Juanita Valdez-Cox reflects on her time with American civil rights leader César Chávez and how lessons she learned from him guide her as she leads the organization he co-founded.
Many great books have been written about César Estrada Chávez, but I want to share my personal experience and some of what I learned from him. I met Cesar in the mid-1970s and his respectful demeanor and absolute dedication to the movement have inspired me to follow his example.
I grew up in a migrant farmworker family that traveled north every year starting when I was 12 years old. As with thousands of other migrant children, South Texas was our home base, and every year we went in search of employment up north. Up north meant West Texas or states like Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Ohio or Michigan. We were always in search of the next crop that needed our labor to help feed this world.
I became a volunteer with the United Farm Workers in the mid-’70s. I remember helping out with many protests, including the boycotts of Gallo wines, Red Coach lettuce and table grapes. All of these efforts addressed the bad working conditions, low pay and lack of respect for farmworkers.
My experiences as a farmworker — and thoughts of my family as well as thousands of other farmworkers who were not recognized for their skilled labor — moved me to join the union. I was inspired by the people who were joining the union and working as volunteers to create the change needed for farmworkers, and I was ready to learn from César Chávez.
César taught us to trust the judgment of humble people. When he was working on solving a problem, Cesar always sought the counsel of those most impacted. By involving regular people in creating solutions, he acknowledged their role in the process and won their loyalty to the movement.
I must say that I was most inspired by César’s dedication to being a lifelong learner. While his formal education ended in the eighth grade, César never stopped studying and learning. He learned about the power of nonviolence by studying Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He applied what he learned by conducting a 25-day fast in 1968 to convince United Farm Workers members to forswear the use of violence against growers and strikebreakers. His selfless dedication inspired people around the world to stop eating grapes until the first union contracts were signed.
I was part of the team that worked with César in Texas, and we were able to secure some of the same benefits that farmworkers had in California. Benefits like toilets in the fields, pesticides protections, worker’s compensation and unemployment compensation are now available to farmworkers in Texas.
In closing, let me share my favorite quote from César, a quote that reminds me of his dedication, his commitment to bringing justice to farmworkers, and his unfathomable faith in the strength of each one of us in the farmworker movement.
I have had the good fortune of devoting most of my life to the pursuit of justice for farmworkers, immigrants and low-income families in general. At every step along the way, I have been sustained and inspired by the wisdom and example of César Chávez.