“Cesar Chavez, Who?”
I was 16 when my family bought an avocado orchard. Other than eating avocados I, a chilango (Mexico City native), knew nothing about them. I was a pure city boy having come from Mexico City directly to San Diego.
The library had books on how to grow avocados and I quickly became the family “avocado expert.” My mother knew nothing about them nor did my hill country Texas-born step-father.
One hundred avocado trees and I was the only one who knew anything about them, when to water and fertilizer them, or when they were ready for picking (when a dark brown ring grew through the stem just above the fruit) and how long to ripen after being picked (seven days). I was 16.
Then one day a man parked in our drive-way and walked into the orchard without asking permission. I followed him as he counted trees and looked at avocados.
What are you doing and who are you? I asked. I’m from CALAVO and I’m doing a census of your trees so we can send you a bill; you have to belong, he said. I looked at him wondering what the hell he was talking about. He gave me his card.
We found out that CALAVO was a California state sponsored growers association that was a legal monopoly used to market avocados with state backing. Avocado growers were supposed to belong and pay a fee for the pleasure of mass marketing our crop. I didn’t like it.
My step-father recounted stories to me about his Texas family farm during the 1930’s Depression. County agricultural agents paid by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act bureaucrats would regularly come to the Central Texas farm and count hogs and cattle. If the count showed one more than authorized, the hog (s) or cattle were killed. This was done to stabilize farm prices. This, as people were being destroyed by malnutrition. Millions of young Depression-era physically deficient young men could not pass a military physical during WWII.
We informed CALAVO we would not participate and they sarcastically told us “Good Luck” in selling your avocados.
Once a week I would pick several boxes of avocados and driving around in our WWII surplus Jeep we would call on Ma and Pa groceries and sell them for .15 cents per. Large ones for .25 cents (gasoline was 20 cents a gallon).
Later, a Mexican man came by and told us he was a representative of the Farm Workers Organizing Committee. He asked how many people our orchard employed. Who, he asked, cared for the orchard and did the picking. Me, I said.
You must join our union so you are not exploited like a slave. I laughed, loudly. Moron, I said, I get half of what I sell and all the avocados I can eat. Go away! That was my introduction to Cesar Chavez’ farm workers union even before it was recognized by the AFL/CIO. This, even before the future union made news in California’s Central valley, where union-ites and liberals flooded America’s breadbasket like a 40 year locust plague for Chavez’ grape picker’s strike. Bobby Kennedy showed up, despite not knowing Mexicans when he tripped on them or grapes in solid form.
We sold the place; a gated community replaced my trees. CALAVO is still in business and so is the Farm Workers Union.
When Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Jr. was elected Governor by a whisker in 1974 thanks to the Watergate scandal, Cesar Chavez’ union was blessed by a Mafia-like “Godfather” Brown. The union flourished under the Brown-controlled Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). The union ran over every grower it confronted, its membership skyrocketed because state law literally forced people to join the union after 30 days or they could not keep the job. The union hiring hall monopolized jobs. If you didn’t belong to the union you couldn’t work and if a member, it didn’t hurt to slip a few dollars to the hiring hall supervisors who assigned jobs.
Under Chavez, the farm workers union became the second highest political (special interest) contributor in California, second only to the California Medical Association. The union bought and paid for dozens of Democrat state legislators. Unfortunately for Cesar Chavez, however, Republican George Deukmejian was elected governor in 1982 over farm workers union supporter candidate Tom Bradley and the union lost its state support. It became and still is but a shadow of what it was in the 70s.
Hollywood has finally discovered Mexican Americans and turned its attention to Cesar Chavez as if all Mexican Americans adore Chavez. A movie partly based on fact will open this week in 400 theaters. I predict it will fail at the box office. Why?
Fact: only 5% of all American Hispanics are rural, thus 95% are city people who could care less about Mexican or Mexican American farm workers.
The movie will fail despite Chavez’ March 31 birthday being a California state holiday because few care about him or his union; except, of course, aging “Chicanos” of which there weren’t many to begin with.
Contreras was formerly with the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate