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Maurice Jourdane Headshot

Cesar Chavez: See It

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The summer of 1967, I was a law student working in California's Kern County with California Rural Legal Assistance near Delano. On Independence Day, we went to a celebration in Delano's central park. Walking hand in hand with my wife under the towering eucalyptus along the stifling sidewalkless road at the edge of the weed-plagued grass, the aroma of carne asada and carnitas captured our senses. From a makeshift stage near the corner of the park blared electric guitars, horns, and drums of a Mexican band. Except for a couple cholos near the stage, almost every man wore a neatly tucked white shirt with sleeves rolled up and open at the collar. The farm workers talked in groups of four or five, their combined voices buzzing like a band saw broken by deep laughter. Women in colorful dresses or full skirts chatted over cement picnic tables while they shucked corncobs. Between the tables, young children ran playing chase. Their older brothers played soccer in the open area; their older sisters sat in groups watching the older boys.

While we talked with the young Bracero, a man with Native-American features walked up in his lime-green, short-sleeve shirt and baggy beige pants. He looked like the other farm workers, shorter than many. After casually listening to our conversation, the stranger introduced himself as Cesar. During our conversation, he asked me that if I returned as a lawyer to represent farm works, I could ban the tool the tool that forced them to work long hours stooped over with their noses to the ground, the short-handled hoe.

Three-years later, I was working for CRLA in Salinas when the growers entered into sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters, contracts that provide little or no benefit to the workers, to prevent them from joining Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers. Chavez came to Salinas to protest. The police jailed the union leader. Chavez was taken to court wearing blue jail clothing and his hands shackled to a chain around his waist. Like Mahatma Ghandi, Chavez vowed to fast until he was released. Farm workers arrived from every part of California to hold a vigil. For 20 days, Cesar fasted in the Monterey County jail. Just before Christmas, the Supreme Court ordered his release.

When Cesar was released, the union's sole attorney Jerry Cohen asked me to follow an anti-surveillance route and meet with Chavez whose threats on his life forced him to hole up in a vacant east Salinas building. I clandestinely entered the building. Across the concrete floor, Cesar lay in a hospital bed. After offering his fast-weakened hand, Chavez asked me to get rid of the short hoe that was crippling California farm workers. Five years later the Supreme Court and Governor Brown banned the tool, the cortito or short-handled hoe, from California fields.

Having been close to Cesar's movement but not part of the union, I was skeptical when I first heard a movie was premiering on Cesar's life. I gave in, saw the movie, and was overcome by its closeness to reality, especially seeing farm workers stooped over using the cortito. It is an excellent portrayal of the effort of the Chavez family, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of farm workers whose lives were on the line to create the first farm workers' union in California history.

I urge everyone to see the movie. For those of us who lived through the 60s and 70s, we have flashbacks on a violent struggle that often seemed without end. For those who are just curious about who Cesar Chavez is and those who believe Cesar Chavez refers to a retired Mexican boxer, the movie is educational and enlightening on part of California history. The movie goes beyond the sometimes desperate labor struggle in the fields and shows the difficulties La Causa caused within Cesar's family, the valiant role of his wife Helen and the turmoil of his teenage son Fernando who faced racist bullies wanting to fight while Fernando's father was fasting for nonviolence.

I have spent my life as a lawyer for farm workers and rarely go to the show. I am not a movie critic. But I urge you to see the movie. It is edited superbly and the actors and actresses, especially America Ferrera who is Helen Chavez, Michael Pena who is Cesar, and Jack Holmes who is Bobby Kennedy are so realistic that the audience is taken back to the Kern County field to witness Cesar's anguish when Helen is arrested for supporting the Strike and to the Delano high school classroom where Senator Robert Kennedy tells the County Sheriff who has been arresting strikers to read the constitution.

I urge everyone to see the movie released yesterday Cesar Chavez.