United North showcases Ohio Theater with Chávez film, dance, panel discussion
By Federico Martínez, Special to La Prensa
Twelve year old Ricci Torres of Toledo had never before heard the name of farm labor leader César Chávez. A 7th grader at Oakdale Elementary, he had never read a school textbook that made reference to the courageous battles fought by Chávez’s United Farm Workers so that millions of migrant workers like Ricci’s grandfather, Richard Torres, could earn fairer wages, be provided better housing conditions and other opportunities so that someday their children and grandchildren could have better lives.
Ricci learned about these things and more during a cultural event honoring the legacy of Chávez which was held Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014 at Toledo’s historic Ohio Theatre and Event Center, 3114 Lagrange St. The free event, which drew nearly 200 people, featured a showing of the recently released film César Chávez and a panel of experts that discussed Chávez’s life and the ongoing efforts to ensure the civil rights of farm workers and all Latinos.
“I loved it,” said young Ricci, whose grandfather brought him to the event. “It was a great experience to learn about César and everything he was able to accomplish. I had no idea who he was before I came here. I didn’t know anything about my history or culture and all the great things we’ve done.”
Panelists like Dr. Manuel Caro, an expert in Chicano/Latino history, explained to the audience how Aztecs, the indigenous people of México, were very well-educated, family-oriented, and among the mightiest warriors in the history of the world.
Dr. Caro, a retired college professor and administrator said the great legacy of Mexicans and Latinos have been intentionally suppressed by many white Europeans who have tried to rewrite history and convince Latinos that they have always been “docile,” uneducated and poor.
“Most people don’t realize that at one point more Mexicans were lynched around the new Mexican border than all the black people in the history of the United States,” said Dr. Caro.
A big part of César Chávez’s success was his realization that Mexican farmworkers needed to have “that sense of identity and needed to feel empowered,” said Dr. Caro. “He was very intentional about using the Aztec symbol as part of the United Farm Workers logo.”
Empowering workers wasn’t an easy task. The movie is unflinching in depicting the humiliating ways migrant workers were herded like cattle into the back of trucks, transported to fields where they picked crops from sunrise to sunset and how they were frequently mocked and cheated out of wages and savagely beaten and attacked if they attempted to speak up.
Remembering the Past
Richard Torres, 56, of Toledo, said he brought three of his grandchildren, including Ricci to the event because he wanted them to have a better appreciation and understanding of their culture and history.
“I want them to realize that there is still a struggle today,” said Mr. Torres who worked as a farmworker for many years. “They need to know what we’ve been through, where we’ve come from.”
Chávez’s non-violent approach – marching and picketing, going into the fields and housing camps to try and get workers to unite and unionize was often met with similar indifferent or brutal responses by law enforcement, politicians and farmers.
The hardest lesson for many people was to learn how to be patient, said panelist Sesario Durán, a longtime farmworker advocate. Mr. Durán, who has been a high-ranking leader for Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) for several decades, said Chávez reminded FLOC leaders of this during the 1980s when FLOC was fighting soup-making giant, Campbell’s, which was refusing their employees the right to unionize.
“It took years of picketing before Campbell’s would even talk to FLOC,” said Durán. “I remember being on the phone with César and him saying, “Look, you just have to keep on keeping on,” said Durán. “He told us that there’s going to be times when it seems like nothing is happening.”
Under the leadership of FLOC founder and President Baldemar Velásquez , Campbell’s finally signed a contract in 1985 that recognized their worker’s rights to establish union representation.
“From 1968 to 1978 we kept laying the foundation,” said Durán. “We started picketing the fields, which wasn’t easy; some of those growers were big boys.”
Continuing the Fight
Velásquez created FLOC during the mid-1960s and has set international precedents in labor history as it continues to fight for human rights for workers and immigrants. For nearly a decade FLOC has been in a bitter struggle with the tobacco industry to sign an agreement that will guarantee the right to freedom of association to all farmworkers in their supply chain.
Panelist Mark Heller, managing attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc.’s (ABLE’s) Migrant Farmworker and Immigration Program, said tobacco companies and other agriculture-related corporations have used their billions to create laws that undermine the efforts of FLOC and the UFW.
The roots of the struggle with growers dates back to the slavery era, explained attorney Heller.
“After slavery was banned, the share cropper system was created to keep blacks enslaved,” said Heller. But many African-Americans eventually abandoned agricultural-related jobs like picking cotton and were replaced by people of Mexican descent.
“So, a new form or slavery was installed,” said Heller. “When labor union acts were passed in the 1930s farm labor was excluded.
For example, the law doesn’t require that growers pay farmworkers minimum wage, so many growers pay by the amount of produce that is picked so that they can pay workers less money.
“Farmworkers are still not protected by fair labor negotiations,” said Heller.
Saturday’s event was presented by United North with co-sponsorship by La Prensa, El Camino Real restaurants, Cocina de Carlos restaurant and el Consulado de México. The event began with a performance by El Corazón de México Ballet Folklorico.