In Commemoration of Hispanic Heritage Month: César’s Last Fast

“I remember poor wages and the lack of food… living in the car under a bridge is not that bad because you’re a kid, but the humiliation, that’s what you remember.” A quote from César’s Last Fast as César Chávez mused about working in the fields as a child.

On October 14, 2011, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis hosted a film-in-progress documentary screening of Cesar’s Last Fast at the U.S. Department of Labor. The documentary outlines his intense commitment to America’s farmworkers and the dedicated people leading that fight today. The screening was followed by a discussion panel of prominent speakers, including: Secretary Solis; Richard Ray Perez, project producer and executive director of the film; Julie Rodriguez, a granddaughter of César Chávez and associate director of Latino and immigration outreach in the White House Office of Public Engagement; and Mark Lara, U.S. Department of Labor Wage & Hour Division Investigator.

The film project was started by Lorena Parlee who died of breast cancer before it was finished, but Perez is no stranger to the farmworker struggle. His father was a migrant farmworker. Perez also grew up in San Fernando, California, home to many local universities with active Chicano studies programs and students who support farmworkers. It was one of those students, who visited Perez’s Head Start class and picked the grapes out of his fruit cocktail in support of the grape boycotts that has stuck with him all these years.

“It is more than just a film; it is meant to be a powerful engagement and organizing tool. We want it to serve as a model for how individuals and communities can address inequities they face every day,” stated Perez. “Ultimately, the 90 minute film will be used as a strategy for those on-the-ground campaigns to reach new generations of immigrant workers and young Latinos who may not know Chávez’s story and his impact on Latino civil and labor rights in the U.S.”

Rodriguez, who was clearly emotional, shared that this was the first time she had seen the film since the passing of her uncle, Richard Chávez, a prominent figure in the fight for farmworkers. She reiterated Perez’s sentiments about it being more than just a film. She recounted how, at the young age of 10, she learned the strongest lesson of commitment, dedication, and sacrifice. It was then that she witnessed her ‘tata,’ César’s Chávez, endure a 36 day “fast for life” as an act of penance for not being able to stop growers from using pesticides in the fields while farmworkers were present.

She noted, “This is very personal footage of my grandfather and the world will finally get to know him as a man.”

Lara, a son of migrant workers, spoke to the audience about the $1 million in back wages that will be going to South Florida farmworkers as a result of wage theft findings. He also discussed his involvement in the  blueberry investigations in Eastern North Carolina. The audience gasped as he recalled finding children as young as 9 and 10 working in the fields, buckets heavy with blueberries strapped to their waists with rope.“We made an immediate impact on the industry, and a year later when we returned for follow-up visits, there were posters stating, if under the age of 13 you’re not allowed in the fields.”

Secretary Solis went on to mention the recent changes to the H-2A regulations.  She stated how proud she is to be working under an administration that knows the importance of its labor force, evidenced by the growth of the Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker program.

When the program was opened up to the audience for comments and questions, many Department of Labor employees stood and shared their stories about growing up as a farmworker or as a child of a migrant worker. They noted the impact Chávez had on their lives. In closing, Secretary Solis posed the question to the panel, “What can we do now and where do we go from here?”

Lara answered, saying support the efforts of the Wage & Hour Division and get involved locally. Julie Rodriguez said, “I grew up with the motto, every worker is an organizer. As consumers, never underestimate your power as a consumer, educate yourself on the products you buy, and highlight the efforts that are successful. This is not a journey any of us can walk alone. We are all allies in the fight and we need to show what works.”

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