Authors: Miriam Pawel
Librado had health problems in addition to his financial difficulties. He had suffered bouts of sunstroke since he was a young man. Doctors had warned him to move to a cooler climate or risk severe consequences. Librado had resisted leaving the Gila Valley while his mother was alive. After she died, he made a solo trip to California to scout out work. Then, in the summer of 1938, the family left the triple-degree heat of the Arizona desert and traveled to the temperate clime of Oxnard, California, where one of Cesar’s aunts lived. Librado, Juana, and the five children all crowded into Tia Carmen’s home, an hour north of Los Angeles. The older children attended Our Lady of Guadalupe school for five weeks, then the family returned to Yuma for the winter growing season. They moved back into the family homestead, now embroiled in legal foreclosure proceedings. Rita and Cesar finished another year at the Laguna Dam School, completing seventh and fifth grades, respectively.
The county reported its first bid for the Chavez land in early 1939: $1,000. Felipe Chavez reached an agreement with the county on February 6, 1939; the board agreed to sell the land to him for $2,300, providing he came up with the money in cash by March 15. He failed, and the county sold the land
to the highest bidder, the local bank president, A. J. Griffin, for $1,750.
Cesar was twelve years old. He may have been oblivious to the complexities of the family finances or his father’s business practices, but Cesar understood the injustice of losing his home. In later years, he never mentioned his father’s health problems or questionable financial acumen. In Cesar’s telling, and in the family lore passed down over generations, Librado fought heroically to save the family home. Whether Cesar was not privy to the details, forgot them, or found it convenient to gloss over certain facts, he focused on the clear and obvious villains: the bank, greedy lawyers, and the Anglo power structure.
Griffin owned land that adjoined the Chavez property. He knew the family and allowed the Chavezes to stay for a few more months, until the end of the school year. Before they left, tractors came to level the carefully terraced land and tear down the horse corral, a scene Cesar would later recall many times in anger.
The thick adobe walls withstood years of subsequent neglect from absentee owners who farmed the fields and ignored the home. Decades passed, water overflowed the canal bank and wind whipped through the valley, and slowly the abandoned house in the Gila Valley all but disappeared. The wooden roof disintegrated, the foundation crumbled, and all that remained were a few adobe walls buried under foliage at a bend of the canal. From time to time, Cesar talked about buying back the land, but he never did.
The Chavez family packed what they could carry into their nine-year-old Studebaker President and headed west, entering a world that had just burst into the consciousness of the American public through the words of John Steinbeck. In May 1939,
The Grapes of Wrath
leaped to number one on the national bestseller list,
selling ten thousand copies a week at $2.75 each. In the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, where much of the book takes place, Steinbeck’s work was banned.
A decade of the Great Depression had taken an enormous toll in the rural towns of California, as Steinbeck’s Joad family discovered. Thousands of people driven off their land in the Midwest had migrated to California, seduced by visions of bountiful pastures and a warm welcome. They found instead hundreds of workers for every job, pitiful wages, and horrible living conditions. Denigrated as “Okies,” desperate families followed the crops, shunted into shantytowns where they competed for jobs that paid pennies.
This was the California that greeted Cesar Chavez when the twelve-year-old lost his Arizona home and joined the migrant stream. The shock of that transition, fighting for jobs that paid scant wages, was as bracing as the cold outside the tent he often called home. Memories of being poor, brown, and homeless in California would drive Cesar for much of his life.
The family left Arizona in early June 1939 and headed toward San Jose, working along the way. They picked avocados in Oxnard and peas in Pescadero. Along with Librado’s family was his widowed niece Petra and her son, Ruben Hernandez. They traveled in two cars, reaching San Jose before Juana’s birthday on June 24. In the Mexican section of the city, Juana knocked on doors until she found someone willing to let them stay in a garage. This was their first home in a neighborhood so poor and prone to floods that it was called Sal Si Puedes—get out if you can.
The crowded garage was among dozens of temporary homes, and far from the worst. During the next few years, the Chavezes lived in barns, tents, shacks, labor camps, and spare rooms, whatever shelter Juana could find. She always insisted the children go to school, though they worked in the fields on weekends and summers. Whenever anyone worked, they handed their wages to Juana, who functioned as the family banker.
The family spent the first winter in Oxnard, a small coastal city north of Los Angeles, where the Mediterranean climate fosters an elongated growing season. Even there, the winter offered little work. In the chill and fog, they camped out in the muddy backyard of another acquaintance Juana made. Home was two tents set up at right angles, with a wood stove between. The children retained vivid memories of those cold, wet winter weeks, where they struggled to keep clothes and shoes dry overnight.
The physical hardships left fewer scars than the emotional burden of adjusting to an alien, often hostile world. Where once they had roamed the Gila Valley, knowing everyone they met, Cesar and Richard now found themselves in a land of fences, locked doors, and strangers. Their classmates went to the movies and talked about the latest comic book, rather than swimming and speculating on when the mare would foal. Their poverty made the children the object of ridicule. Classmates made fun of Cesar for wearing the same gray V-neck T-shirt and blue sweatshirt to school every day. (Rita washed them out each night.)
For the first time, they experienced pervasive discrimination and prejudice. Decades later, they remembered the insults: the teacher who scolded children for not lining up straight by saying, “You remind me of the Mexican army”; the stores that refused to serve ethnic Mexicans; the segregated seating in restaurants and movie theaters that nurtured a lifelong instinct to check where they sat; the rural towns controlled by white growers, bankers, and lawyers, each town divided by the railroad tracks—Mexicans on one side, Anglos on the other.
In the winter of 1941, the Chavez family moved to Brawley, an agricultural town in the southeast corner of California in the Imperial Valley, a center of the winter vegetable industry. Of the dozen or so schools Cesar attended, he spent the longest time at Miguel Hidalgo Junior High in Brawley, half of seventh grade and almost all of eighth grade. He was an average student,
earning grades that were mostly S’s (“satisfactory”). But he consistently received A’s (“to be congratulated”) in arithmetic, and often in social studies and reading.
At the end of his formal schooling, Cesar weighed 118 pounds and stood five feet two inches tall. He didn’t particularly like school. Despite his mother’s desire that he continue, he insisted on dropping out, in part so that she would no longer have to work. Cesar graduated from junior high in June 1942, a few days before his mother’s fiftieth birthday, and went to work full-time in the fields.
By then, the family had learned some tricks for surviving as migrant workers, and the United States’ entry into World War II had opened up more jobs. Gradually, the family figured out which jobs paid the best wages, and which caused the most pain. They also learned the one constant in the history of agricultural labor in California—a surplus of labor enabled growers to treat workers as little more than interchangeable parts, cheaper and easier to replace than machines. The Chavez family’s ability to work the system more successfully did not lessen the hardship or humiliation.
Older workers often were rejected in favor of younger, stronger men. Librado was almost sixty years old when they arrived in California, and Cesar watched his father struggle to find work. After Librado was injured in a car accident and disabled for many months, Juana and Rita became the financial support for the family. They often had to take the worst-paying jobs, like tying bunches of carrots, which meant leaving the house at 3:00 a.m. to get a good spot and finish early enough to escape the worst heat. Supervisors frequently insulted workers, shaming them in front of their families. Women were sexually harassed, taunted, touched, and asked for favors. Farmworkers were exempt from most health and safety provisions that applied to other laborers. There were no bathrooms in the fields, and often no trees or buildings to hide behind. Women had to shield one another to try for a shred of privacy.
Jobs that required workers to stoop close to the ground caused the most physical pain. Often workers were required to use the eighteen-inch short-handled hoe,
, an instrument of both physical and psychological oppression. To use the hoe meant bending over all day and left the body aching so badly that it was difficult to stand upright. Supervisors liked
because they could look down the rows, spot anyone who stood up to stretch, and issue a sharp reprimand.
Wages were set by growers, and most jobs were filled through labor contractors, middlemen who found opportunities to skim off money and cheat workers. They undercounted the number of potatoes, or discounted the weight of cotton in the sack. In winter, when work was scarce and labor plentiful, wages dropped even lower. Often workers had to camp out in front of a labor contractor’s house on Sunday just to get paid.
Wages varied with the season, the weather, the boss, and luck. In Sacramento one summer, the Chavez family earned $1,000 a week picking tomatoes. But the norm was far less, as little as a few dollars a day for planting onions or picking peas. They worked as much as they could in spring and summer, saving money for the winter months when jobs were scarce. Farmworkers did not qualify for unemployment insurance, nor were they covered by minimum wage laws.
At fifteen, Cesar supervised his family’s work in the fields. While Librado was more likely to slack off or let others quit when they grew tired, Cesar set goals. Most of the work was piece rate—they were paid by the number of rows of onions planted or boxes of strawberries harvested. Cesar set a target that the family would make before quitting at the end of the day. Librado would grow tired and urge that they quit as the day grew long, but Cesar would tell his father to go wait in the car while the rest of the family finished. Working as a team, they always made the number. Even little things helped; when Lenny was too young to work, he served as the “water boy.” With no water in the fields, each family had to bring their own. Lenny ran back and forth to the car to refill jugs so the others didn’t lose time.
The Chavezes developed circuits,
depending on crop conditions and weather. Each person had his or her favorites and crops they particularly disliked. In January, they thinned sugar beets and planted onions, which Richard argued was worst—bent over all day, pushing little matchstick-size plants into holes four inches apart, rows six inches apart. In a day they could plant about a quarter of a mile, which might earn $3.
In early spring came cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, and cabbage, and then melons in May. When school ended, they headed to Oxnard for beans, Beaumont for cherries, or Hemet for apricots. They packed apricots in Moorpark in June and then at Mayfair Packing in San Jose in July, picked plums around Gilroy, shook walnuts from the trees in Oxnard, and harvested grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, where the season began in mid-August. Late summer offered the most choice—lima beans, corn, chiles, peaches, plums, and tomatoes, which stretched into fall.
The moment the cotton came in, they rushed from grapes to cotton because the work was piece rate (paid by the weight of the bag) and more lucrative. Cesar preferred cotton because he could work as long and fast as he wanted. He felt the increased freedom was a good trade-off for the physical duress. There was more oversight in the grapes,
where supervisors inspected boxes and criticized the pack, scolding if they spotted unripe grapes.
For entertainment, the teenagers relied on pastimes that cost little if any money. Richard and Cesar listened to Joe Louis’s bouts on the radio. Boxing appealed to them as the only arena in which a poor Mexican could become a star. Cesar learned to play handball, a poor man’s sport that required only a hard ball and a solid wall. When the family moved to the San Joaquin Valley city of Delano, they lived in a cluster of small cabins in a dusty courtyard next door to a handball court. Cesar and his brothers would duck underneath the fence in the evenings and play on a regulation court. He became skilled and would play with a fierce competitive spirit for many years. Just a block away from their cabin was the Comisión Honorifica Mexicana hall on Fremont and Seventh Street, where the teenagers went to dances most weekends. Rita taught her brothers to jitterbug, and Cesar chaperoned his sister.
Family was the one constant in Cesar’s life, at play and at work. He and Richard were outsiders, shut out of ball games and marbles each time they moved to a new school. They grew even closer to one another. Gradually they assimilated to the pastimes in their new world. In Oxnard, where the movie theater showed the new episode of
The Lone Ranger
every Sunday, the boys scrounged tinfoil and bottles to raise pennies to buy tickets to the serial.