Learning Strategy From the Farmworkers

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the farmworkers strike and boycotts in California. Beginning in Coachella Valley and moving up to Delano where the headquarters became established, this brilliantly strategized movement accomplished extraordinary results. Overcoming the arbitrary division between Filipinos and Mexicans that was encouraged by the growers, these two groups understood the need to form an alliance if they were to achieve victory.

In terms of movement building, I think studying how the farmworkers overcame false divisions and built alliances not only among themselves but also with a larger Anglo public that came to support them, was a brilliant strategy. Women doing the shopping for their families stopped buying grapes during the boycott. When supporters stood out in front of grocery stores, they explained the reasons for the boycott. Women were more sympathetic to their cause than men and helped grow the boycott.

When the strike began in the 1960s, my father was a grower in the Coachella Valley. He grew citrus and revolving vegetable crops but not grapes. However, he was strongly opposed to the notion of a farmworkers' union and was fully engaged in the bracero program. There were dormitories on our ranch where the workers lived and slept while they were there. As a ten-year-old, I was horrified that grown men had to sleep in dormitories. I didn't know about wages and hours worked, but I did see them out picking in the hot sun. However, because of the heat they started work early, sometimes 3:00 in the morning, and usually quit before the hottest time of day.

As I grew older and learned more about the bracero program and Cesar Chavez, I became a supporter of the latter. I didn't have much money at the time but I sent a little and supported the boycotts, both by giving out information at grocery stores in what is now Silicon Valley and boycotting grapes. The latter was the hard part because grapes are my absolute favorite fruit. Boycotts in the '60s and 70s led to a boycott in the '80s over exposure to pesticides that were making the farmworkers ill. By the time all the boycotts ended, I went on a grape binge. I still eat them every day, even imported grapes out of season (something I usually do not condone).

My father and I did not speak for 7 years because of my support for the farmworkers. Finally, for my father's 80th birthday party, my stepmother convinced both my father and me that we needed to bury the hatchet. Consequently, the stand-off was healed, but our political disagreements continued and were the fodder of many spirited and sometimes contentious debates up until his death at 92.

In commemorating the success and inspiration derived from the farmworkers movement and its leaders, especially Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, it is fitting to study their history and to watch or re-watch the film that came out last year, "Cesar Chavez."

Often, the success of a political movement depends on alliances and out-of-the-box strategies. We have much to learn from these brave, determined, and empathic leaders and farmworkers who succeeded beyond all predictions. !Viva la Causa!