beginning with his efforts in the Central Valley rent strike brought by angry farm workers who lived in decrepit Tulare county housing, around 1960 Padilla joined another UFW founder now-deceased Jim Drake in the Tulare rent strike. Padilla’s style was shown, according to historian Matt Garcia: “One day the Tulare County Housing Authority arbitrarily raised the rent on the condemned, tin shacks from $19 to $22 per month! I [Drake] drove down to the camp not knowing this, and there was Gil under the water tank, standing and shouting on top of a car. By the time he got down, he had started the rent strike–300 families joined!”

In 1962, under the guidance of Fred Ross, the Padillas joined Cesar and Helen Chavez and Dolores Huerta in founding the National Farm Workers Association. In 1965, during the grape strike, Padilla oversaw the merger of the NFWA with AWOC, he Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee that later became the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO. Together the founders and other UFW volunteers and supporters maintained an effective worldwide grape and lettuce boycott. While some consider creation of the United Farm Woks the product of the charisma of Cesar Chavez, many witnessed Gilbert and Esther Padilla, Cesar and Helen Chavez and Dolores Huerta jointly pursue the efforts of thousands of farm worker volunteers create the United Farm Workers union.

In his new book, titled “From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement” (University of California Press), Matt Garcia brings to light the individuals who helped Chavez in making the organization succeed. Garcia notes that in 1962 “Chavez, Gilbert Padilla, Dolores Huerta and many others worked together to create the UFW to raise awareness about the deplorable conditions and wages for hard-working farm laborers. They successfully organized many boycotts, including the famous grape boycott, which hit growers and suppliers extremely hard. This strategy made Chavez a household name. But Chavez didn’t do this work alone.”

Garcia, an Arizona State Professor has noted that (see Professor Uncovers Lost Stories of Cesar Chavez, United Farm Workers) ”[t]o bring the boycott from the rural fields to the urban cities, hundreds of college students took time away from their studies to fight for the farm workers they would never meet. In fact, Garcia says he found that young people of all races worked together to put pressure on the grape growers, consumers and politicians, resulting in the creation of official labor contracts in 1970.”

“The existence of former boycott volunteers was critical to the formation of checks against Chavez’s power,” Garcia says. “In interviews, members of the inner circle told me that the boycott was critical in preventing UFW from going the way of other intentional communities of the 1970s.”

According to the Arizona State article, [w]hile Garcia uncovered many unknown facts about the UFW, his favorite discoveries were of the inspiring people who helped Chavez advance the movement – people like Elaine Ellison, who singlehandedly extended the grape boycott to England, and Jessica Govea, a farm worker’s daughter who extended the grape boycott to Canada – all because they believed in the cause.”

“Gilbert Padilla, Chavez’s right-hand man, also played a large role in the creation and success of the movement, yet remains largely unknown. Recruited by Chavez, Padilla was vital in developing and implementing many strategies that caused the movement to progress and succeed.

“He deserves as much recognition as Chavez for starting the movement,” Garcia says. “In fact, when he stood up at the first meeting among Mexican and Filipino farm workers in Delano, people mistook him for Chavez because he is such a charismatic person.”

“It is Garcia’s hope that his book will not only paint a more accurate picture of Chavez, but also reveal the stories of complexity and heroism of the many men and women who helped create the union. https://asunow.asu.edu/content/professor-uncovers-lost-stories-cesar-chavez-united-farm-workers-movement

Matt Garcia concludes, “I admire Gilbert and Esther for what they achieved in the movement. I am also impressed with their courage to tell their stories and be critical of themselves. I will be forever grateful to them for their honesty, courage, and hospitality.” www.mattgarcia.org/uncategorized/gilbert-padilla-co-founder/ Sadly, Esther Padilla and Cesar’s widow Helen passed on without being shown the respect they deserved for their life-long efforts to improve the lives of farm workers.

At their Imperial Valley home this weekend former UFW volunteers will join together to honor Esther and Gilbert Padilla for the past 90 years spent to end the mistreatment of farm workers.

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