Today marks the 86th anniversary of the birth of César Chávez and of the final day of this year’s National Farmworker Awareness Week. It is fitting we celebrate farmworkers this week for all the difficult and dangerous work they do in ensuring a ready food supply for our nation. It is also fitting to recognize the man who did so much to make our nation aware of the troubles and perils farmworkers face in planting and harvesting its crops and to help secure basic labor rights for them.
AFOP President Jesús Gamboa was just fifteen years old when he first met César Chávez in 1965. That day, Jesús had ridden with his father to the Arvin, California grape fields “in a ’56 Chevy” to work that year’s harvest. As they arrived, they came upon a large group of protesters waving large red flags emblazoned with a black eagle, and asking people not to go into the fields. That experience made an impression on Jesús and his father, who accepted Chávez’s personal invitation and joined the organization that would eventually become the United Farmworkers of America.
The entire Gamboa family subsequently got involved in the labor movement. Jesús recalls routinely visiting the union’s offices in Lamont, California with family members and seeing Chávez at work there on labor issues. Jesús remembers Chávez also helping the farmworker community with advice on meeting the challenges of everyday life, utilizing the skills he developed as a community advocate with the Community Service Organization.
It was here, in those days, that Gamboa, a farmworker until age 25, developed an allegiance to Chávez and the UFW movement that endures to this day. Says Gamboa:
I believe in what César stood for, what the movement still stands for, and for what the union has done for farmworkers. If not for the union, whatever limited rights workers have, they wouldn’t have: better wages and working conditions, drinking water in the fields, and in some cases health care and unemployment insurance. I’ve maintained my allegiance to César and the movement to this day because of their efforts to protect the rights of farmworkers.
Gamboa also tells of the times in the mid-1970s when Chávez would come to his university to address the student body. Jesús recalls that Chávez brought with him two very unusual body guards, named, respectively, “Boycott,” and “Huelga” (“strike,” in Spanish). Those guards were not people, but two large German Shepherds. “Yeah, nobody messed with him,” says Jesús.
Still an associate member of the union today, Jesús carries on Chávez’s work through his service as AFOP’s national president. Says Gamboa, “I see AFOP’s mission as similar to that of César’s: taking care of the farmworker, helping to secure for them the rights and dignity they deserve, and affording them a chance to succeed. Chávez was a great leader, but also relied on those in the trenches, those organizations that shared his values and desire to improve conditions for the farmworker. AFOP is not that different. Our member organizations, and the good work they do for farmworkers, are reminiscent of the work of César Chávez.”
Gamboa helped organize the 20th Annual César Chávez Celebration March on Saturday, March 30, 2013 in Visalia, California to commemorate the life and work of this great man. Paul Chávez, César’s son and president of the César Chávez Foundation, led the march and spoke to the assembled crowd of more than 500 about his father and the importance of carrying on his mission. A celebration including live mariachi, health screenings, Easter egg hunt, food vendors, art exhibit, and magic show, the event was, by all accounts, something special to remember.