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Ronald A. Wells
Cesar Chavez and "La Causa"
Agriculture in California is different from anything we associate with bucolic notions of farming. "Agribusiness" is almost the right word, but the best characterization is by Carey McWilliams: "factories in the fields." The capitalists who conceived of this system should be congratulated for implementing a truly grand vision of what might be possible with the optimum irrigation. About 40 percent of all fruits and vegetables produced in the United States come from four California valleys: Salinas, Coachella, Imperial, and the largest, the San Joaquin (when joined with the northern Sacramento valley, it is known as the Central Valley). The growers are also frank about the human reality required by this enormous undertaking: they need a system of peon labor to make it function. The large workforce deployed for the harvest, for a critical few weeks or months, cannot be sustained all year. For over a hundred years, many ethnic groups (Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos among them) have toiled the fields made famous by John Steinbeck. In the last 40 to 50 years, the workforce has become almost exclusively Mexican. This literally backbreaking labor is unsatisfying, and the poor pay cannot sustain the family of the worker.
This general context afforded the rise to prominence of Cesar Chavez, who means to Mexican Americans what Martin Luther King, Jr., means to African Americans. His birthday in March is celebrated in eight Western states. There is talk of making it a national holiday. Chavez was the founder and leading light of the Farm Workers Union, which in the 1960s and 1970s challenged the great financial and political power of the growers and their friends in high places (e.g., Gov. Ronald Reagan). But Chavez was more than a labor leader and a cultural icon. Readers of Books and Culture will also be interested in him because, like Dr. King, he was a committed Christian. Indeed, after King, Chavez was the most important Christian social activist of our time advocating change ...