(Phoenix, Arizona) –– More than anything else, Cesar Chavez wanted to help farm workers. He was a farm worker, and he understood what it meant to work for low pay, to be exploited, to work under unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. He realized that a union, a farm workers union, was needed to end the mistreatment of workers. And when he talked about starting one, all he heard was that it couldn’t be done: “No, Cesar, no se puede,” they said.
I want to tell you about events that occurred in 1972: events that created change in the ways we see ourselves now, and in the way that others see us.
Within a twenty-four-day period, from May 11 to June 4, 1972, I was a witness to historical events –events so inspiring, they have remained with me. I share them with you now.
You may have been there – at the Santa Rita Center and Hall, on Hadley Street, near Buckeye and Tenth Street, not far from the ASU campus. You see, Cesar Chavez was fasting. On May 11, 1972, the Arizona legislature passed a farm-bureau sponsored bill, known as House Bill 2134. The bill restricted the formation of bargaining units for collective bargaining. It also outlawed secondary boycotts and strikes at harvest time. Two rights important to working men and women. It was a controversial bill. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union hoped that governor Jack Williams would veto House Bill 2134. But, he didn’t. As soon as the bill was passed by the senate, Williams had a member of the State Highway patrol bring it to him for his signature. Jack Williams signed House Bill 2134, forty-five minutes after it passed the senate.
Santa Rita Hall became the United Farm Worker’s headquarters, and word got out that Cesar was there, and that he was fasting, and that nightly masses were being held there. I was among the many who wanted to see him, to hear him speak, to be in his presence. I had read so much about him, saw his picture on farm workers posters, knew about the grape boycott and supported the UFW’s efforts to organize workers in Arizona. I helped Chicano students distribute “boycott lettuce” leaflets at Safeway.
And, in my eyes, Cesar Chavez stood ten feet tall. And so, I went to the Santa Rita center. I went often; this is what I saw:
Large crowds packed into the Santa Rita hall, eager to catch a glimpse of the man who had dared to challenge Arizona’s governor. Farm workers and their families from throughout the state came to the center, and to attend the nightly mass. There were rugged-looking men, many with sunburned faces. They were working men. Their shirts, open at the collar, their sleeves rolled up. The women were dressed in simple, no frill dresses, many wearing blouses and skirts. Little girls held candles. Metal chairs were arranged in rows and rows, filling the hall, and every chair was filled. People stood along the walls, hugging every inch of space. When father Joe Melton blessed the wine for the sacrament, the priest told us that this was no ordinary wine, but wine harvested by men and women, working in dignity, under the protection of a union contract. And the hymns sung at the mass were union hymns, sung in English and in Spanish. I searched the crowd, looking for Cesar Chavez, my eyes were everywhere. I saw Gustavo Gutierrez, Arizona’s UFW representative; State Representative, Lito Pena was there; Ricardo Chavez, Cesar’s brother was there, as was sister marry Rose Christy, and Joe Eddie and Rosie Lopez; and Jim Murkowski, UFW attorney; ASU students were among the crowd. Then, a silence settled the room.
A group of people entered from another room, into the hall. You could hear a pin drop. And a short, small, weary-looking man appeared. He was assisted to his chair by others, their arms around his elbows and wrists. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t know who the men were. “Where is Cesar Chavez,” I asked myself. “Is that him?” I wondered; no one said a word. No one announced his presence to the crowd. There was no podium from where he could speak. I expected to see Cesar Chavez address the crowd from a podium. He walked, ever so slowly, to the chair, steadying himself against the men so that he wouldn’t fall. There was no voice from a microphone announcing his arrival, no applause from the crowd – just silence. It was like that almost every night: Cesar didn’t speak. But the crowd was satisfied just to be in his presence, to hear mass with him.
One evening, May 20, Senator George McGovern came to see Cesar at Santa Rita. He interrupted his presidential campaign to be at the mass with him. On the 19th day of the fast, May 30, Coretta Scott King came to Santa Rita and attended mass with Cesar. She spoke to the crowd about her husband, and said how much she admired Cesar’s philosophy of non-violence, so much like Martin’s, she said. Cesar looked weaker. The day after Mrs. King’ s visit, Doctor Augusto Ortiz ordered Cesar to be taken to the Memorial Hospital nearby. Cesar’s wife, Helen, and his son-in-law, Ricardo Ybarra, accompanied him to the hospital. We learn later that Cesar had an erratic heartbeat, and that his uric acid level had risen, and that he was feeling the effects of the fast. But Cesar refused to end his fast; his health worsened.
On June 4, 1972, after twenty-four (24) days, Cesar ended his fast at a memorial mass held in the memory of Bobby Kennedy, the president’s beloved brother. Joe Kennedy, and his brother, Michael, bobby’s sons, are with Cesar at the mass. Cesar is too weak to speak, but someone reads his statement, saying that the fast was meant to show the suffering among farm workers.
The fasting debilitated Cesar Chavez somewhat, but it also gave us strength and courage we had not had before, and infinite patience and never-ending persistence to overcome any obstacles. And that may be his legacy to us: that we remain steadfast in our own convictions to overcome injustice and poverty; and never give up. Because a people united can never be defeated. A people united can never be defeated. Sí se puede.
© 2015 – 2016, Dr. Christine Marin. All rights reserved.