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Arturo Rodriguez : Seeking to Once Again Rally the Power of United Farm Workers : It just never occurred to us to think about what the union, or what lifewould be like without Cesar around. We talk about Mexico and about underdeveloped countries, and yet people forget how exploited many of our workers are here in this country. We will go directly to consumers--to voters--to force politicians to make the right decisions. Our real connection needs to be with consumers.

September 26, 1993|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News. He interviewed Arturo Rodriguez at the Fox Television Studios in Hollywood

Last April 29, while Angelenos were remembering the turmoil of one year before, farm workers from across the West converged on Delano, an agricultural community just north of Bakersfield. Somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 people came to honor a fallen leader, Cesar Chavez, co- founder and president of the United Farm Workers. For three decades, Chavez organized field hands in a battle with growers over wages, living conditions and use of pesticides. He took his cause into the cities, organizing a series of successful grape boycotts. At its peak in the 1970s, his union boasted more than 100,000 members, and, for many, Chavez was a saint-like figure.

Yet at the time of Chavez's death last spring, the UFW ranks had dwindled to perhaps as few as 5,000 members. Not a single grape grown in California was picked by laborers working under a UFW contract. The United Farm Workers seemed something of an anachronism.

But in coming to memorialize Chavez, the throngs of followers also inspired his successors. Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the union, returned to the leadership after years in exile. And longtime UFW organizer and Chavez son-in-law Arturo Rodriguez was chosen as the new president of the union.

Unlike Chavez, who had only an eighth-grade education, Rodriguez earned a Master's degree at the University of Michigan. A native of San Antonio, he first met Chavez in 1973, and within a year was married to his daughter, Linda. They and their three children continue to live at the union headquarters in Keene.

The 43-year-old Rodriguez is committed to revitalizing the UFW, and has promised to add 10,000 new members by the first anniversary of Chavez's death. Since being named president in May, he's traveled extensively, drumming up support in both the fields and the cities. A slight man with a warm smile, he follows Chavez's habit of living frugally, staying at the homes of farm workers when he's on the road, and eschewing ties for open-necked shirts. His eyes become wet when he speaks of his mentor and father-in-law, and says while Chavez' death was sudden and unexpected, it can now provide a new kind of inspiration for farm workers and those who support their cause.

Question: What would you say is the source of your social activism? Was it the Catholic Church?

Answer: Yes. I was born and raised a Catholic. I consider myself a practicing Catholic. When I was growing up, there was a priest I became close to, named Father Marvin Doerfler. And what really opened my eyes was when Cesar (Chavez) first came down to Texas, in 1966. Father Doerfler marched with the farm workers, and afterward he explained to me what it was all about--how they were protesting the low wages and bad working conditions and everything. I was in high school then, and it was very exciting.

Then Father Doerfler was disciplined by the archbishop for demonstrating with the farm workers. That just sort of blew me away. Because here was Cesar preaching nonviolence, justice--talking about things that seemed very much a part of our religion. At any rate, they sent Father Doerfler to another parish, as punishment, and I got a lesson that things weren't as black and white as I had thought. Father Doerfler was eventually allowed to come back, and we got to be friends again. We're still friends. . . .

Then, when I went to school, a lot of my friends--I guess you'd call them progressive Catholics--were also involved with the farm workers. We'd get up early and picket at produce terminals.

Finally, there was Cesar. The man spent anywhere from 18 to 20 hours a day doing the work. Seven days a week. Just hammering at it, being consistent about what he was saying and doing. So, the day I graduated from college was the day I joined the United Farm Workers, in May of '73.

Q: Someone wrote that all the things you've done--leafletting, organizing workers and boycotts--left you prepared to lead your union, but nothing could prepare you for Chavez's death. Had you thought at all about what would happen to the union without him?

A: We never thought about it. Cesar's mom lived to be 99, his dad lived to maybe 101. We used to joke among ourselves that, boy, the growers are going to have a long time waiting out Cesar. We all thought he would be here for a long time to come. He was where we got the inspiration and the ideas. It just never occurred to us to think about what the union, or what life would be like without Cesar around.

Even right now it's still difficult to wake up some mornings and know when you go to that office, you're not going to see him there. I mean, he was a tremendous friend . . . .

Q: What's life like for the average farm worker?

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