Fifty years to the day after Cesar Chavez led a historic march from Delano to Sacramento seeking labor rights for farmworkers, surviving members of the 340-mile trek assembled here to mark the anniversary.
Of the 77 protesters who left Delano that day, the United Farm Workers union has identified 17 who are still alive.
The marchers or their surviving family members received letters from U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez praising their roles in the march.
“Your example inspired generations of reformers who came after you to summon the moral courage that it takes to put one’s own life and livelihood on the line for something greater,” the letter said.
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Others who marched part of the way, joining the trek as time permitted, were also honored Thursday at the UFW property here called Forty Acres.
Among the full-time marchers was Hollywood director Luis Valdez, who founded El Teatro Campesino, the landmark troupe that performed skits and entertained to tell the story of the farmworkers’ struggle for dignity.
We made history.
Roberto Bustos, march captain
“The first day, we marched from Delano to Ducor,” Valdez said. “It took us all day, we arrived close to sunset. We were tired as dogs. We just laid down on the ground and fell asleep.”
But as time went by, marchers gained strength, he said.
“Those marchers started getting faster and faster,” he said, requiring him to leave earlier each day to set up for Teatro Campesino when the marchers would arrive.
Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, said the march began in the midst of a big strike and brought the farmworker movement to the nation’s attention.
“We gather today to thank you for everything you did and to remind this generation and future generations about the great debt all of us owe you,” Rodriguez said.
Lori Huerta, daughter of UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, who was not in attendance because she was in Chicago, read remarks from her mother recalling that Delano police blocked the marchers and almost ended the march.
It continued when the marchers used public sidewalks to exit the town.
Today, the UFW has a key to the city courtesy of the City Council.
Roberto Bustos was one of two captains of the march whose job was to keep it moving. He used a whistle that he tooted, to the crowd’s delight.
“We made history,” Bustos said.
At the time, farmworkers were excluded from a federal labor law of the 1930s guaranteeing the right to collective labor bargaining.
He said he remembers a conversation he had with Cesar Chavez about that.
“I asked Cesar that question, ‘Why are farmworkers excluded?’ He said, ‘Farmworkers don’t have friends in Congress.’ ”
Bustos was 23 when the march began. He is now a retired county employee living in Tulare.
77Number of marchers who left Delano on March 17, 1966
Terence Cannon was writing for his own self-published newspaper in San Francisco called The Movement when he joined the march. He also served as something of a news liaison for the marchers.
For him, the most memorable day of the march was learning the farmworkers had signed a labor contract with Schenley Industries wine-grape company – the first in farmworker history.
He announced it from the top of a truck as Bustos, the captain, translated.
“Everyone went nuts,” Cannon said. “It gave us that sense we were going to win something serious. It was not just a demonstration, it was a demonstration of strength.”
Frank Diaz was a high school student in Healdsburg when he and two friends drove down to join the march for a few days.
He was almost arrested, but his mother made him bring a birth certificate showing he was born in the United States. A police officer let him go but told him to stay out of trouble.
“The energy was there, it was high,” he said. “There was a bit of scariness involved. Everyone took a hard look at themselves and they did it.”
When he got home, his principal was ready to punish him for skipping two days of school but allowed him to write an essay about the march instead, he said.
He became a college educator, and his experience helped make him active in his labor union, he said.
Even today, he said, farmworkers need more respect: “Animals in California are treated better than farmworkers.”
Lorraine Agtang, born and raised in Delano to farmworker parents, was 13 when her mother took her to Sacramento to join the end of the march.
“I’m proud of this history,” said Agtang, who also was a farm laborer. “It’s a history a lot of people still don’t know about.”
Paul Chavez, Cesar’s son and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, said he was only 8 years old when the march happened. He was there when it started and would join it on weekends.
“I do remember people coming out and offering glasses of water,” he said. “I do remember as a young person the hope that people placed in the march.”
Many people deserve credit for the march’s success in bringing the farmworker cause to the nation’s attention, he said.
“A lot of people would think that this work was done by my father and Dolores Huerta,” he said. “In fact, it was thousands and thousands of great people who made tremendous contributions against incredible odds.”
Octavio Hernandez, 77, was a 26-year-old farmworker in Delano when he joined the march. Working conditions greatly improved afterward, he said.
Before the march, farmworkers would have to drink water from a shared cup; after the march, laborers got their own cup, he said.
“I knew it would help us get better wages, better treatment,” he said. “Because of us making that march, we got to where we are now.”
He later served as a chauffeur for Cesar Chavez, he said.
Carolina Franco started working in the fields when she was a girl because her father died, she had seven siblings and the family needed the money.
She went to a march organizing meeting in Earlimart and was admitted, even though she was female, because Cesar Chavez recognized her and said to let her in, she said.
Thousands arrived in Sacramento on Easter Sunday. It’s part of UFW lore that Gov. Pat Brown did not greet them.
“We looked like Moses coming out of Egypt,” she said. “All these people, black and white, young and old. It was amazing and so beautiful … I’m full of pride. I’m very honored. I’m still talking to young kids about Cesar.”