As I cross Cesar Chavez Avenue on my way to work each morning, I'm greeted by murals with the visionary labor organizer's portrait. When I reach the PAN office, he smiles down at me from a poster hanging prominently in the hall.
This week marks the 14th annual National Farmworker Awareness celebrations, and I’ve been contemplating the Chavez legacy. We know that as a parent as well as an activist, he shared our concerns about how pesticides harm children through the food they eat, the water they drink and the air they breathe.
“There is nothing we care more about,” he once said about farmworkers, “than the lives and safety of our families.” Chavez knew the life of a migrant worker first-hand. At one point his family lived in a San Jose community known as Sal Si Puedes —“Get Out If You Can.”
After attending over 30 different schools, he began working in the fields instead of going to high school. As is still true for thousands of youth today, Chavez was poorly paid to work in dangerous conditions. He dedicated his life to the movement that since popularized the more uplifting slogan, Si Se Puede —“Yes, We Can.”
Organized farmworkers were among the first to draw the country’s attention to the harms of pesticides.
Under the leadership of Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Baldemar Velasquez and other union organizers, farmworkers helped outlaw DDT and other hazardous pesticides. They talked about the dangers of pesticide drift, and got consumers wondering about pesticide residues on their foods. These chemicals, Chavez warned, could “choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all.”
As the father of seven, Chavez was heartbroken by the impact pesticides had on children. His 1988 "Fast for Life" protest was inspired in part by the clusters of birth defects and deaths in farmworker communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Residents suspected that the water in these rural areas had been poisoned by pesticides.
So when I see his sad smile in PAN's poster, I think Chavez would be deeply disappointed that today, 20 years after his passing, we are still fighting to remove hazardous chemicals like atrazine and methyl bromide from our fields. But he would be glad to know that the farmworker movement is still vibrant, and that these unions and allies have been core PAN partners since our earliest days.
Here are three things you can do today to honor the legacy of the man who Robert F. Kennedy called “one of the heroic figures of our time”: