Some folks in Kern County are probably unaware of the rich farm labor history that was born right here decades ago. And some, I suspect, would rather it remain that way because much of it is not flattering in a way that was exposed in John Steinbeck's classic, "The Grapes of Wrath."
Released in 1939, the Kern County Board of Supervisors actually banned the book from libraries and schools. But that wasn't enough. They also burned it as well, calling it "libel and lie." The book tells the story of great Okie migration to find work in the fields of California, and many wound up settling in Kern County. If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it. Or at least see the movie with Henry Fonda in the lead role.
Now another debate is brewing at Bakersfield College over two proposed non-credit courses dealing with farm labor history. To be clear, no one is advocating burning anything, but the type of scrutiny being given to the two courses raises questions.
One proposed course is called "Landmarks in California History" and the other is called "César E. Chávez Leadership Certificate of Completion." Kern Community College District Chancellor Sonya Christian supports the project and is hoping to launch it as a pilot program for winter semester 2023, which is right around the corner.
According to BC history professor Oliver Rosales, who designed the courses, the focus is on the diverse history of agricultural workers in the San Joaquin Valley with visits to sites where farm labor history was made, such as the National Chavez Center in Keene, Forty Acres in Delano and the Filipino Community Hall, also in Delano. The three have been recognized by the National Parks Service as "nationally significant" and an important aspect of American history associated with civil rights and labor movements.
Special focus is given to the leadership of Cesar Chavez. Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and others were the pioneers that led farmworkers to walk out of the fields in the 1960s and eventually organize what became the United Farm Workers union.
"By offering these courses to young people, especially in Delano, college students and adult learners, Bakersfield College can be at the forefront of ensuring that accessing these histories is a reality for generations to come," Rosales wrote in an email.
Particularly embarrassing is that many of today's Latino students, and adults for that matter, do not know much about how farmworkers came to fight for their rights and made history in their struggle not just for better working conditions, but to be treated with respect. And it all started right here in Kern County.
With close to 70 percent Latino students, Bakersfield College is what the Department of Education calls a Hispanic Serving Institution, which gives BC the right to compete for grant programs set aside for such schools. So it appears it would make perfect sense to offer such courses. This being Kern County, however, some opposition rumblings were quick to surface from a right-wing group called The Renegade Institute for Liberty at Bakersfield College consisting mostly of faculty.
Its Facebook page posted the following, "As California moves forward directing college districts to institute a political litmus test, KCCD Chancellor Sonya Christian is demanding new courses and a certificate program to learn about the virtues of the local left wing UFW political machine. Should BC spend tax dollars to provide UFW activist training classes?" Someone else chimes in with, "It will only promote what the corrupt Dolores Huerta foundation pushes. Nothing about supporting hard working Mexicans who became citizens the right way."
And then there's this one, "The Cesar E. Chavez Leadership Certificate ran into a hiccup in (Curriculum) committee yesterday when faculty expressed concern that the program would simply turn students to be UFW activists." Say what?
I had to re-read the course description to make sure I didn't miss anything like "students will walk picket lines and vote for Democrats."
The posting on The Renegade Institute for Liberty page does not name the faculty member who implies students would be indoctrinated and turned into devoted disciples of the late Cesar Chavez. In order for a course to be approved for teaching, it must go through a vetting process and one of those steps is getting approval from a Curriculum Committee.
At its meeting of Oct. 6, the proposed courses were on the agenda for a vote to be approved, but both items were pulled by committee member Erin Miller, who is also a member of The Renegade Institute for Liberty. After a lengthy debate about the merits and wording of the course descriptions, Miller made a motion to table the vote and she was able to secure enough votes, 13-11, to table it. I asked Miller to explain her concerns with the courses and if she was the faculty member mentioned in the Liberty posting that students would become UFW zombies.
"Sadly, your information is incorrect," replied Miller in an email stating she supports teaching the history of Chavez and the UFW. Further, Miller states she teaches these topics in her own social science classes. Miller, however, did not confirm nor deny if she referred to students being turned into UFW activists. Miller also submitted written comments lecturing Rosales that he better not mess with violating Kern Community College District, state and federal policies, which prohibit partisan political activities.
Further, Miller writes, "The program and courses, as currently written, create an environment that endorses, fosters and encourages only one type of partisan, political leadership. Moreover, compensating faculty and using campus resources to do so could be seen as violating the above policies at work by evolving the program into one on general historical leadership."
Rosales isn't buying Miller's logic. He suspects the proposed, though non-credit courses, are being held to extra scrutiny precisely because they deal with figures such as Chavez.
"I think pointing fingers at the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement is also a convenient tactic for political mobilization and taps into deeper and darker sentiments related to the historic opposition of collective bargaining rights for farm workers going back more than half a century," said Rosales.
The matter comes up this Thursday, Oct. 20 at the next Curriculum Committee meeting. The meeting begins at 2:30 p.m. and is to be held in the new Campus Center, room 231.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at email@example.com. The views expressed here are his own.