By Leonard Adame
I’d never heard of Cesar Chavez when I was 15 and driving bobtails stacked with cherry tomatoes from Dinuba to Orange Cove. I was happy the little truck had a radio and often played “House of the Rising Sun.” I also didn’t know what that song was about, but it sounded good to my undeveloped musical ear.
My father decided, during my 15th year, that I needed to know about the fields. So he took me to my aunt and uncle’s house in Dinuba and told them, “Put him to work.” Those were ominous words, and I still can hear them.
So the next morning at 5 a.m., someone woke me and said, “Get up, eat something fast, go to the restroom and be ready to leave in 15 minutes.” I’d never done anything in 15 minutes time. I thought of prisoners and torture as I got ready, putting on my dad’s old boots, some raggedy Levi’s (they’d be worth a hundred bucks these days) and an old polo shirt.
Soon enough, the morning still dark and cold as the half-eaten burrito in my hand, my uncle, my cousin and I packed ourselves into yet another pickup and, the headlights ahead of us shaped like two slices of pie, drove out of Dinuba along Alta Avenue to the packing shed on Jefferson Avenue.
The place was also awakening, the shadows draining like slow water, the workers, mostly women dressed in jeans and blouses and head scarves (and who wore makeup even that early in the morning), following one another, not unlike prisoners, into the shed that I thought bled coldness. The nailing machine, waiting like a praying mantis in the corner, the conveyer belt, the stacks of newly formed lugs left over from the previous day and still smelling of new wood—all of it sat still and patient.
Soon enough the noises began, the nailer coming down like a set of deranged hammers and loud as gun shots. The conveyer belt whining its misery, the cherry tomatoes dumped into the water as the chain caught them and sent them down the assembly line, where the women pulled them off the line fast as birds grabbing worms. The women never stopped talking, either. How they heard themselves I never knew.
My job was at the nailer, feeding it the sides and bottoms (“shook”) of the lugs, making sure that I fed it quickly lest it would slam itself to ruin without the wood, after which I would face the wrath of my uncle, a guy who jumped right out of the Old Testament, I thought, brimstone firing from his mouth.
Days passed, and soon I was driving fruit to the cold storage in Orange Cove. We used “hand trucks” in those days to move stacks 15 lugs high onto the bobtail, staggering the tiers and tying everything down with what I thought were sailors’ knots.
I was glad to drive the trucks because I could play the radio, but after eight hours of driving, to and from, it became tedious. The heat was multiplied in the cab, even with the windows down. Sweat ran down my face as if I were in the rain. At the cold storage plant, I had to wait in line as other drivers before me had their vehicles unloaded. More time in the heat. Finding water became one of my two goals on those days, that and going home and sleeping as long as I could.
Later in the summer, I graduated to catching watermelons as I stood on the back of the back of a larger, slowly moving truck. I had thought it would be like playing football, forgetting how much melons actually weighed. I was good at first, catching them, putting them down in their space and turning to the other side to snag another. Soon, the heat and the numbness in my hands, arms and shoulders slowed me down; all the while the experienced workers laughing at me. “Is it still fun?” they asked.
No it wasn’t. It was then that I became more aware of the workers and how they’d been working in these fields for decades, some of them, how they had no choice but to endure the sun and the wasps and the guards (White guys in khakis and dark glasses always standing nearby or pacing up and down the rows of cherry tomato vines). They said little. They made their demands known by expression and proximity. If a worker slowed, suddenly a guard (foreman, actually) stood near a group of workers, his face suddenly stone and the pace picked up.
The brutality of the work and its effects on me crystallized. Heat, pesticides, pregnant women moving slowly, kids in and out of the vines or sleeping in the shadow of their 15-year-old cars, the indifference of the bosses, their shameless attempts at seducing the women and young girls, all of this became a travesty for me, even at 15. Too often husbands and fathers simply packed their meager belongings and their families and left, knowing there was no alternative.
The film Cesar Chavez doesn’t reveal much of the inhumane aspects in the fields whose effects were worse than dozens of wasp bites. Indignity was as much a staple as the tacos the workers ate, their hands green with the residue of the cherry tomato vines.
The film is voluptuous in its cinematography and atmosphere, but the human misery is not adequately portrayed. The film does make a point, however: Workers needed protection and decent wages and benefits, and maybe most of all, dignity. As well as the physical pain, the emotional strain was perhaps even more powerful. For many proud Mexican workers, being made subservient in front of their families was nothing but humiliating. The woman who suffered leers and physical touching also could not retaliate. All of this was probably more debilitating than any of the other conditions.
Until the union was formed and became the workers’ voice and helped them regain a measure of dignity and respect, workers had no legitimate recourse. The growers were in charge of the work area—and of their workers’ lives. They decided who would work, where they could stay, how they were paid and, if they stayed quiet and meek, who would have jobs in the coming seasons.
In the film, Chavez was in nearly every scene. However, the people who lobbied for the union in Washington, D.C., for years, were not mentioned. My cousin, Ester Negrete Padilla, worked hard and long testifying before Congressional committees on behalf of the union. The film neglected to mention her. This is doubly wrong because her husband was Gilbert Padilla, a co-founder of the union. Padilla is in many scenes, but even he seems relegated to the background.
Another cousin of mine, Philip Esparza, one of the original cast members of El Teatro Campesino, was also not mentioned. The Teatro was instrumental in recruiting workers with its short plays, which were put on in the fields and in various parks and halls in small San Joaquin Valley towns. Those plays, depicting (accurately by the way) the growers as greedy and indifferent to suffering of their workers, helped the workers to find their voice, to know that striking and protesting and standing up for their rights had all become more than possible.
The Teatro traveled the world presenting its plays to workers in other countries. This also brought worldwide support for the farmworkers’ union in the form of support for the boycott of table grapes.
Cesar Chavez, despite having ignored several important phases, people and behind-the0-scenes activism, is still an important film. Its limited message does, I hope, begin to educate a new generation of workers and college students. But it should have gone further in its portrayal of worker conditions and in the contribution of so many more people, including that of Larry Itliong, the leader of Filipino farmworkers who were the first to strike the growers.
Perhaps a subsequent film will revisit Chavez, the Filipino workers and the United Farm Workers’ Union. Perhaps a little less focus on Chavez, and more on the workers that made the union possible, would result in a film that would be much more effective in educating people who are not farmworkers about where their food comes from and, as important, about the people who still live in deplorable conditions and suffer even more indignities (birth defects from even stronger pesticides, workers turned against one another by unfair labor practices on the part of unscrupulous growers).
Though I lived through this injustice in the fields for a short while, I’ve never forgotten the people who didn’t have the opportunity to attend college, to leave the fields for good, to do other things that would have celebrated their talents and gotten them back their dignity. Some of their children have escaped, but more children these days are still in the fields and taking the full brunt of a form of inhumanity that should shame all of us.
Cesar Chavez was a brave soul, a dedicated worker, a civil rights leader and head of a once powerful union. He brought the growers to their knees. But he didn’t do it alone. And that needs to be addressed somehow.
Leonard Adame has retired from teaching college English. He now plays drums in various bands, takes photographs, reads mystery novels to a fault and has published poetry in college anthologies. He most enjoys re-learning about human beings from his grandkids. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.