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Millions reaped what Cesar Chavez sowed.

DELANO, Calif. - They came by car, pickup truck, van and school bus, tens of thousands of people pouring into the 87-degree heat of the San Joaquin Valley to pay last respects to United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez.

Their license plates said California, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona - people like elderly UFW members Guadalupe Benito Arvizos, who only a few days earlier in Yuma had taken Chavez for a haircut.

The mourners were arriving for the funeral of an icon to Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and the broader Latino communities of the United States who died April 23 of an apparent heart attack.

They had driven hundreds of miles past fields where they and their families before them had picked grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, oranges - farm workers who knew the soil of the Kern County flatlands around Delano and their equivalent nationwide.

Long lines of dusty vehicles waited to park here at Forty Acres, the regional UFW center where the farm workers movement was born. Here was Chavez's body in the plain pine box fashioned by his brother, Richard.

Attending were figures in politics, entertainment and activism: Ethel Kennedy and Joe Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, apparently representing President Clinton. Actors Ricardo Montalban and Martin Sheen were there, as well as activists such as Msgr. George Higgins, the labor priest, and religious women such as Notre Dame de Namur Sister Ann Kendrick.

The rosary began at 7 p.m. April 28 and lasted all night, interspersed with tributes such as Aztec dancing. People slept in their cars and on the ground. There was no room in the few inns, such as the Sundance Motel, where people slept six and eight to a room, two and three to a bed.

The next morning, the vast crowds gathered for the symbolic two-hour march to the funeral Mass at Forty Acres, where Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony was celebrant.

The family - Chavez's wife, Helen, their eight children and their spouses, and numerous grandchildren - had already had private moments at the coffin. As Chavez's son Paul told NCR?, "Now is the time to share him with everyone else."

Thousands of people with only a handful of local and state police to help with the traffic - this was the funeral of a nonviolent Christian.

Desert origins

His Christian life began, as it ended, in a small desert town. He was born March 31, 1927, and baptized in the Immaculate Conception Church of Yuma. It was a modest area where small farmers once battled dust and drought but where agribusiness now rules. That church was destroyed by fire in 1960.

Death came during the early hours of Friday, April 23, in San Luis, barely 30 miles from Immaculate Conception Church. But in the 66 years between, Chavez had made history.

A few men and women have engraved their names in the annals of change through nonviolence, but none have experienced the grinding childhood poverty that Chavez did after the Depression-struck family farm on the Gila River was foreclosed in 1937.

Chavez was 10. His parents and the five children took to the picking fields as migrant workers.

Chavez's faith sustained him, but it is likely that it was both knowing and witnessing poverty and the sheer drudgery and helplessness of the migrant life that drove him.

He never lost the outreach that he had learned from his mother, who, despite the family's poverty, told her children to invite any hungry people in the area home to share what rice, beans and tortillas the family had.

He left school to work. He would say later that he attended 65 elementary schools but never graduated from high school: Always moving on with the season, his extended family fought to survive - fought hunger, fatigue and illness and fought the excruciating pain that can come from hours of backbreaking tasks.

Migrant field work still means a short life, poor, unhealthy life. Hypertension, diabetes, a higher infectious disease rate than the general population, and a per capita income level 50 percent less than the average are still standard, according to the Migrant Clinicians Network.

Killing fields

In recent years, Chavez's belief that pesticides had made the picking fields into killing fields had become one of his main concerns, and national attention is focusing that way, too. Toxicologist Dr. Marion Moses of the San Francisco-based Pesticide Education Center said that groups once teaching migrants about their health are now teaching them about their rights concerning pesticides.

In praising Chavez's work, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Catherine Gorman, coordinator of the farm worker ministry in the Orlando, Fla., diocese, also said Florida farm worker pacts now mandate that workers be told what pesticides are used in the fields, superseding a Florida state law that specifically excludes farm workers from an act providing for a right to know about chemical use.

It was in the fields, in the 1950s, that Chavez met his wife, Helen. The couple and their eight children gave much to "La Huelga," the strike call that became the UFW trademark, from their eventual permanent home near Bakersfield. Chavez did not even own the home until a decade ago but paid rent out of his $900 a month as a union official.

Yet, in the fields in the 1930s, something happened that changed Chavez's life. He was 12 when a Congress of Industrial Organizations union began organizing dried-fruit industry workers, including his father and uncle. The young boy learned about strikes, pickets and organizing.

For two years during World War II, Chavez served in the U.S. Navy, then it was back to the fields and organizing. There were other movements gaining strength in the United States during those years, including community organizing.

From 1952 to 1962, Chavez was active outside the fields, in voter registration drives and in challenging police and immigration abuse of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

At first, in the 1960s, only one movement had a noticeable symbol: the peace movement. By the time the decade ended, the United Farm Workers, originally established as the National Farm Workers Association, gave history a second flag: the black Aztec eagle on the red background.

In eight years, a migrant worker son of migrants helped change a nation's perception through nonviolent resistance. It took courage, imagination, the ability to withstand physical and other abuse.

The simple facts are well-known now. During the famous 1968 grape boycott, farmers and growers fought him, but Chavez stood firm. A nation of shoppers hesitated, then pushed their carts past the grape counters without buying.

The growers were forced to negotiate.

It was a very Catholic fight, priests and brothers and women religious, Catholic laypeople by the hundreds, were much to the fore in Chavez's work. In 1975, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board came into being. A young monsignor, Roger Mahony - a Chavez ally through Mahony's work as the Catholic bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor field secretary - was appointed to the board.

It organized hundreds of farm worker elections. The union peaked in the 1970s and |80s, but what Chavez and the UFW had actually accomplished, even as the numbers of UFW members and UFW contracts dropped, was possibly more significant.

The UFW as a Mexican-American civil rights movement in time might outweigh the achievements of the UFW as a labor movement, for Chavez also represented something equally powerful to urban Mexican-Americans and immigrants - a nonviolent leader who had achieved great change from the most humble beginnings.

Yet, through the UFW, Chavez and his colleagues brought Americans face-to-face with the true costs, the human costs, of the food on their tables and brought Mexican-Americans into the political arena and helped keep them there.

Ground has been lost in the fields. Latinos are still at the bottom of most of the socioeconomic indexes, but that once invisible segment of America is present and growing. In the past decade, some criticized Chavez for moving away from organizing and civil disobedience into boycotts and fasts, others for letting the UFW's power and prestige slide.

Also, lawsuits against the union were taking both time and money during the period the UFW was slipping financially. It was a lawsuit that had preoccupied Chavez in the days immediately before his death.

Chavez - who watched the union lose a $2.4 million suit two years ago - was in Yuma contesting a $5.4 million judgment against the UFW that had gone to Bruce Church Inc., a multimillion-dollar agribusiness with vast land holdings in Arizona and California.

Bruce Church Inc. had sued for damage done by a UFW boycott and won, and the UFW was appealing the case. Chavez gave testimony for two days and, when not in court, reportedly spent the tame driving through Yuma's poor streets, the playground of his brief childhood.

Often hungry as a boy, Chavez would fight hunger as a married man when - trying to bring a union to life - he would have to beg for food for his family from the workers he was attempting to organize.

Later, he would embrace hunger through fasts to further the cause. He was on a seven- or eight-day water-only fast until the evening before his death.

He was staying in the small, brick home of a disabled former migrant worker, family friend Dona Maria Hau, in San Luis, a half-hour south of Yuma. Hau had given Chavez her bed because she and UFW officials were concerned about his health. The previous evening, they had persuaded him to break his fast and have a vegetarian meal.

On Friday morning, April 23, Chavez did not appear for breakfast. David Martinez, UFW secretary-treasurer and a 20-year UFW loyalist, found him lying on the bed, dressed, union documents and court papers around him. But dead.

He had died young; his father lived to 101, his mother to 99.

Word of Chavez's death spread to the union halls decorated with the Virgin of Guadalupe and UFW flag, to the fields, to the small towns and larger cities. And stories about the short, compact man with the ready smile, the iron determination, the genuine humility and the deep faith were being told amid the tears.

In a way, Chavez had died fighting for what his mother and father had lost. The holdings of Bruce Church Inc. today include land that once was the Chavez family farm, land that Chavez, until the end of his life, believed had been unjustly taken from them.

Humble "tough cookie"

The tributes came from ordinary people and from at least two presidents - U.S. President Bill Clinton and Mexico President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

They came from UFW colleagues such as feisty former Vice President Dolores Huerta, a possible successor, and indirectly from one or two growers - though other growers were quick to downplay Chavez's and the UFW's importance.

Baldemar Valesquez, leader of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Toledo, Ohio, cited Chavez as an inspiration. "The most important legacy he leaves is the legacy of self-help, not leaving it to advocates, do-gooders and others to struggle for us."

Pat Henning, chief of staff of the California Assembly's Labor Committee, said he fasted with Chavez for several days during his water-only fast in 1988 to call attention to the harm allegedly caused by pesticides in the fields.

"There's a whole generation of Catholic activists in social justice from the |60s that owe their origins of who they are today to Cesar Chavez and the UFW," said Henning, a permanent deacon.

Henning dwelt on Chavez's deep Catholic faith, saying Chavez was "the only one" who was "able to unify the social justice issue with a cultural and religious emphasis. No other organizer was quite able to do that."

Henning said, "He was a devout Catholic. I'm not sugarcoating that at all. He was a tough cookie. But he went almost daily to Mass. He spent an hour each day in prayer."

Even though unionized farm workers are a minority, Chavez and the UFW raised the standards across the board as growers at unorganized farms raised workers' pay to keep them from forming a union, Henning said.

But while Chavez occupied a unique spot in time, history will not regard him as unique, say those who knew him.

Valesquez said, "We, of course, are beneficiaries of the struggle. We rode in on his coattails."

As for the future, he predicted, "we have a lot of talented intelligent people, who will come after Cesar and come after me, who are going to do things bigger and better, as long as we hold together the organization."

Bishops' involvement

Chavez was one of the first recipients of a Campaign for Human Development grant, said Jesuit Father Joseph Hacala, director of CHD, the U.S. bishops' domestic antipoverty program.

In 1969, Msgr. George Higgins, then director of the U.S. bishops' social action department, drafted a statement on the farm labor problem, with supportive references to the grape boycott, for the bishops to consider at their November meeting.

At that meeting, two California bishops suggested the bishops might have more effect if they offered their services in some way to mediate the dispute instead of issuing a resolution endorsing the boycott. Higgins had reservations but withdrew the boycott resolution and quickly arranged a private meeting between Bishop Hugh Donohoe of Fresno and William Kirchner, AFL-CIO director of organizing.

Chavez's union had merged with the AFL-CIO Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in 1966, becoming the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, or UFWOC.

They came up with a proposal to form the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor as a mediation panel. By the end of the bishops' meeting, the committee was established with Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Donnelly of Hartford, Conn., as chairman.

Chavez, the committee and growers held hundreds of intense meetings over the next couple of years. A young priest of the Fresno diocese, Msgr. Roger Mahony, was named the committee's field secretary in California and worked almost constantly with Chavez and the growers. He is now Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles.

In May 1970, when grower after grower was finally signing contracts with UFWOC, Chavez told Catholic News Service that the bishops' committee had set the stage for settlement by dispelling the growers' claims that the workers did not want union representation.

"The bishops' involvement in the negotiations placed a tremendous strain on the growers' line (of argument)," he said. "Without the bishops' help, it would have been very difficult."

In 1973, UFWOC changed its name to United Farm Workers of America. But the Chavez-led union faced new setbacks as the three-year contracts it signed in 1970 came up for renewal. The Teamsters moved in to scoop up many of the contracts, taking advantage of backing from growers who saw the Teamsters as an opportunity to weaken or break the UFWA.

That Chavez remained constant was obvious in many ways. Jerry Brown, former California governor, caught that continuity when he told the Los Angeles Times: "The first time I saw him, when he walked into my father's house, he was dressed the same way as when I saw him a month ago. He never lost his modesty and simplicity."
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Title Annotation:Obituary
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 7, 1993
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