We were sent short videos, we put up posters; this was pre-internet, so there were no email blasts. We set up the videos outside of dining halls and tried to get our classmates to be interested in the plight of farm workers in California. I am not sure how much of a dent we made in their consciousness. Unless you were really willing to watch the video, just walking by it wouldn't really do it.
I don't know how it worked out, but it did. I remember the auditorium being pretty packed, the audience being duly moved by the presentation, and feeling a tremendous sense of pride about the event. It felt like all our book learning might be worth something; like maybe we were still part of the wider world, or at least that we could be again. The college tour wasn't just about getting people to know about the grape boycott; it was also about recruiting college students to organizing.
The best, though, came afterwards at the Third World Center, where we held a reception. Cesar Chavez sat on the hearth in the Jose Marti Lounge with all of us students around him as though he were the proud grandfather. He wanted to know about us. He wanted us to know that he was proud of OUR accomplishments, as though we weren't sitting with the man who had co-founded the UFW, among his many accomplishments.
Here is a piece of the kind of speech he delivered:
What is the worth of a man or a woman? What is the worth of a farm worker? How do you measure the value of a life? Ask the parents of Johnnie Rodriguez. Johnnie Rodriguez was not even a man; Johnnie was a five year old boy when he died after a painful two year battle against cancer.
His parents, Juan and Elia, are farm workers. Like all grape workers, they are exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Elia worked in the table grapes around Delano, California until she was eight months pregnant with Johnnie. Juan and Elia cannot say for certain if pesticides caused their son's cancer. But neuroblastoma is one of the cancers found in McFarland, a small farm town only a few miles from Delano, where the Rodriguezes live. "Pesticides are always in the fields and around the towns," Johnnie's father told us. "The children get the chemicals when they play outside, drink the water or when they hug you after you come home from working in fields that are sprayed. "Once your son has cancer, it's pretty hard to take," Juan Rodriguez says. "You hope it's a mistake, you pray. He was a real nice boy. He took it strong and lived as long as he could."
I keep a picture of Johnnie Rodriguez. He is sitting on his bed, hugging his Teddy bears. His sad eyes and cherubic face stare out at you. The photo was taken four days before he died. Johnnie Rodriguez was one of 13 McFarland children diagnosed with cancer in recent years; and one of six who have died from the disease. With only 6,000 residents, the rate of cancer in McFarland is 400 percent above normal. In McFarland and in Fowler childhood cancer cases are being reported in excess of expected rates. In Delano and other farming towns, questions are also being raised.
The chief source of carcinogens in these communities are pesticides from the vineyards and fields that encircle them. Health experts believe the high rate of cancer in McFarland is from pesticides and nitrate-containing fertilizers leaching into the water system from surrounding fields.
Find out more about Cesar, remember and do what you can to make our world better for those to come.
Happy Birthday, Cesar. I remember.