SANGER, CALIF. — Last weekend, under a cloudy Sacramento sky, thousands of supporters of the United Farm Workers union completed a 24-day pilgrimage through the San Joaquin Valley with a rally at the Capitol. The march, ripe with historical symbolism, aspired as much to pay homage to the past as to secure a new future for a union that has seen better days. In an old grainy videotape of the original UFW march in the spring, 1966--the one led by the late Cesar Chavez--the sound of Spanish corridos is haunting. " Hasta Saa . . . craa . . . menn . . . too . . . "
Mexican Americans will never be completely free from the memory of a harsher summer. My Mexican grandfather would marvel at my soft hands, hands that have thankfully never picked grapes or cotton or any of the crops that my ancestors picked for generations under hideous conditions. Although spared by my parents' decree that their children would look forward, not backward, I grew up hearing the stories. No collective bargaining or minimum wage. " Six cents a tray for grapes; I'd make five or six bucks a day. " No health insurance or workers' compensation. No toilets in the fields. No sanitary drinking water. In essence, no dignity.
And it was a thirst for dignity that gave birth to the UFW some 30 years ago. Their demands were simple, and pure. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy used to say that Chavez and his union wanted only for America to be "better" in its protection of farm workers, that it was a simple request--and a frightening one.
Yet, it was in that same spirit--a desire to make an ailing UFW "better"--that critics had, for years, questioned Chavez's leadership. Some had argued that Chavez and the union, through their obsession with the table-grape boycott, were making enemies, not progress. Others had suggested that UFW officials had abandoned the farm worker in whose name they collected hefty checks from white liberals in the Northeast. And others, while acknowledging the UFW's accomplishments, had challenged the modern-day relevance of the union and its leaders.
Still, life has a wicked sense of humor. Arturo Rodriguez, who succeeded Chavez as UFW president, had always been a loyal soldier. As union vice president, he followed Chavez's battle plan to the letter. Now, liberated by his commander's death, the soldier is doing things differently. Earlier this month, with a mouthful of crow, Rodriguez called a press conference to announce that the new march represented a shift in strategy away from the grape boycott, an effort to increase membership and a symbolic return to the union's grass-roots work of organizing farm workers--all in an attempt to make the UFW relevant again.
Half-way through the march, destiny came full circle as the marchers passed through my hometown. Middle-aged Mexican American professionals left their homes to join the procession, to wave red flags emblazoned with black eagles and do penance for abandoning the UFW in the years when they were needed most. Outside the same old church where my parents were married, a group of young people stared curiously at the marchers who were attending mass. Mexican Americans, they were dressed in familiar cholo garb. I asked them if they were there to support the UFW. They made a face and shook their heads. They were just waiting, they said, for a ride. Oblivious to the march and the reasons for it, they explained that they were taking a field trip to an amusement park.
If UFW supporters are serious about restoring the union's luster, they must pitch la causa to a new generation of Mexican Americans who have grown up far removed from the indignity of our grandfather's memory and the sweat-filled fields of summers past. They must admit past mistakes and learn from criticism. They must concede the limits of the union's contemporary appeal and work to broaden it. And, they must finally put to rest the spirit of their dead leader and learn to think for themselves again.
Back at the church, morning was fading. "Where are they?" one of the teen-agers asked, still waiting for their ride. Across the street, the marchers gathered to continue on to Sacramento. "Yeah," another one chimed in. "We'll never make the park by noon."*