Penthouse Retrospective

by Richard Ballad Originally Published: July, 1975

Cesar Chavez | 46-ish Years Ago This Month

Okay. That’s the past. Gone. But I can’t forget. It still hurts. It still hurts when I hear the word greaser. Not the kids. It doesn’t bother them. They can laugh at it. But I can’t. Well, maybe sometimes when the person saying it or the situation is just ridiculous. But I can’t really laugh.

What about the events since you started the union? What are your emotions about your whole struggle?

Chavez: Well, I remember people who have been hurt. Like a man named Hector Abeyia. He had an artificial leg and a grower beat him up. We had to go through a lot and call on state authorities before anybody would arrest the grower. After they did, he got a ten-dollar fine. I guess that was a victory.

I remember a girl named Magdalene who was working in the fields and who breathed insecticide and fell down unconscious. Later she got headaches, and nose bleeds, and her lungs hurt, but she could still smile and continue to work for the cause.

And there was a man named Chapa whose little boy fell between the rows. Nobody saw him lying there. The digging machine came along and killed the child. And ·a couple of years later his little girl drowned in an irrigation canal. California has child-labor laws — but the little kids come in the fields with their parents and there is no law against that. When the family is scrimping and trying to make a living on piece work, the temptation is to let the kids help fill the boxes. And who enforces child-labor laws, anyway?

In August 1966, in San Diego County, you, two clergymen, and several workers were arrested, abused, chained, and stripped of your clothes. If you won’t talk about what happened to you, tell us what happened to your comrades who shared that experience?

Chavez: [Laughs.] I guess you figured out a way to get around it. Well, it happened at the Borrego Springs ranch. It was owned by the Di Giorgios. I was with the Reverend Chris Hatmire, who headed the California Migrant Ministry, and Father Salandini, a Roman Catholic priest. We had persuaded the people to strike, and we’d gone back to the ranch with them to get some belongings. The company guards grabbed us and made us get in a closed truck. It was 115 degrees outside and it was about three in the afternoon. They kept us in there for about four hours. Then they took us to a sheriff’s station where the officers stripped us naked and gave us the most intensive body search I’ve ever experienced. Then they chained us together, hands and feet. They were trying to degrade us, to humiliate us.

We came to trialln this little town — I think it was Ramona — and the judge said we were three of the most dangerous criminals he’d ever seen. As bad as things were, I had to smile at that. He gave us a two-year probation. A week later we met with Governor Pat Brown. He said, “My God. They didn’t use chains? I can’t believe they did that in the state of California.” Well, they did.

Let’s talk about the current battle with the Teamsters. How do they get the workers?

Chavez: Well, it’s just plain and simple intimidation. They tell the workers, “If you don’t pay dues to the Teamsters you won’t be able to work anywhere else, because even though we may not control other jobs, we control all transportation. Without wheels we can force this country to come to a stand-still” — the Teamsters are supposedly the richest union in the world — “we can buy anything and anybody. If you join the United Farm Workers, you’ll be blackballed.”

You see, if you know the labor-contractor system — and it’s a rotten system-you know that these men are experts at threatening people. The labor-contractor is the lickspittle of the bosses. He does the dirty work and gets his cut. He is supposed to hire the people, keep them in line, see that they keep working no matter what. That’s what the labor-contractor does. And that’s the system the Teamsters endorse.

Give me an example of an unfair election.

Chavez: Well, there was only one election and that was a fraud. It was on the Larson ranch in the Coachella Valley. Our contract was about to run out. We were getting ready to renegotiate it with Mrs. Larson. She met with us and the priest who had been agreed on by both sides to supervise the negotiations.

Okay. So we told her right then that the workers’ committee was ready and willing to consider her suggestions and objections. Well, she’d been acting very nervous — at that point she began to cry. She said, “Cesar, something very awful happened to your union this morning.” I thought she was referring to an accident or something. I didn’t know what to think. Then, with tears running down her face she said, “We had an election this morning and your union lost sixty-two to twenty-eight. But don’t blame me.”

I was stunned. There we were, negotiating in good faith. So I said, “What election? We weren’t told there was going to be an election. We still have a valid contract with you for another month. We still represent those workers. What have you done?”

She was so choked up she couldn’t speak. She just looked at me, still crying, and then she jumped up and darted off.

Her husband had used her to stall you?

Chavez: I don’t know. We do know he didn’t have the guts to face us. Then we found out what had happened. They had fired our top men on the ranch two days before. Then they sent their contractors into the fields to tell the workers if they voted for the UFW they’d be fired.

You may not be able to name every Medal of Freedom recipient in modern history, but you should know Cesar Chavez certainly. History counts.

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