"Cesar Chavez's Early Connection to Ventura County"
presented by Dr. Frank Barajas, Assistant Professor of History,
on the campus of CSUCI in Malibu Hall 140 on March 27, 2007
In that community we have these people creating their own community even though they are being uprooted from their homes in different parts from Ventura County. One of the individuals that was very important to all of this in terms of Cesar Chavez’s emergence was Fred Ross. Fred Ross during the 1930’s worked for the farm security administration; he worked the weed patch farm worker camp in the San Joaquin Valley, by Bakersfield. He saw how the growers really worked against the interest of the farm workers.
He, after the great depression, worked for what is known as the Community Service Organization, the CSO, and the CSO would actually recruit Cesar Chavez to work; to be an organizer. Fred Ross writes a book, if you want to read a really good book about Ventura County, specifically about Oxnard, the labor movement, and Cesar Chavez’s origins, you should read Fred Ross’s “Conquering the Goliath,” Goliath being the agricultural industry here in Ventura County. They had control of all the major institutions, they probably still do; I shouldn’t speak in past tense. They had control of all the major institutions; school boards, for example, sheriff’s departments, the courts, churches, newspapers. So any time there was a threat to the interest of agriculture all these institutions came into line and created a Goliath. Hence the title, “Conquering Goliath,” and Cesar Chavez challenged Goliath, being David and was able to win and beat the power of this large industry.
Fred Ross’s result, well what we learned, the CSO which was part of Saul Alinsky and I like to tell the story; when I was in Orange County I went to Santa Ana and they had Camp Campesino, it was a Mexican American theatre group. They had a great show and I met veteran United Farm Workers there. We got in a circle, we started clapping, doing the Chicano clap. Those of you in MEChA are familiar with the Chicano clap. They started doing their vivas. “Viva Cesar Chavez,” “Que viva!” “Viva Dolores Huerta,” “Que viva!,” Viva Emelio Zapata,” :Que viva!” And then they say, “Que viva Saul Alinsky!” Saul Alinsky? Who is this Saul Alinsky guy?!
Well many of the United Farm Worker veterans were trained by Fred Ross, who was also part of the Saul Alinsky Industrial Areas Foundation, which was this organization that went into communities and empowered disenfranchised people, poor people and they showed them how to take on the system, how to go to, for example, to city council meetings and how to leverage their strength. One example was, if you go to a city counsel meeting and threatened that your organization was going to have a chili cook off before they go to the meeting and yeah, yeah they are going to raise the steam, literally! Right?
Those were the sort of tactics they would use. Grass root tactics in which to empower the community. And Saul Alinsky had this philosophy that you send organizers but they’re not permanent they are just there for a little while. For example, Cesar Chavez went to Oxnard, with the CSO, stayed two years and then he was out. Why? Because he did want them to be dependent on one person. He wanted the community to build their own leadership and have self determination in terms of their own lives. And one book, if you’re interested in reading about Cesar Chavez, in Oxnard particularly, there are segments with in it, by Jaques Levy, titled “Cesar Chavez: The Autobiography.” It is not about Cesar Chavez but about La Causa, The Cause. He (Chavez) comes to Oxnard with his wife in 1958 as part of the CSO to organize. Helen Chavez, his wife, and one thing I want to say about Helen, Helen Chavez was instrumental in the farm worker movement. They had about five or six kids. She was the one who raised the kids. She is the one who fed the kids but she also provided for the family; while Cesar Chavez was organizing. She was out in the fields working bringing in the income while Cesar Chavez was out organizing people; having his house meetings.
You see this image here in Oxnard in 1958, the CSO registering people. They were organizing for a particular congressional district. Charles Teague. was the incumbent republican. They had a democratic candidate which was more progressive and was reflecting more interest of the Mexican community in Oxnard. What Cesar Chavez wanted was not only have voter registration but also have citizenship classes. This is in 1958 in La Colonia, the Bonitas School. Now it is called Cesar Chavez school and they had 300 students. They had a waiting list for people to have their citizenship and then vote. In La Colonia in 1958 there were 400 registered voters and by 1958 there were 1028 registered voters and almost 90% of them voted in that election.
This organization was really grass roots. Let me just read a quote that he states in Jacque Levy’s books, “First thing I did was start house meetings. Then we started voter registration drives, because the November election is coming up and there was a good democrat running against their congressmen, the congressmen Charles Teague. I began to sign up people for citizenship classes and open a little office. About the third day I was there to service the people.”
To service the people was also an organizing tool to also get people to be involved in not only the CSO but also later in the union. To provide service to the people that you feel indebted to in the organization then they will also serve you. What he learned from these house meetings it wasn’t the voting, it wasn’t the discrimination, it wasn’t the police brutality that they were experiencing. The number one issue was the use of the bracero workers in 1958.
Braceros were part of a federal program instituted in 1943 by the United States government to bring Mexican workers to the US, as it was involved in the War against Japan and also Nazi Germany, with the idea being there was a labor shortage for agriculture. The industry needed a fast surplus labor supply to depress labor wages. Braceros were being subsidized by the federal government to growers. The government was subsiding the labor for growers and at the same time this program was displacing domestic workers. Mexican immigrants were displacing Mexican American agricultural workers. This became a very important issue. Cesar Chavez recognized this was the organizing moment of the CSO.
Under the CSO office he would create his movement as detailed there and they were successful, in beating the Ventura County labor association. Basically an arm of the Ventura County Agricultural Association and he would get wind that this organization was becoming very politically uncomfortable for growers. One of the labor department employees who I figured out who this person was and I was able to interview him.
Read him this book, this is Cesar Chavez, “After several days one of the men of the bureau of employment security called me to his room about midnight, and he said Cesar I am with you. I think what you are doing is a damn good thing. I want to help you. Then he said, “look I’ve got 18 years of service if they find out what I am doing I am going loose my job. It’s up to you if I can trust you, I’ll tell you something. Cesar Chavez said, “sure in fact I never mentioned his name,” he told me, “you know these people don’t want any investigations they don’t want anything public existing it is a time bomb, they don’t do any publicity on it and you’ve got everybody shook up,”
Cesar said,” I didn’t realize the magnitude of the situation, so I thanked him. I thought if they don’t want any publicity fine. I knew what to do. The following morning we marched; about 60 or 70 of us. That’s when we discovered the power of the march. We started with a couple of hundred people in La Colonia and by the time we got through we must have had 10,000 people. Everybody was on it.” Among Mexicans a march has a very special attraction.
We see from the experience in Oxnard, Cesar Chavez took the power of the march and used it in Delano. Just a couple of days ago on March 25th was the one year anniversary of the march in Los Angeles. Marches are power, they are powerful, and they are empowering. This is part of a legacy that we learn from the farm worker movement. That people began to speak for themselves and they began to advocate and they began to self determine for themselves and this history has to be told. And you have as a result, of the “conquering of the Goliath,” of Ventura County in 1959; we have birth of the United Farm Workers in 1965.
We have an image here of Dolores Huerta and the strike. We have Cesar Chavez here in Oxnard, there is the state superintendent of schools Jack O’Connell marching with Cesar Chavez and you have the federal U.S stamp that has been now institutionalized. I wanted to pay a little homage to Jack Nava. Jack Nava passed away a couple years ago but he single handedly collected 65,000 signatures to have the U.S postal service adopt the stamp of Cesar Chavez. The legacy is still alive and the history still needs to be told.
I just want to thank Amanda Quintero and Pilar Pacheco for giving me the opportunity to participate in this week long celebration of the life of Cesar Chavez. Are there any questions?
“Why did Cesar Chavez leave the area?”
Because he had family roots in Delano and that was part of the community and networking and that was important to the movement; was to have family close by. Because remember he had six kids and Helen Chavez’s family was in Delano and there was also a agricultural need in terms of labor for a union there. So that’s why he left. He left Oxnard because he had more family in Delano.
“Why Cesar Chavez, why him?” “Were there some events in his life that created this type of personality?”
He had the determination for a farm workers movement; for a union. Being part of a farm worker family he knew of the oppression that that farm workers experienced and he was very focused. He (Chavez) said, “People criticize me for being a fanatic.” This is what he says during an interview, “yes I am a fanatic. I am a fanatic about justice. I am a fanatic for brining housing. I am a fanatic for just wages for people. I am a fanatic for education and no matter what you want to do in life and do well; whether it be an educator, a lawyer, if you want to do something well you have to be focused and be fanatical about it.” So to answer your question, “Why him?,” because he was real fanatical about his calling to be a union organizer. There is a saying “Si Se Puede,” “It can be done.” Somehow when you use phrases they kind of loose their power, “Si se Puede” really has a power, it can be done in light of the circumstances. There are chances you may lose but chances are if we try with fanatical focus we can win.
“Did he ever reflect on people in his life that were instrumental for the organization?”
Sure, one was Fred Ross. Fred Ross was looking for Cesar Chavez in San Jose. Cesar Chavez was hiding from him. He didn’t want to meet with Fred Ross because he thought Fred Ross was another anthropologist from Stanford or Berkeley. So all these guys want to know why we eat tortillas? That’s all they want to know. And then they take off and do their studies and they don’t help us out. Then he had this moment where it’s ok if he meets with him. He has a friend buy him beer and he says to them, “When I switch my cigarette from my left hand to my right hand we are going really let him have it and run him out of this house and tell him who he is.” And Fred Ross started telling him about CSO, the CSO is to combat police brutality, to fight discrimination in housing and in segregation, and Cesar never switched his cigarette. And Fred Ross convinced him that union organizing what was he was called to do.
Why is La Colonia today a predominately Mexican community?
La Colonia is predominantly a Mexican community, up until recently it was also a place Asian immigrants lived; Asian American families lived and also African Americans. Because that was the only place they could live. Outside of La Colonia up until 1968 and even then it was repealed in 1968, which eliminated the use of restricted real estate, meaning you couldn’t buy a home because in the deed of property outside La Colonia said you cannot sell these homes to Mexicans. You can not sell your house to the workers, the Negros. You cannot sell these homes to Mongolians. So institutionally, systematically people were segregated into certain communities and you see La Colonia today being a legacy of that and you have certain dynamics emerge from this sort of discrimination. Like night gangs, which results from largely immigrants groups, because the children are really destabilized having immigrant parents but also living in a foreign country and so you have a lot of different issues feeding into certain phenomena.
What are labor conditions like for agricultural workers today? Is there a lasting legacy form the union movement?
The union movement, now we are gonna do the present, which is kind of out of my area. Basically from my reading and maybe others can help the agriculture movement is pretty weak right now. The agriculture union movement is pretty weak, why? Because the industry is even stronger than it was back in the 1950s; it’s a more low level repression. One of the political figures, I wont mention his name because he is still in office, but he told me that in the 1970s when Cesar Chavez was organizing in Oxnard and you had picketers outside certain fields the Ventura County Sheriffs department came in with their helicopters to harass them. And they came really low on those protestors; basically trying to harass them from practicing the constitutional right to protest. So again, the issue of integration, we have political, the cultural, the social institutions blatantly manifesting their power against weaker groups in terms of politics, culture, society. The housing today is deplorable. All you have to do is go into certain pockets of Ventura County; you see very poor substandard deplorable housing. So its not that much different in many respects.
Thank you very much.