One of President Obama's privileges is to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to an individual who has made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
Fred Ross, Sr., is this individual.
I met Fred on the Fourth of July 1967 at a picnic of farm workers in the central park in Delano. Fred was a gray-haired man wearing a plaid shirt and baggy trousers like many of the farm workers surrounding us. Ross was in the park that day to talk with Cesar Chavez and his attorney Jerry Cohen about a labor dispute between the workers and management of Giumara Vineyards. California Rural Legal Assistance community worker Gil Flores, with whom I was working that summer in nearby McFarland, explained to me that Fred Ross was from Chicago. He came to California to help workers. He was looking for a local leader when a priest in San Jose told him about Chavez. Ross went to Sal Si Puedes to talk with him.
"What's Sal Si Puedes mean?" I asked Gil.
"Leave if you can." Gil told me it was the name of a poor neighborhood in San Jose. He said that for days Ross tried to talk with Chavez, but Cesar avoided him. Too many white students writing their doctoral theses had been coming from the universities to Sal Si Puedes to ask the Mexicans endless questions.
"What kind of questions?" I asked.
"Why do your children score so low on intelligent tests? Why do your children do worse in school than white children? Do you believe beans and tortillas for breakfast interferes with your children's ability to learn? Questions like that."
"But finally Ross met with Chavez," I said.
"Cesar set up a meeting. He invited Fred and a bunch of tough punks expecting them to scare-off the gringo."
"But it didn't," I said.
"Nope. Seeing Cesar control the hoodlums who surrounded him and hearing him softly express anger about farm workers' working conditions convinced Fred he'd found the leader he'd been searching for."
"So he hired Chavez?" I asked.
"He tried. Cesar said no. But Fred Ross is a union organizer. He wouldn't give up. Eventually, Cesar agreed to go to Oxnard for a year to help CSO educate farm workers and register them to vote. Cesar, his wife Helen and their kids moved to Oxnard where he began working with Delores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla who Fred Ross also convinced to move to the southern California farm worker community Oxnard. A few years later, Cesar, Fred, Delores and Gilbert agreed that they were doing little to improve the lives of farm workers in Oxnard. They had to go to the heart of the problem, the San Joaquin Valley, if they wanted to improve the lives of farm workers."
"And Cesar's still out here helping farm workers, ten years later," I said. That was 1967. Over the following 20 years, I saw Cesar, Fred, Delores and Gilbert create the first strong union of farm workers in our country's history. Without the persistent effort of Fred Ross, the names Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla would be lost in the 100-year turmoil to improve the lives of those who grow the food we daily consume at out tables. Fred Ross and Cesar Chavez have passed on, hopefully to greener pastures. The farm workers' struggle continues. Without the food they harvest our country cannot exist. Little is more important to our security and national interest than the food we eat. Latino farm workers continue to toil under the hot sun and die in the fields to produce our food.
The number of Latinos living in the United States has exploded since the 1960s. Among their icons are those Fred Ross led to California's fields: Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla. Fred Ross is an individual who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security and national interest of the United States to peacefully further our cultural history and endeavors. I urge President Obama to award to Fred Ross, Sr., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.