Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2011-03-30 "We marched with César" by CYNTHIA MORENO from "Vida En El Valle" magazine
FRESNO -- Before César Estrada Chávez launched his farmworker movement in Delano almost half a century ago, he was a community organizer for the Community Service Organization in the 1950s.
So was Gilbert Padilla.
The two left the organization because it didn't want to "do much for farm labor," according to Padilla.
Padilla -- who now lives in Fresno with his wife, Esther, a former Fresno City Councilmember -- resigned his secretary-treasurer position with the United Farm Workers in October 1980 over philosophical differences over the direction the union would take.
"After we left the union, I never spoke with César again," said Gilbert.
"The union was my whole life -- I gave it more priority than my family, often uprooting my children from their school and friends to unknown destinations," Gilbert wrote in an essay for "I never thought of leaving the union, and I wanted to grow old working in the union on behalf of farmworkers."
Gilbert was born in Los Baños to farmworking parents from Zacatecas, México. The family lived in Azusa, and Gilbert, one of eight children, was born in a labor camp during harvest season.
Esther was born in Fowler to a farmworking family from Coahuila, México. Her father worked in area fields instead of following the harvest. Esther was one of 12 children.
The couple played an effective role with the UFW.
Gilbert and Chávez became unpaid organizers for the National Farm Workers Association after leaving CSO.
"Everyone who came in to the organization didn't do it for power or for glory, but to change a population of people in this country that was completely disenfranchised," said Gilbert in a recent interview.
Farmworkers were omitted from federal legislation like Social Security, worker's compensation and unemployment insurance, said Gilbert.
"I did it because I went to the labor camps and worked with braceros and I had a lot of anger towards the growers. I wanted to change things because everyone that was there came from there," said Gilbert. "Esther is a good example. She became involved because she remembered her father getting paid a couple hundred bucks a month for his life's work."
"My father didn't want us to be farmworkers like him," said Esther, whose parents attended segregated schools in San Bernardino County.
Esther earned a bachelor's degree in Social Work at Fresno State University and later led the Head Start program at the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission until "the union eagle plucked me up."
Both remember the night they met at a UFW organizing event in the Parlier Head Start building.
While talking to a fellow organizer, Gilbert noticed Esther standing by the doorway. She "had her hair parted down the middle, was wearing a poncho and had a big smile on her face," said Gilbert.
Esther had heard rumors throughout the day that a "big shot organizer was in town" and decided to attend the meeting.
Their work together, first as friends, then, later as husband and wife, would add to the organizing efforts led by Chavez.
Esther met Chávez for the first time in the late 60s.
"It was the year of the Kennedys, the Chicano movement and of voter registration. There were no laws. It was a hassle to get people to become citizens and I was just ... in awe of meeting him. I thought he was the greatest thing since apple pie," said Esther.
Chávez picked Gilbert to organize in Tulare and Fresno counties.
"There were about 70,000 farmworkers in Fresno at that time. They came to pick figs, olives and fruit. There were no machines to do the work," recalled Gilbert.
Gilbert's organizing efforts caught Esther's attention.
"It wasn't César that did everything. That is a common misconception. There were people all across the Valley doing stuff locally," said Esther. "I know Gilbert was doing a knock-out job of organizing farm workers in his area and he had several strikes going on.
"He would put together huge events and coordinated all of them. They were wonderful. He had danzantes and mariachis and the whole string of things to entertain and rally people. I was very impressed."
The strikes and boycotts came with consequences.
"I was arrested in Tulare once. When people were arrested, they usually weren't bailed out," said Gilbert. "Police officers would go through picket lines, pick someone and take them. When I was arrested, they knew who I was."
Esther recalls a picket line at a Fresno winery where "a winery owner pulled a rifle on us."
"At that point, if we were going to negotiate anything, we knew it had to be the women to go out into the fields and talk to growers. They wouldn't dare fire a shot at a woman" said Esther.
Farmworkers won wages of $1.75 an hour, toilets in the fields, vacations, drinking water and medical plans.
Gilbert and Esther helped direct farmworkers to cities across the country or organize boycotts against grapes, wine and then lettuce.
"Farmworking families had stability, good wages, and benefits and were able to put their kids through an education. They weren't just roaming around from Texas to California as they had in the past. As the union continued to organize, the situation got better and better for them," said Esther.
As Esther became more involved with organizing efforts, she faced with a difficult decision.
"I was a social worker at the time I met Gilbert, and they were planning a strike and he asked for my help writing letters and acquiring food vouchers for the workers," said Esther, who would put in extra time after her regular work to help the union.
When organizing efforts started to expand, she quit her job.
Esther says the decision was unwelcome news for her family.
"They thought I was crazy, but I will tell you this: As a social worker, I don' think I would have had that kind of experience unless you are really dedicated to helping make a difference or making a change, which was what I was hoping to do," said Esther.
The couple's time with the union was coming to an end because Gilbert felt Chávez was focusing too much attention on leading a social movement instead of organizing farmworkers.
"He was the best man in my daughter's wedding and he was a close friend, but he changed," said Gilbert. "Notoriety and power and money change people to the point where they become a different person; and, in this case, I feel he just didn't want to organize workers anymore."
When Chávez's March 31 state holiday arrives, the couple experience bittersweet memories.
"I want to make it clear that if César hadn't changed, I would have still been part of that movement. I would never have resigned," said Gilbert.
Esther agrees.
"I think it's good to remember him because he is one of the few icons in the Chicano community that people can look up to. Young kids don't know about César. But, they need to commemorate the whole movement, not just him as an individual," said Esther.
The couple hopes that the UFW will regain its strength.
"No one is out there on the forefront. People are not out there talking about the union and what needs to be done. They don't know that there was a whole lot of sacrifice for a whole lot of people. Some died for the union," said Esther.

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