There are a couple of local highly respected individuals I want to tell you about who have much in common during this month. Both have passed on, but made this world a better place.
The 23rd of this month marks 25 years since the death of labor leader Cesar Chavez, the man largely credited with leading the struggle for better working conditions and social justice for the nation's farmworkers. Chavez didn't and couldn't have done it alone, of course; there were many others who played key roles and were side by side with him during key victories and the rough times.
"The struggle was not just about wages," said 61-year-old son Paul Chavez. "It was about respect."
That message is reinforced in the following telegram sent by civil rights leader icon Martin Luther King Jr. to Cesar Chavez dated Sept. 22, 1966. Part of it reads:
"The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts — in the urban slums, the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one — a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity."
Farmwokers were pretty much at the bottom rung when the elder Chavez began organizing in Delano during the '60s for what eventually would become the United Farm Workers Union of America. By law field workers were excluded from collective bargaining rights. It wouldn't be until 1975 when Chavez successfully managed to get California to pass a law that guaranteed farmworkers union elections via secret ballots. After the historic grape boycott, growers up and down the Central Valley were signing contracts with the UFW.
Twenty-five years after his father's death, Paul Chavez admits his dad had more setbacks than victories. But it never held him back from continuing his work. "My dad would say, 'Never give up. You only lose when you give up. As long as you continue to struggle you win.'"
Battling the powerful agribusiness industry and their political allies was no easy feat. Suspected of having communist leanings, the FBI under dear old J. Edgar Hoover spied on Chavez and his "subversive" union activities from 1965 to 1975. The 1,434-page FBI file shows agents and informants kept tabs on marches, picketing and meetings in Delano and throughout the country. The bureau alerted the military, local law enforcement agencies and the Secret Service about potential farmworker activities.
According to the files, in 1972 when then-president Nixon learned that farmworkers were going to protest an appearance by Vice President Spiro Agnew (remember that guy?) in New York City, Hoover dispatched a force of 72 FBI agents. The men in dark glasses swarmed the Americana Hotel. There they gathered "intelligence" on 50 or so peaceful demonstrators who picketed, chanted then left the scene after an hour. Never one to let things go unnoticed, the agents made note of a banner that read: "The Republican Party Hates the United Farm Workers." Old J. Edgar must have been disappointed when his G-men could find no evidence Chavez was a bad guy.
Reflecting on his father's legacy, son Paul points to another trait. He believed in empowering others by helping them realize their full potential. "He had tremendous faith in people's ability to do things they thought they couldn't do."
Chavez said many of the key union posts were filled by people with little or no formal training, yet accomplished the tasks. "He made me promise him to give others the opportunity to fulfill their potential."
I was at work the morning word came that Cesar Chavez had passed away in 1993. I thought it would be my story for the day, but I was wrong. It was a story for a week, as condolences from throughout the country and beyond were forwarded to the Chavez family and UFW headquarters. Even the Vatican sent a message. But (hardly surprising) not an acknowledgment or even a peep came from the Kern County Board of Supervisors. It wasn't until a group of local educators including Dr. Ray Gonzalez and Bakersfield College Dean of Students Cornelio Rodriguez approached the board and said, "Hey, what's wrong with you guys?" They probably said it a little different, but the supervisors got the message and were forced to publicly acknowledge Chavez's death.
And had it not been for then-Bakersfield City Councilman Mark Salvaggio, the same thing would have happened. During the end of a City Council meeting, Salvaggio delivered a short speech memorializing the legacy and accomplishments of Cesar Chavez. Salvaggio's words raised eyebrows among his conservative colleagues on the City Council. Why did he do it? "I didn't want that moment to pass, I couldn't live with myself had I stayed silent," said Salvaggio.
The second person I want to mention is Dr. Jess Nieto, better known as simply "Jess." The soft-spoken Nieto passed away unexpectedly last September. Like Cesar Chavez, Nieto was also a local leader though on different fronts. Founder of the Chicano Studies program at Bakersfield College, he fought for equal representation for all students. Nieto later left education and was involved in community issues, business and ran Heritage of America, a nonprofit educational and cultural foundation that did immigration work and held citizenship classes.
On April 17, Bakersfield College is hosting The Jess Nieto Memorial Conference from 3 to 8 p.m. at the Norman Levan Center for the Humanities at BC. The conference consists of two panel discussions and a book talk by Ralph Ambruster-Sandoval called "Starving for Justice: Hunger Strikes, Spectacular Speech, and the Struggle for Dignity" (University of Arizona Press, 2017). The event is free and open to all.