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JOSE GASPAR: Instead of seeking revenge, Marcos Muñoz fought for justice

The barely teenager from Ciudad Acuña in northern Mexico desperately wanted to help his mother, who was the sole support for a family of six children. So in the 1950s at age 13, the boy slipped into the United States — alone — and connected with a Texas rancher who promised to pay him $3 a day tending livestock. He figured he would save his money, go back to his city and buy things for his mother and siblings.

The boy accepted the job and the rancher whisked him away, locked in the trunk of his car so as to avoid being caught by the Border Patrol. After five or six months of work and sleeping in a barn, the lad missed his mother and decided to go see her. So after working for months, the boy finally asked the rancher for his pay. The rancher told him he would get it in the morning and he would also take him to the bus depot to catch a bus for the border.

Come morning, the boy found himself being handcuffed by Border Patrol agents. The agents told him someone had reported him and he was being deported. He was allowed to knock on the rancher's door to ask for his pay. No one ever answered. He was taken away, cheated out of months of pay. That's the story narrated by Marcos Muñoz in an oral history project.

"The boss did that in order not to pay me," Muñoz said. "This man destroyed my dreams. I was very bitter."

It's a lesson Muñoz never forgot and it prepared him well in fighting for labor rights for farm workers. He eventually crossed back into the United States, following the migrant stream traveling to various states, and wound up in Bakersfield around 1965. While working in the Delano area, he heard people yelling "huelga!" which means "strike," as in a labor strike.

"They were saying, 'Stand up for your rights,' and to go out and join them. I thought what they were saying was true and I walked out and joined them," recalled Muñoz.

He was in the right place at the right time, soon becoming a top organizer for Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union.

"Marcos shared something with my dad," said Paul Chavez, son of the late labor leader. "Anger! Over how (farm workers) were abused." Under Chavez, Muñoz was able to channel that anger into something positive: a lifetime of militant nonviolent activism. He was arrested numerous times along with Chavez during the great grape boycott that began in Delano in 1965.

"He was a tenacious organizer," said Marc Grossman, the longtime spokesman for the UFW.

Muñoz died May 15 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago due to lung cancer. He was 80 years old. He never learned to read and write, yet somehow he was able to accomplish so much. Delivering the eulogy at his funeral, Paul Chavez, son of Cesar, recalled that in 1967 his dad told staff he needed a volunteer to go to Boston to organize the grape boycott.

"Marcos raised his hand and said he would go," said Chavez.

But Muñoz was confused. He thought he was going to Barstow, and soon found himself with only a supporter's name and a phone number in a city he knew nothing about. Yet in two years, Muñoz garnered public support for the great grape boycott and managed to get grapes out of all national and local supermarkets ,as well as all of New England.

The man with no formal education was then invited to speak about the farm workers' struggle at Harvard and MIT. Muñoz recalls being anxious about speaking in front of "all these people with high education." He began his talk, but soon needed help.

"People would help me with words I could not translate and then I just slipped into Spanish because I ran out of English," Muñoz said in his oral history. In Boston he also found his wife, Andrea O'Malley, a former nun who became involved in protests against the Vietnam War and advocated for farm worker's rights.

During the UFW's second grape boycott, Muñoz was sent to Chicago, eventually settling there in the Little Village area, which is a heavily working class Latino community. He switched to community organizing and became very adept organizing block clubs and worked as a steelworker, becoming a political mentor to U.S. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia when Garcia was running for city council.

"He sowed the seeds of many moments for social justice," Garcia said. Muñoz is survived by his wife, Andrea; their daughter, Maria; his brother, Hector; grandson, Anthony Thompson; and great-grandson, Zion.

I had the good fortune of also knowing Marcos Muñoz, first meeting him in the '70s and then seeing him sporadically at events. He came across as a simple, sincere man with a strong work ethic. And a passion for justice.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.