From the Archives: More than twenty years after his death, Cesar Chavez, the farm worker turned labor leader and apostle of nonviolence, finally makes an appearance on the big screen this weekend. Below we reprint excerpts from an interview with Chavez in the June/July 1987 issue of Plough magazine.
First, could you tell our readers, briefly, about the United Farm Workers’ goals and what concerns you most?
Our work is to bring about social justice for the men, women, and children who work to provide the food we eat three times a day. These are the people who provide for us the greatest abundance of food known in the history of mankind. But ironically, they don’t have enough to eat themselves. That is a great tragedy which, with God’s help, we want to remedy. And we want to do this without violence.
We also say that in order to accomplish something for humanity, we need to do it regardless of whether there’s a paycheck at the other end. So most of us are volunteers.
Currently we are very concerned about the pesticides and the fertilizers that farmers are using on their crops. The indiscriminate and unrestricted use of these poisons has a tremendous impact on the whole environment. There are now regions in California where the excess of nitrates and pesticide residue is so great that no living organism will live. For such disregard of nature we will pay a terrible price. Something needs to be done before it’s too late. This is part of our work.
We also run medical clinics for farm workers. We deal with many very poor people, immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Asia, Africa, and from some of the Arab countries. They can’t speak the language so they are cruelly abused and taken advantage of. We try to represent them.
How did you come to your stand on nonviolence, and what does that demand in such a hostile environment?
It started very early in my life. My mother would tell us stories about St. Francis, and we were taught not to fight back. So it grew in me.
When we started this work we read the history of farm workers’ unions and all the violence they ran up against. We had to make a decision. We decided to be nonviolent, but not so much in a preaching way as in an acting way. We decided we would not write about nonviolence, because other people have done that a lot more beautifully than we ever could. But we would act. We knew that it is very easy to lock yourself up in your house and be nonviolent toward the whole world. And it is easy to be nonviolent when everybody loves you. But it’s quite different when you’re challenging, when you’re doing the work that needs to be done to bring about social change. Reading from St. Francis, Mohandas Gandhi, and Dr. King, we came to realize that it could be done if we had faith and wanted to discipline ourselves.
We had our baptism of fire as soon as we started. Six or seven of us were picketing at a farm, and several growers came in and started beating us. I had been reading about nonviolence, and I thought I was nonviolent, but I was frightened then. I knew then that this was the moment. I had to decide now for nonviolence. Just to realize that helped me through those first awful moments of fear.
The growers couldn’t understand why we weren’t fighting back. They cursed at us, and they yelled, “Go ahead, hit me! I can’t hit you if you don’t hit me back.” But we wouldn’t.
We were beaten up pretty badly, but I hardly felt the pain because I had made this great discovery. I had crossed the threshold. We provided an example for all the people who followed us. And word got around that we were doing this thing nonviolently.
We have five martyrs. They were murdered because of our nonviolence. Their examples are a source of strength to our people. Now many of the people that are against us know that our nonviolence doesn’t come from cowardliness but from some inner strength. God has strengthened us, and they look at us differently.
Could you give us a glimpse into the lives of those martyrs?
The first one, Nan Freeman, was a Jewish girl from Boston. She was 18, a college student, and she was working with us doing a picket line in front of a sugar mill in Florida. She was on the midnight to eight shift. One day in 1972 one of the sugar cane truck drivers ran her down purposefully with his truck.
The second was a 21-year-old Arab from North Yemen, Nagi Daifallah. We were in a strike in Kern County near Bakersfield in 1973 and the police attacked our picket lines. One of the officers hit Nagi with a flashlight on the back of his head and killed him.
Two days later an older man, Juan de la Cruz, was with his wife and a few of his children on a picket line in Bakersfield. We were striking the grapes, and a man from inside the field started shooting at the picketers with an automatic rifle. He shot and killed Juan and injured several other people.
Then in 1979 we were involved in a lettuce strike in the Imperial Valley of southern California. Among our picketers was a man named Rufino Contreras. He was in his late 20s, had a young wife and two children. One morning Rufino was approaching the picket site along with a crew of other strikers when the growers opened fire. Rufino was hit immediately and fell. But instead of letting our people try to bring Rufino out of the fields, the growers continued shooting so that everybody else backed away out of range.
For some strange reason, we couldn’t get hold of anybody from the police department that day. We couldn’t get them there to stop the shooting. It was about an hour-and-a-half later that the police were finally able to make the 15-minute drive from El Centro out there to us.
Rufino was finally transported to the hospital, but he died shortly after he got there from his wounds. That was our fourth martyr.
Our fifth was Rene Lopez. Rene had organized his group of workers to go in and take part in the local elections. Shortly after he had voted, Rene was walking away from the voting site and a car pulled up. Two men were in the car. They asked him to come over. Rene walked over and one of them stepped out of the car, pulled a revolver, placed it against his temple, and shot him through the head. Rene collapsed and was taken to the hospital where he died within a few hours.
Tell us more about your community, La Paz.
We live together, and we are striving to build a community someday. The people who come and work with us are from various faiths and various nationalities. They come because they all are concerned with the basic issue of social injustice to farm workers. Almost all share the commitment to the ideals of nonviolence.
The community is situated in the Tehachapi Mountains, on the snow line. We have a Montessori school for our children up to the first grade, and the others go to the public school about ten miles away in Tehachapi.
We have many different professions among us: lawyers, doctors, engineers, laborers, teachers. They come for varying lengths of time. Some stay most of their lives; others come for only two or three years. But out of all this mass of people we are trying to make a community. And we call it La Paz. We live and work there. It is a kind of center, not yet a community, but someday maybe.