Esther Uranday remembers the day she got arrested for La Causa.
They were working in the United Farm Workers original offices on Albany Street in Delano when the boss came through the door.
“Cesar came in and said, ’Do you guys want to get arrested?’” she said.
Uranday smiles fondly, thinking back to the day five decades ago, when she told United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez “yes.”
She doesn’t remember what grape vineyard they were driven to or who the grower was. She does remember going with her husband’s mother and Chavez’s wife, Helen, her friend.
“My mother-in-law wanted to get arrested,” she said.
Uranday just remembers shouting “Huelga” — “Strike” — as loud as she could with a mass of other union members and strikers.
Sheriff’s deputies pulled up with a paddy wagon, she said.
“They told us we couldn’t shout,” Uranday said. “We asked why.”
They kept shouting.
When the 44 strikers, 13 of them woman, were finally booked into jail in downtown Bakersfield, they were met like celebrities by the other inmates.
“They said, ’We saw you on TV,’” she said.
A cool breeze blew across the Forty Acres, the historical home turf of the United Farm Workers strikers Saturday morning.
Crowds gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 1965 Delano Grape Strike.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. explained how laws from the 1940s, aimed at oppressing black farmworkers in the South, were being used in the 1960s to oppress Filipino and Latino farmworkers in Kern County.
“That is what Cesar was up against,” Kennedy said. “They were dealing with growers that felt it was their god-given right to treat farmworkers like slaves.”
A wave of cheers and chants of “Si, se puede” greeted the end of his speech.
Union co-founder Dolores Huerta rose to remind the hundreds of dignitaries, strikers, grape boycott volunteers, reporters and families what it cost people like Uranday to fight.
“They lost their homes. They lost everything to make sure we could win,” she said.
Uranday took photos with old friends and fellow strikers as speakers share memories of the time, 50 years ago this month, when field workers launched their challenge to one of the state’s most powerful industries.
She was wearing a black T-shirt with the UFW eagle picked out in silver spangles.
Her hair was pulled up under a red bandana and a black fedora with a spray of black feathers head down by a brooch pin with Cesar Chavez’s face on it in profile.
She was hugged, greeted, photographed. She takes a friend over to visit with Helen Chavez.
This place is sacred ground for the United Farm Workers and especially for the grape workers like Uranday who were there when Chavez and Larry Itliong launched the fight that would make history and bring the battle for civil rights into the table grape vineyards of Kern County.
On Sept. 16, 1965, the Mexican American workers of Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association voted to join their Filipino American peers from Itilong’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee on an eight-day-old strike.
Together, thousands of Filipinos and Latinos spent five years confronting poor wages and wretched working conditions by squeezing growers’ supply of workers and launching an international table grape boycott that brought growers to the bargaining table in 1970 to sign the first contracts with the UFW.
Uranday lived the story.
And Saturday, with thousands of other strikers, supporters and generations of their children, she celebrated 50 years of history.
Uranday started working in the fields with her family when she was a child.
She remembers working the apricots and plums in Morgan Hill and Gilroy.
“My mother would shake the trees, she was a small woman,” Uranday said. “Us kids, there were 18 of us, would pick up the plums.”
The fruit would go into buckets, the buckets into boxes and the boxes into stacks.
Cotton. Potatoes. Uranday travelled up and down the state picking.
She was 28, married herself, in 1965 when her life changed.
Uranday was working the grapes.
There were no bathrooms in the vineyards. Workers relieved themselves where they were working.
When a woman had to go, she said, the other women would gather around her in a circle to give her privacy.
“We had a big container of water,“ she said. ”On a string there was a tin cup.“
Everybody drank from the same cup.
The work was hot in September, she said, when the Mexican farmworkers heard that the Filipinos had decided to strike.
The news prompted a tough talk with her sister-in-law and her husband’s parents.
”We decided — in support of them — to walk out on strike,“ Uranday said.
They went to 102 Albany St. in Delano, she said, and told Chavez and Huerta what they were doing.
Days later, Chavez put the strike to a vote.
Workers called for the huelga.
For Uranday, the picket lines were a blur. She lived in Earlimart and was assigned to picket growers in that area.
The first day they got up at ”three or four in the morning“ and drove out into the vineyards until they found the first group of workers preparing to go in among the vines on the John Pagliarulo & Son property.
They climbed out of their caravan vehicles and started la lucha - the struggle.
As the strike got moving, pickets moved around to other growers.
Uranday remembers the confrontations with foremen who tried to keep workers from leaving the fields to join the picketers.
Eventually Uranday was recruited to work in the union offices at the Forty Acres.
”Dolores saw I had something in me,“ she said. ”And Dolores wanted to be out striking.“
Uranday had never been to high school so she learned how to run a union by doing things.
”I would tell Cesar, ’I can’t do this,’“ she said. ”He would say, ’You can do it. Si, se puede.’”
Farm workers had gone on strike before.
But together, the Filipinos and Latinos won the epic five-year battle with growers, crafting the history that was celebrated Saturday.
Why did it work?
“Maybe it was Cesar,” Uranday said. “Cesar had something in him.”
The partnership between Latino and Filipino farm workers was also critical because one group had often broken the other groups’ strikes in previous years.
But Uranday and fellow striker Carolina Franco said it was the international boycott of table grapes - which convinced millions of shoppers not to buy grapes - that finally brought the UFW and the Filipino and Latino workers victory.
Franco was part of the first wave of boycotters who were sent to the east coast to launch the boycott.
“There were 60 of us and a 6-year-old in a bus,” Franco said.
Nobody knew what they were doing
But they spread out across 13 states and grapes began to sit untouched on store shelves.
“The boycott was what brought the contracts,” Uranday said.
Now, 50 years after the beginning, that victory is a history lesson.
But at the Forty Acres on Saturday, it was living history.
Dolores Huerta’s daughter danced to Teatro Campesino tunes with her baby son in her arms.
Old friends and strike line warriors met again and caught up.
Red, black and white union flags flew high.
And United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez celebrated the future.
“This day must be about more than honoring the past. Cesar said if the movement did not survive his passing, then his work and the work of all those who sacrificed so much would have been in vain,” he said.
“So today we also honor the present. We celebrate the farm worker heroes of today who live out the legacy and stand in the light of those pioneers from ’65.”