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Chavez Remembered : Labor: The civil rights leader is revered as a 'savior,' who began his organizing efforts among farm workers in Oxnard.


From Ventura County's food-rich farmland to its top government offices, Latinos remembered Cesar Chavez on Friday as a civil rights leader who honed his organizing skills on the streets of Oxnard.

And while they mourned the death of the United Farm Workers Union chief, they vowed to continue his crusade to improve the working conditions of field laborers here and across the country.

"Cesar Chavez was a savior who came to help the poor, and we are his apostles," said Victor Palafox, a UFW representative in Oxnard. "Now our savior is dead, and it is up to his apostles to continue his preaching work."

In the late 1950s, before he created the farm workers' union, Chavez helped form an Oxnard-based organization dedicated to registering voters and using the ballot box to improve the wretched conditions of barrio life.

Many said Chavez's now-defunct Community Service Organization was the foundation for a political evolution in Oxnard, where voters last year elected their first Latino mayor, first black councilman and only the fourth Latino councilman in the city's 90-year history.

"Many people are unaware that he got his start in Oxnard," said Karl Lawson, an Oxnard housing official and former UFW employee. "He was a dynamic person. It's almost impossible to imagine him dying."

In a Camarillo field, laborers kneeling over rows of blood-red strawberries expressed shock and sadness over the loss of their advocate.

A married couple, spaced a few rows apart, had been working since early morning. They had not heard the news that Chavez had been found dead at a friend's home in Arizona.

"Cesar Chavez? Dead?" cried Esperanza Alarcon, 43, of Oxnard. "He was a man who was always giving, always pushing the farm workers forward. We're going to have to face the fact that he is no longer here."

Added her husband, 43-year-old Rene: "Hopefully someone else will come along who is such an excellent person who will help the farm workers."

Although the workers in Camarillo were not under a UFW contract, they credited Chavez's labor movement with ensuring that they now have clean drinking water and bathrooms in the fields.

Even so, there were those who didn't recognize the name of the 66-year-old labor leader.

"Julio Cesar Chavez, the boxer?" asked one woman, who didn't give her name. She said she had never heard of the farm worker advocate.

Standing in a dirt row between two strawberry fields, 64-year-old Pablo Lopez leaned on a shovel and pondered the loss of the charismatic labor leader.

"It's sad," he said of Chavez's death. "Who knows what we are going to do?"

Chavez was in Ventura County just a few weeks ago, former UFW officials said, searching for office space as part of a renewed effort to organize field laborers in response to dwindling union membership in recent years.

In Ventura County, UFW membership currently stands at about 500 and the union has only about five contracts, officials said. But in the 1980s, at the peak of the farm worker movement, the UFW had more than 4,000 members in Ventura County and had negotiated contracts with about two dozen growers.

In 1988, the union won $1 million in back pay for more than 300 farm worker at a Ventura mushroom farm.

And in 1986, Chavez and other union officials engaged in a highly publicized battle with the Egg City chicken ranch in Moorpark after 240 workers walked off the job in a prolonged labor dispute.

"Even if you don't agree with his methods or point of view, he has to be acknowledged for what he did accomplish in the way of organizing," said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. "Often times the grower community was on the opposite side of the fence, but that doesn't change history."

Latinos who grew up under the influence of Chavez, those baptized in his labor movement, said the effort to organize farm workers evolved into a civil rights struggle.

"I think he was a real giant," said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez. "For Latinos, this was their civil rights movement."

Chavez inspired many Latino leaders, said Marcos Vargas, executive director of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a political action group.

"For many individuals in the Latino community, Cesar Chavez really brought us the whole concept of social change," he said. "I think that movement must continue. He's leaving with us a very important vision, one that we need to understand and carry forward."

Others were quick to point out that the gains made by Chavez in farm fields translated to gains for Latinos in other areas.

"The union is the main organization that planted the seed for all the good things that Latinos have today," said Armando Garcia, an Oxnard paralegal and former public relations director for the UFW. "It's a tragedy, a tremendous loss. Nobody can replace him."

In Oxnard's La Colonia barrio--where Chavez first started doing voter registration and citizenship drives, and later organized hundreds of farm workers--residents reacted similarly.

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