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Years after Cesar Chavez, activists consider how to keep farmworker movement relevant

From left, Samuel Orozco, Luis Valdez, Miriam Pawel and Dawn Mabalon, featured speakers Wednesday at the California Humanities forum at the Fresno Art Museum. The topic was “The Farmworker Movement in California: From Chavez Onwards.”
From left, Samuel Orozco, Luis Valdez, Miriam Pawel and Dawn Mabalon, featured speakers Wednesday at the California Humanities forum at the Fresno Art Museum. The topic was “The Farmworker Movement in California: From Chavez Onwards.” acastillo@fresnobee.com

A journalist, playwright, author and professor, each with deep knowledge of the United Farm Workers movement, spun its successes and failures into lessons for the future Wednesday night in Fresno.

California Humanities hosted the fifth entry in its six-part series of statewide forums at Fresno Art Museum. “The Farmworker Movement in California: From Chavez Onwards” featured Luis Valdez, playwright and co-founder of El Teatro Campesino; Miriam Pawel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Los Angeles Times reporter; Dawn Mabalon, associate history professor at San Francisco State University; and Samuel Orozco, national news director at Radio Bilingue.

Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley made history 50 years ago by winning the first-ever union contracts. The movement started by United Farm Workers won laborers better pay and working conditions. But farmworkers today, the speakers said, are largely not unionized, poorly paid and poorly housed.

Pawel said many of the conditions the UFW exposed in the 1960s still exist, though farmworkers today do have many more protections under law. She said the recently passed overtime law says farmworkers are no longer second-class citizens.

The labor movement today is weak, Pawel said, but there is a renewed effort in the Valley for community organizing. She said one of Chavez’s biggest legacies is the empowerment that came when “the poorest people in the state could take on the most powerful industry.”

Valdez said the attitude toward immigrants and farmworkers remains as racist as before. That has to do with the origins of this country, he said, when black slaves were used to produce the first major agriculture product: cotton.

Now agriculture is affected by globalization as imports affect United States prices. But, he said, he still believes in the power of unionizing.

Pawel said new organizers can look to the past. Before Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the UFW, she said, they put on citizenship classes and advocated against police brutality – things that organizers still do. And organizers in states including Florida have adopted old UFW tactics like boycotting and picketing.

Mabalon said the next generation of organizers should be trained through ethnic studies classes, where they can learn about the contributions of Filipinos and Mexicans to the labor movement and social justice.

“We can’t wake them up when they’re in their 20s and 30s, because they’re gone,” she said.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo

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