Si Se Puede!: A chant born within the vineyards

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Farm Workers by Cesar Chavez.  Chavez began the movement when he saw how farm workers from  Central Valley lived in terrible conditions,  to work in the fields.   Phrases such as “uvas no!” or “no grapes!” were born during the Delano grape strike, and later, “Si Se Puede!” or “Yes we can!”.   The UFW  is the first successful, and largest, farm workers union in U.S. history.  I met with farm workers in Ventura County five years ago, and while some conditions were better,  the lack of immigration reform then and now continues to threaten any sort of stable livelihood.  From my story (Daily News, May, 2007).

OXNARD — The workers bend over raised rows, capturing strawberries the size of plums in their hands. It is good picking weather for the back-breaking job, the workers say, better than it has been in the last few days.
But deep anxiety still lingers among those who make a living working the fields of strawberries and celery, avocado and citrus in verdant Ventura County. Forty-five years after labor leader Cesar Chavez brought the plight of the migrant to the forefront and planted the seeds of reform through his United Farm Workers, some hardships still remain, some too big to be bargained with.“People feel unsatisfied inside,” said a 61-year-old field supervisor who identified himself only as Javier.“What Cesar Chavez did for us was all good, but I don’t know what’s happened since. We hold meetings. We march, and still, the people are afraid.”Lingering worries about the fate of immigration reform will likely overshadow the Chavez holiday observances that begin today, workers say. Adding to their frustration is January’s record-breaking cold snap that stole away precious crops and the farmworkers’ jobs.

“Workers are moving to Colorado, to Kansas because California is too expensive,” said Teresa Nava, a mother of four who’s worked in the strawberry fields since she arrived in California from Mexico 18 years ago.

“People are leaving because it’s been so tough this year. There is no feeling of security here.”

Last week, federal lawmakers introduced a bill that would overhaul immigration, providing a pathway to U.S. citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants.

But the proposed legislation also includes tougher border security and workplace enforcement measures intended to stem the flow of illegal immigrants slipping into the United States.

The ongoing dialogue on immigration has many of Ventura County’s work force uneasy. Some workers go back to Mexico during Christmastime to visit with family, then return to work the fields.

Some say they have seen fewer workers return — bad news in an area where agriculture is a billion-dollar industry.

“The economy has been damaged because of those concerns,” said Alfonso Velasquez as he headed into La Gloria Mercado, Oxnard’s popular Latino grocery store.

Velasquez said the market has always been a hub for the locals, the parking lot always crowded.

But not in the past year. There are too many fears, said Velasquez, 60, who recalled meeting Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. Velasquez once was a professional guitarist and played in an Oakland restaurant where Chavez held organizing meetings.

“People don’t go to the market anymore,” Velasquez said. “They don’t come to the parks. Even though the migrant workers have more rights than before, the problem now is simply bigotry.”

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