This essay on my several encounters with Cesar Chavez over many years is not to be confused with a Twilight Zone episode with almost the same title and dealing with a "gangster" dummy that has a bad influence on its ventriloquist. On this Golden Jubilee of the UFW, I am honored to write a real story about CESAR AND ME.
My mother Claudia Garcia, born a hundred years ago this year, as a young girl used to migrate from Taos, NM to La Jara in southern Colorado to pick beets and potatoes. She was a migrant farm worker! However, that never played in my head until years after I met Cesar Chavez.
I was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1964. In the seminary, we used to get a newsletter called Social Action Notes in which "labor priest" Msgr. George Higgins used to write. I vaguely remember some of his essays in the early sixties about the plight of the farm worker and fledgling efforts to organize a union, but the name of Cesar Chavez did not stick out for me until a few months after I was ordained. A seminary schoolmate, a few years ahead of me, was giving an invocation at an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- the name sounds so quaint these post-Black Power days). We met in the lobby of the L.A. Hilton Hotel where the banquet was taking place, and he challenged me, "Go to Delano!"
I was plenty busy enough at my first parish of St. Alphonsus in East L.A. (7,000 families!), but the brief conversation highlighted the person of Cesar Chavez. A couple of years later I was in a much smaller parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Santa Barbara. Cesar was recuperating from his first long fast at the Franciscan Mission of Santa Barbara, and I attended a talk there by Rev. Chris Hartmire of the National Farm Worker Ministry. He and his message thoroughly impressed me!
Chris talked about the committed volunteers working for the Farmworker Ministry at $5.00 a day plus board and room! He spoke about them as "priest workers," and I knew he was talking about women and men, and mostly Protestant at that. It intrigued me! I was well aware of the Priest Workers in France and Germany -- "A noble experiment" as Pope Pius XII called the effort when he put an end to it. They were Catholic priests who went to work in factories and other environments in an effort to bring Christ and His Church closer to those who had been "de-Chrstianized" after the industrial revolution, especially in post-WWII Europe.
Later in 1966, I got an invitation to attend a talk by Cesar at the Franciscan parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Jose located within the barrio of Sal Si Puedes where Cesar grew up. His audience was mostly, if not exclusively, Catholic priests. He affirmed that most of the conflicting parties were Catholic: Ranchers of Portuguese and Italian descent workers who were mostly Mexican and Filipino. Cesar bawled us out, or rather challenged us, "Rabbis and Protestant ministers are supporting us strongly, but WHERE ARE MY CATHOLIC PRIESTS?!" It worked, and I decided to become an active supporter of UFW when and how I could.
From the pulpit and in adult religious formation, I spoke of Catholic social teaching that affirmed the right of workers to organize unions, and gave the current example of the efforts of the UFW. My next assignment was in north Orange County that, at the time, still belonged to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It was an up scale bed-room community that had outgrown its orange and avocado-grove roots, I did not succeed a priest, but was an "add-on." The result was that it gave me "extra" time to actively engage in the lettuce boycott and other pro-Union activities. When I recruited some of the local high school kids to help hand out leaflets encouraging consumers to BOYCOTT LETTUCE / GRAPES, that did not sit well with many of their parents. I, of course, heard about their displeasure through an Archdiocesan official.
By 1970, I was associated with the national Chicano priests organization called PADRES, an acronym in Spanish translated into "Priests Associated for Religious, Educational and Social Rights" of Mexicans, Mexican Americans and all Latinos. In solidarity with UFW-AFL-CIO, we were planning to have our third national meeting at Delano, CA (UFW HQ) in August 1970. However, "The largest walk-out in U.S. labor history" (according to the LA Times) took place in Salinas, and made our meeting in Delano impossible. We finally had that meeting at Los Angeles in October, and we published a PADRES resolution supporting the BOYCOTT as "a non-violent tool useful for promoting justice."
The national headquarters for the National Farmworker Ministry headed by Chris Hartmire was located in Los Angeles, not far from our Chancery Office. Chris several times invited me to join ecumenical/inter-religious delegations to the managers of food chains requesting them on moral grounds not to stock items that farmworkers were boycotting unless they had the BLACK EAGLE Union Label. They were mostly successful, but not always.
By late 1972, I was released from the Archdiocese of L.A. for "special ministry" (as executive director) with the PADRES organization based in San Antonio, Texas. Our family home in Lincoln Heights (northeast L.A.) was unused for a time, and Chris Hartmire asked to use it as a temporary headquarters for Cesar and his staff plus his two German shepherds Boycott and Huelga.
I am the youngest of three boys, and was away in San Antonio. My oldest brother, an officer in the Air Force, was out of the country. My middle brother (who last year celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a priest) was pursuing a doctoral degree in Hebrew Scriptures at Harvard that he finished at Princeton. Meanwhile dad, a widower for a few years, was in the seminary studying to become a Claretian priest. Dad gave his permission, and the family home became the temporary HQ for the victorious UFW "No on 22" Campaign.
By 1973, because of my role in PADRES, I was a board member of the National Farmworker Ministry, and traveled to meetings in different parts of the country: Florida, Chicago, etc. In the fertile Coachella Valley not far from Palm Springs during April 1973, we participated in "straw ballot" to discern to which union workers would prefer to belong: Teamsters or the UFW. No contest! The clear winner was UFW. (I document this in an on-line essay published in Farm Worker Documentation Project.)
In August 1973, I got a "special vacation" courtesy of Fresno County. Together with several hundred people, I was in jail for almost two full weeks. Early in the morning, I had been "master of ceremonies" for a rally at which Cesar was featured. "What will you tell your grandchildren about this day? What did you do?" Many of us went to join the picket line at a ranch where supporters were being arrested for civil disobedience.
A Fresno judge had given an injunction forbidding farmworkers to use the megaphone more than a brief time every fifteen minutes to make their invitation, "Compañeros, no sean esquiroles. Salgan. ĦHuelga!" / "Companions, don't be strike-breakers. Come on out. Strike!" In addition, the injunction forbade those on the picket line to be closer than fifteen feet apart. (I may have the time / distance wrong, but in any case, the restrictions were UNREASONABLE!)
I rode in a car from Parlier Park to the picket-site with Dorothy Day, a New York socialite-turned Communist who became a convert to the Catholic Church and an apostle to/for the impoverished. "The first time I went to jail, I was the youngest. Now I am the oldest." At the site, Dorothy sat down on a stool and read from Matthew 5 -- The Sermon on the Mount. I know, because I heard her proclaiming it aloud.
Since "this kind" (of injustice) "is cast out only by prayer and fasting," we FASTED and PRAYED during the two weeks -- daily water and a vitamin C pill. On the 13th day of the fast, the charge of civil disobedience was dismissed because it was held to be AGAINST the RIGHTS of ASSEMBLY AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH. (I also documented this more at length in an essay in Farm Worker Documentation Project.)
At the episcopal ordination of Archbishop Sanchez of Santa Fe, Cesar teasingly told me in July 1974, "We have to stop meeting like this." We had previously met at the episcopal ordinations of Bishop Patrick Flores on Cinco de Mayo, 1970 when he proclaimed a reading at the San Antonio Stadium. We had also met at ordination of Gil Chavez of San Diego in April 1974, a few months before Archbishop Sanchez was ordained a bishop.
A few years ago while chaplain for a retirement home for women religious and retreat house in Temecula, CA, I encouraged the Sisters to re-plant their grapes under a specifically UFW label. It did not come to pass (yet). Over the years, I have tried to continue to respond to requests from farm workers to advance their just cause.
I attended processions and funeral Masses for a few of the farm worker martyrs over the years. I am privileged to have been the priest-organizer for Cesar's own funeral Mass in 1993 at which Cardinal Mahony presided and gave such an excellent homily. I have not yet been to Cesar's tomb at Keene, CA, and intend to do so.
Cesar Chavez was one of this nations's most important figures of the 20th century, and he deserves our honor and respect at the time of his birthday, on the Golden Jubilee of UFW, and always. ĦQué viva Cesar Chavez! ĦQué viva la unión!
Fr. Juan Romero
Palm Springs, CA
March 31, 2012