Cesar Chavez: Farmworkers Step Up Boycott

by Dorothy Day

Chavez, Coretta King & Dorothy; February 1973; photographer unknown

EDITOR’S PREFACE: Dorothy Day was a prolific writer and so a note of explanation about our choice of articles seems in order. Not only did Dorothy write her monthly column “On Pilgrimage” for The Catholic Worker, but she was an inveterate diarist and letter writer, contributor of articles to other publications, novelist and author of autobiographical writings, speeches, et al. By posting these three essays on Cesar Chavez, and other articles that will follow, we hope to remind readers of the central role Dorothy and The Worker played in the contemporary nonviolent movement. Often tagged anarcho-pacifist, The Catholic Worker newspaper was also at the center of the Gandhian nonviolence movement, as we have previously demonstrated in postings about Danilo Dolci and nonviolence in Sicily. In this essay Dorothy mentions that she was asked to share a pulpit with Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chavez, two of the leading members of the US nonviolent movement.  This was neither deferential nor accidental. JG

It was a thrilling sight last month [February, 1973] to stand on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and to see the parade of the United Farm Workers coming up the steps, all those beautiful, dark, sturdy men, women, and children, dressed in those clothes in which they work in the fields, flags flying with the Mexican Indian eagle black against the red of their banners, led by Cesar Chavez and Mrs. Martin Luther King. I had been invited too, but I could not take that long trek from the Riverside Drive Council of Churches headquarters, thru the Columbia University campus, and down to 110th Street where the Cathedral stands, magnificent in its stately grounds, on a height looking East over the City of New York.

I had enjoyed every minute of the evening before, and a fiesta held in the hall of the great old Paulist Church, surely one of the biggest in the city, where Marcos Munos (who heads the N.Y. office of the United Farm Workers) had prepared a party to greet the busload and caravan of ten cars which had made its zig-zag way across country from California. It was a pilgrimage to encourage the workers in various cities to continue the boycott of iceberg lettuce.

Fiesta at St. Paul’s

The speaking started late, of course, what with undependable cars and buses, but a fiesta meant feasting, and everyone, hundreds served themselves from the buffet tables. They sang (they had good leaders) and radiated a spirit of joy as they sat on chairs, benches and the floor, keeping a semi-circle in the center of the hall in front of an improvised speaking stand.

Some of the group from the Catholic Worker Farm at Tivoli had driven down in two cars with fifty loaves of homemade bread, and St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality on First Street baked three ten-pound boneless hams. All the guests had brought food of various kinds. No need to worry about having too much left over because the Farm Workers now have an old brownstone house on West 84th Street to put up those who come to picket, to help in the campaign to boycott the A&P and other stores where iceberg lettuce is being sold. Dolores Huerta, one of the vice presidents of the Union, spoke first. (1) She is the mother of eight children who sits with the agribusinessmen, the growers, in conference over contracts for better wages, decent living conditions, all the most elemental needs of man.

The first time I saw one of those huge lettuce fields was when I was visiting Ammon Hennacy (2) outside of Phoenix, Arizona, where he was working nights irrigating. The field extended as far as eye could see, and the lettuce had been sold to feed flocks of sheep since “the market price then did not make it profitable to harvest it.” Not far away from Ammon’s shack, there sat a Basque shepherd whom we went to greet. I was happy to see a rosary hanging from a support in his tent. Those farm workers who were greeted with cheers in New York had worked in such fields!

When they marched into the Paulist Church hall the crowded hall resounded with song, especially that triumphant song “We Shall Overcome.” They already have overcome so much in this long continuing struggle for justice. Dolores spoke, Cesar spoke, and others, but it was briefly. It was a fiesta, after all, and everyone wanted to talk to each other.

Morning Rally, Cathedral of St. John the Divine

Bishop Paul Moore, Rabbi Robert Marx were present, as were Msgr. Charles Diviney (Vicar General of Brooklyn) and Msgr. James Murray (head of the Catholic Charities in New York) both representatives of Cardinal Cooke, who was in Australia at the Eucharistic Conference. From the Episcopal Cathedral pulpit Cesar spoke again and Coretta King, and I also, proud indeed to be representing the poor with Coretta King and Chavez. She had to speak first because she was due in Washington, D.C. to address her own people who were being betrayed by this administration.

I do not remember exactly what I said, but I spoke about those first five farm workers, Filipino and Mexican, who came five years ago and stayed with us, “taking on” the City of New York, its markets and chain stores to urge support of the grape boycott, truly a David and Goliath situation. And now they all but filled this great cathedral, they and their sympathizers. The glare of the lights used by the television people kept me from seeing this brave audience, but almost facing me, hanging across from me in the sanctuary was a painting on cloth of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, and of the Mexican farm workers. It had been painted the day before at First Street by Mary Lathrop who had helped Ammon (God rest his soul) start the house of hospitality in Salt Lake City. Such banners have led the farm workers in their long processions and marches. One of the farm workers had taken it from Mary’s hands and hung it up now.

They must also, I told them, be aided by St. Benedict whose motto was “To work is to pray,” and St. Francis, extoller of poverty for love of God and one’s brother. We too shared a little in that poverty having fasted from grapes and now from iceberg lettuce to assist in the boycott. It was this “little way” which had won the strike against the vineyard owners of California and would win this also.

Cesar’s was a talk delivered simply and clearly, explaining the issues. Not only workers were involved but the public because the insecticides used in the fields which poisoned the men, women and children who worked there, also threatened the health of the public. (It was not many days after his talk that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture halted and destroyed many thousand crates of lettuce contaminated by an insecticide, the poison of which was closely related to the nerve gas manufactured during World War II.)

Cesar spoke of nonviolence and how we had to deepen our understanding of Gandhi’s teaching. He spoke with gentleness, with encouragement, to all those who are striving towards a truly human life, without bitterness towards those strangely associated enemies, the growers and the Teamster’s Union which is trying to claim those who work in the fields for their own membership. (Years ago when we had a house of hospitality in Seattle, I remember how confused I was at finding the Teamster’s Union claiming every shop girl, stenographer or waitress for their own membership. Maybe in time of war women drove “teams” or trucks.)

We came away from this gathering with a renewed sense of how this Union of Farm Workers stands closer to an ideal association of men than any other in the history of the American labor movement. Who knows; it may leaven all the rest.

Mine Workers, Farm Workers

When Chuck Smith’s paper The Green Revolution first came out, many of our friends said — he’s concentrating on Peter Maurin’s solution, “Back to the Land.” (3) But with the Buffalo Creek flood disaster, the strip mining in West Virginia and elsewhere, the callous indifference of mine owners to the welfare of those who work underground and on the ground in villages and farms, plus the profiteering of corrupt union leaders who assassinated those who tried to reform the union, Chuck was plunged into every aspect of the non-violent constructive struggle today. He is a worthy and effective companion to Chavez in this.

Chavez has started clinics, cooperatives, communal groups like the retirement camp for elderly Filipino workers, who by California law had never been allowed to marry here, or bring their families from the Philippines. (They had been considered “colored” like Mexicans, Chinese, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, etc. had been.) Chavez has planted trees on Forty Acres, in Delano. (4) He is interested in the Moshavim cooperative settlement movement in Israel. There is a well-run credit union, headed by Helen Chavez, his wife.

It all goes together, as Eric Gill wrote. So, as an afterthought, I should add that perhaps the United Mine Workers, what with its recent victory in fighting corruption and finding a new President, Arnold Miller, will partake of the spirit of The United Farm Workers. And be a leaven, too.

Endnotes: (JG)

(1) Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta (b. April 10, 1930) is a labor leader and civil rights activist who, along with César Chávez, co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Huerta has received numerous awards for her community service and advocacy for workers’, immigrants’, and womens’ rights, including the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award, the United States Presidential Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As a role model to many in the Latin community, Huerta is the subject of many corridos (ballads) and murals. Her Wikipedia article gives further details.

(2) Ammon Ashford Hennacy (1893-1970) is an Irish American pacifist and Christian anarchist. He founded the Joe Hill House of Hospitality in Salt Lake City, and was one of Dorothy Day’s most loyal friends. His books, The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist (New York: Catholic Worker Books, 1954) and The Book of Ammon (Salt Lake City, Utah: privately printed by the author, 1964) were much read and discussed texts in the Catholic Worker movement.

(3) Chuck Smith is the founder of a Catholic Worker house in West Hamlin, West Virginia, and the newspaper The Green Revolution. He was influential in the back to the land movements of the 1970s.

(4) The Forty Acres in Delano California was acquired in 1966 and became the first headquarters of the United Farm Workers labor union. It is best known as the workplace of labor activist Cesar Chavez during the grape strike of the 1960s. The Forty Acres was designated a National Landmark in October 2008, and in October 2013, the site was identified as one of several to be part of a proposed new National Historic Park to commemorate the life and work of Chavez and the farm workers union and movement.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in The Catholic Worker, March-April 1973, pp. 1 & 4. Many thanks to the staff there for their assistance.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi