Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a celebration of the life and legacy of César Chávez at the White House. Ernie Flores, AFOP President, and Hermelinda Sapien, AFOP Executive Committee member, accompanied me to this invitation-only event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building here in Washington, D.C. As we honored the life of this American hero, we were reminded of how far we have come, but also how far we have to go.
The headline speakers included Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Christine Chávez, one of César’s granddaughters and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farmworker Coordinator, also spoke on behalf of the Chávez family. More than 120 people were in attendance, representing nearly every phase of farmworker service and history, including several high-ranking Latino members of the Administration such as Oscar Gonzalez, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Intergovernmental and Congressional Affairs.
After introductory remarks by the esteemed speakers, a film depicting the life and activities of César Chávez was shown. Narrated by Martin Sheen, it included footage from the earliest days of the United Farm Workers of America, and reminded us all of the harsh conditions and dangers to farmworkers who risked their livelihoods and their lives in their struggle to attain dignity and a decent wage for themselves and their families.
I was reminded of the reality that the struggle was not won. There were victories, and they should not be minimized. The reviled short handle hoe was outlawed, health and safety requirements were enacted, and in California a number of protections including occupational safety and wage laws have enhanced the economic capacity and well-being of farmworkers. But they are still, nationally, the lowest-paid, least empowered, and most insecure workers in the American workforce. Even in California, workers still get sick and die from pesticide poisonings and heat stress. The unions, including the UFW, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, PCUN, and groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, continue an uphill battle to get migrant and seasonal farmworkers a just and living wage with benefits, and attempt to insure decent working conditions. But agriculture continues to be one of the least regulated industries in America, and farmworkers continue to be robbed of their dignity on a daily basis.
So it was good to see evidence of a time when farmworkers, at least in California, were truly empowered in a way that made a difference for themselves and future workers. It must inspire all of us to work ever harder for the people we serve.
It was also good to hear from these extraordinary leaders of key departments (Agriculture, Labor), which mean so much to the daily lives of the people working in the fields. Secretaries Solis and Vilsack explained the concrete ways that they are moving their agencies in the direction of farmworkers. It was good to hear among those ways are the programs AFOP fights so hard to protect and grow: the National Farmworker Jobs Program and the new USDA program of training and services for farmworkers.
Are these things enough? Not by a long shot. But they are excellent beginnings, and it is amazing to have these two cabinet secretaries identifying with the legacy of the great leader of the American farm labor movement, César Chávez. With their help, we in the AFOP community can weather this current crisis threatening every program represented in the auditorium yesterday. I believe César’s battle cry will continue to inspire us as we move ahead: ¡sí se puede!