Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Peel Me a Grape...Happy Cesar Chavez Day...the bounty that is his life's work...

March 31, 2010

Peel Me a Grape

Happy César Chávez Day!

Many folks view this day as a negotiated holiday that provides rest in the middle of the week and that’s cool; however, I have a little bit of a different take on it. Being from an agrarian community, I have long been proud of the food we grow and the immigrants who perform much of the labor, working tirelessly in the fields, earning California its rich reputation as a provider of the bounty that finds its way onto our tables.

The town where I grew up boasts the most fertile of farm land, a great deal of which, sadly, is now encased in concrete, over which mall structures have been erected. My memories are filled with visions of rice fields, the smell of just-turned soil and a tableau of hardworking laborers toiling next to the highway, as I took it all in, rolling along parallel to these scenes in my Camaro as I did on Highway 99.

Grapes were amongst the abundance of crops and, in fact, one of our high school “rivals” competed under the banner of the Tokay Tigers, Tokay being a grape varietal. These grapes were efficiently and devotedly tended by Mexican laborers who often gave better than they got. Where I grew up we cared deeply about these families, sharing our tables, schools, and lives with the children of immigrants who only dreamed of health insurance, let alone an opportunity to work for a fair wage. In fact, I grew up speaking Spanish which is probably responsible for my fast cadence of my speech, in addition to my empathetic relationship with people whose culture I admire greatly.

This holiday means something to me and I know it means so much more to those who count “farm worker” as part of their family history or their community culture. When César Chávez arrived on the scene farm workers had no rights. Though he was never schooled beyond about junior high, he was a self-educated man who was on a mission to give voice to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t be heard.

As a civil rights advocate and labor leader he participated in voter registration drives, non-violent demonstrations and was the most successful agricultural labor union organizer in history. Spearheading a massively successful boycott of table grapes, his concerns for farm workers extended beyond a specific crop, beyond a specific issue, but rather all under the heading of advocating for a life of equality.

Inspired by the teachings of Gandhi, which included non-violent resistance, Chávez kept a cool head, even amidst chaos, attacks and attempts to discredit him as he established the United Farmworkers’ Union. In order to protest the treatment of workers he participated in fasts a number of times which, sadly, led to a general weakening of his physical state and he died in 1993 at the age of 56; far, far too soon.

Though a human being such as César Chávez can never be reduced to mere quotes and disembodied facts, there is a rather succinct tidbit that I gleaned from a website that stated, “From 1964 to 1980, wages of California migrant workers had increased 70 percent, workers received health care benefits, and a formal policy for handling worker grievances (complaints) was established.”

He improved the lives of countless citizens and citizens-to-be, allowing them to take a step toward equality. His influence, courage, and love will long live on in the legions of people he affected which include all of us who eat food. Whether it’s a special day of remembrance, or not, this San Joaquin County girl appreciates everything César Chávez did to enrich my community and I will never forget this peaceful man’s contributions.

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