“Where are all the grapes, Wes?”
“We aren’t carrying them. We support the workers who are on strike.”
The middle-aged, dark-haired woman turned up her lip in disgust, as she viewed the near empty grape table in my father’s grocery store and said, “I will never shop here again.”
The angry lady pushed away her half-full shopping cart, walked out the door and said, “Neither will my friends, and you are going to lose business.” My father looked her in the eye, then shrugged and turned away. My nine-year-old sister, whose job it was to stand near one shelf and make sure no customer’s kids stole candy, overheard this and asked him, “Why don’t we have grapes, Dad?” “These people aren’t being treated right.” He pulled off his green apron, hung it on the hook at the back of the store, grabbed his keys and said, “I’ll show you.”
She climbed into the passenger seat of Dad’s old red truck as he drove seven miles to the next town, San Juan Bautista. As he drove past the vegetable fields, they saw protesters with signs. Dad turned down a dirt road and a cloud of dust stung their eyes. He drove slowly near the broken-down shacks that were housing the farmworkers. There were busted windows, tin to cover the roof and patch the holes in the old wood. There was a ditch in front of the shacks, that smelled like an outhouse. Kids sat in the muggy heat near the muddy water. Dad turned to her, “The people are forced to live like this.” My sister’s eyes grew big with shock as she put her hand over her mouth. They drove back to the store in silence.
It was 1966 and the farmworker movement was growing as workers sought better pay and living conditions. As the drum got louder, our family got more involved. My Dad may have lost business, but he stood firm. One of my sisters taught migrant children from the camps and another sister went with friends to some grape/lettuce strike organization meetings. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta marched down the main street of our small town and my mother took us to watch and listen. Her parents had emigrated from Spain, and my mother was born in a tiny worker’s house in the vineyard, while her parents worked the grapes.
In that spring of 1966, one hundred striking farmworkers walked 280 miles from Delano to Sacramento, California. They marched to shine a light on the conditions in the field and to demand the rights of other American workers. Farmworkers had been excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, allowing growers to refuse to recognize farmworker unions for decades. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped open a door. Economic justice was social justice, and the NFWA demanded federal intervention on the basis of farmworkers rights as citizens. Cesar Chavez argued, “The whole system of occupational discrimination must be killed like the discrimination against people of color is being challenged in Washington. This and nothing more, is what farmworkers want.”
The boycott, culminating in the march, was able to exert economic pressure on the growers.
By the time the march concluded in Sacramento, the NFWA had won its first union contract, a landmark victory for the farmworkers and the beginning of “La Causa”, demanding for farmworkers fundamental rights and freedoms that other American workers had.
Yesterday, 56 years after that march, another sister of mine showed us a photo of herself holding a poster of that 1966 Farmworker march from Delano to Sacramento, California.
She was at the capitol in Sacramento, along with 7000 other people, many of whom had just marched from Delano to Sacramento again, just like in 1966. My sister sat on the grass near the capitol, eating her cheese sandwich, when she heard Dolores Huerta speak. Huerta, age 92, said, “Your sacrifice will not go unrewarded, we are going to step it up and demand more.” Her diligence is inspiring. The current power game of those who wish to diminish the voice of the workers is to restrict voting rights. Farm workers are marching to win the right to vote for a union free from intimidation and threats. They are urging the governor of California to sign a bill that would allow the farmworkers to be able to vote in secret whenever and wherever they feel safe.
My sister shared a video of herself during the march, singing along with others to the song, “De Colores.” It is a song she learned teaching the migrant children. The lyrics are an expression of happiness and celebration that our world, including birds, flowers, rainbows, and even chickens are full of many colors. Like people. We come in all colors, we come in all classes, and each one of us has a right to shine our brightest, but we can’t do that when injustice darkens the sky. I admire those who, like Dolores Huerta, keeps “stepping up” in big ways, and my parents, who in their small world, risked their business, by supporting the grape strike, because “it was the right thing to do”.
These are the people who grab a paint brush whenever the sky turns dark, and paints that rainbow.