In an essay, Emma Torres of Campesinos Sin Fronteras talks about how her parents and Cesar Chavez, the late farmworker and civil rights leader, inspired her decision to lead a community organization in Arizona.
I was 11 years old when my parents brought me from Mexico to the United States. Both my parents were migrant farmworkers from Guanajuato, Mexico. My father came to the United States as a bracero (guest worker) during World War II to harvest the crops in the absence of workers who had gone to fight the war.
Neither my father nor mother had more than a second-grade education, but they were hardworking people who left my brothers, sisters and me a legacy – the legacy of service, hard work and honesty.
The dictionary defines “legacy” as a gift or a bequest that is handed down, endowed or conveyed from one person to another. Many of us don’t think about our legacy, or – especially if we come from humble origins – don’t believe that we have a legacy to hand down to future generations. Most of us don’t imagine the impact that our actions (or lack thereof) have on the people who surround us, and those who will follow.
That is the great “bequest” that Cesar Chavez passed on to those of us who knew him and had the honor to hear him speak during a rally at a park or at one of the day-long marches – an understanding of our own legacy, and the impact we could have on others.
I started working in agriculture side by side with my parents when I was 12 years old. At age 13, I dropped out of school to move to Arizona to follow the corrida (the seasonal agricultural harvest). I was so young, full of energy, hardworking and very proud to be helping my parents that I didn’t think I needed an education.
But there were things I didn’t like about working in agriculture. I didn’t like the way people looked down at us because we were covered in mud after harvesting all day. I didn’t like how people would look at us when we went to the bank to cash our checks because we would leave a trail of mud with our shoes. I didn’t like when foreman and supervisors would disrespect the workers, particularly the elderly, who could not work as fast as the younger workers.
I just knew that was not right, and I would try to defend them, forgetting how young I was.
I was only 15 years old when my family became involved in the huelga (strike) in California. My parents, aunts and uncles provided meals to hundreds of Chavistas who stopped at our town of Soledad, California during their marches. My siblings and I had no idea how witnessing those historical moments would change our lives. We did not yet understand that we were inheriting the legacy of our humble and hardworking parents.
But the idea of being in la lucha – the struggle to achieve social justice – stuck in our minds, as we listened to a man who looked like us shout that we were worthy human beings who deserved better wages, better working conditions, portable toilets, clean drinking water and respect. That was something I had not heard before and have never since forgotten.
When I was 24, my husband, a farmworker, died from leukemia at age 25. Only then did I realize how important it was that I learn to speak English. I was left a widow with two children, a three-week-old boy and a four-year-old girl, who were going to need me to help them with their homework, and I would not be able to assist them. I knew I needed to go back to school to obtain my elementary school and high school diplomas.
That’s when my parents’ and Cesar’s legacy of fighting for a better future came to my mind. I realized how poor we were, and how unprepared I was to help my children and myself face the world by ourselves. But I remembered that in the midst of the darkest times, when my husband was sick and unable to provide for us, and I was pregnant and take care of him, his co-workers – a total of 90 of them – would give a dollar each to send to us.
That I have never forgotten.
Despite what I foresaw as a bleak future, I was blessed to have my mother and sisters, who embraced me and took me and my kids back to their home.
I began attending a trade school to get my GED. At night, I attended ESL classes. I did that for two years straight. I knew I had to keep in la lucha for a better future. My children and I deserved a better tomorrow.
Two years later, I had acquired a better understanding of English, and I had obtained my GED when I was offered a job at the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program teaching basic nutrition to Latina immigrant and farmworker women. I took it, even though it meant facing my greatest fears. I had to speak in front of people in English!
In that job, I found my passion for serving others and for community organizing.
I then moved to a community health center, where I learned about public health and the tools needed to educate my people to help them prevent illnesses. I worked for 15 years as an outreach coordinator and then as an administrator of a community-based organization called Puentes de Amistad, where we focused on substance abuse prevention and community organizing.
It was then, that I noticed that despite good community programs available in our community, there wasn’t any that was formed by and to represent farmworker family needs.
In 1997, a group of farmworkers, former farmworkers and family members decided that we needed an organization that would address the multiple health and social issues that farmworker families faced. We needed a non-bureaucratic group that would also advocate for social justice and human rights.
We came up with Campesinos Sin Fronteras, Inc., (CSF), which was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) community-based organization. Now, 16 years later, we continue the legacy of helping others through an organization that has 25 full-time employees, five part-time, and 30 volunteers who reach out to thousands of new immigrant and farmworker families each year.
After I got my GED, I continued until I received my master’s degree in social work. I needed those letters after my name to show that I was well prepared. But what I rely on most to do this work is the inner strength, values and calling for service that are the legacy of my humble farmworker parents and Cesar Chavez – my hero!
Emma Torres is executive director of Campesinos Sin Fronteras, which has its main office in Somerton, Arizona. It focuses on community organizing and promoting self-sustainability to farmworkers and low- to moderate-income individuals by providing and facilitating access to health, housing, workforce development and counseling services.