And what should I say?
That I am tired?
That the road is long and the end is nowhere in sight?
I did not come to sing because I have such a good voice.
Nor do I come to cry about my bad fortune.
From Delano I go to Sacramento to fight for my rights.
My Virgin of Guadalupe hear these steps,
Because the world will know of them.
From Delano I go to Sacramento,
To Sacramento to fight for my rights.
—Excerpt from La Peregrinación (The Pilgrimage, 1965).
These lyrics, by acclaimed musician and composer Agustín Lira, capture a pivotal moment in this country’s labor history: the 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento, California. Spearheaded by Mexican-American and Filipino farmworkers, the movement’s leaders joined to form what would soon become the United Farm Workers (UFW). Through this song, Lira breathes lyrical voice into his life as an activist and former farmworker.
Lira, a Smithsonian Folkways Recordings artist based in Fresno, recently performed at the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival. Curated with the Alliance of California Traditional Arts, the concert honored the memory and legacy of Ralph Rinzler, co-founder of the Folklife Festival, whose support for performances by “citizen artists” was unwavering. This memorial concert forms the backbone of the festival’s commitment to promoting public engagement, fostering social awareness and building bridges among communities.
2015 also marks the 50th anniversary of the September 1965 Delano Grape Strike launched by the farmworkers movement. Delano, located in the San Joaquín Valley of Central California, became ground zero for the movement. Its prodigious table grape crop became symbolic of the farmworkers’ struggle, when grape-pickers from the Delano area walked off the fields and refused to collect the ripening fruit to protest their poor wages and abysmal living conditions. The grape strike lasted five years, buffeted by wide national and international support from consumers, students, activists, unions, religious institutions and other public sector entities. The effort forced major grape growers to sign landmark contracts with the UFW. (As a product of the Chicano Movement myself, I spent many hours in picket lines during the grape and subsequent lettuce boycotts.)
It is important to appreciate the multicultural nature of the farmworkers movement. The United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) emerges in 1966 from the consolidation of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Filipinos Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco, and César Chávez’s National Farm Workers Association. The merged union later affiliates with the AFL-CIO. Unfortunately, the role of the Manongs (Filipino term of respect for an older man) in forging the farmworkers movement is not well documented, despite the fact that it was 1,500 Filipino farmworkers who first walked off their jobs, thus launching the grape strike. The UFW, under the leadership of the charismatic Chávez, tended to overshadow—one can argue unintentionally—the Filipinos’ role, as well as the participation of other ethnic farmworkers. (Readers may be interested in “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers,” a half-hour documentary produced by Marissa Aroy and Niall McKay, now available on DVD and Blu Ray.)
There was a special woman who marched from Delano to Sacramento in 1966—Dolores Huerta. Huerta was the pragmatic counterpart to the charismatic Chávez. The pair cofounded the National Farm Workers Association in
1962, which became the aforementioned UFWOC in 1966, and eventually the UFW. Fearless, persuasive and tactical, Huerta realized her vision for a better day for farmworkers, leaving her distinct fingerprints on each major UFW victory. Throughout her career, Huerta, mother of 11 children and now 85, has embodied new models of womanhood, inspiring generations of women activists. This July 3, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery inaugurates One Life: Dolores Huerta, an exhibition that highlights the decisive role she played in the farmworker struggle. It also serves to further commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike. Curated by Taína Caragol, the museum’s curator of Latino art and history, the exhibition features 40 objects, including photographs, original speeches presented by her to Congress, UFW ephemera, and Chicano art. The exhibition will be on display through May 15, 2016.
In coupling the Agustín Lira and Alma concert with the One Life: Dolores Huerta exhibition, the Smithsonian introduces audiences to this important chapter in U.S. labor history, celebrating two of its notable leaders. At the same time, these programs serve to remind us that the farmworker struggle far from over. Farmworkers work grueling days. Their tasks are tedious and back-breaking. Their pay has them at or teetering near poverty level. Agricultural employers are exempted from some key employment law protections, with enforcement at less than desirous levels, leading to widespread violations in some sectors. (Readers may want to read Ripe with Change: Evolving Farm Labor Markets in the United States, Mexico, and Central America, Wilson Center’s Migration Policy Institute.)
All Americans depend on the hard work and sacrifice of farmworkers and their families for a large portion of our food supply. While we acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of the past, we would do well ethically to maintain a high level of awareness and vigilance of present-day agricultural production and labor practices, understanding that the continuing struggle of farmworkers and our own sustenance are intricately connected. Let conscience be our guide.
La Marcha no ha terminado.
Copyright 2015 by Eduardo Díaz. Augustín Lira, Dolores Huerta, UFW flag & farmworker photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc. Photo of Smithsonian poster and Philip Vera Cruz used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law.