Published in the March 29 – April 11, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Cesar Chavez in 1960s.

The summer of 1977, Cesar Chavez came to Hollister. His arrival marked a pivotal moment in the history of the small town. By the end of the visit, hundreds of farm workers at the 3,000-acre Bertuccio Farms, one of San Benito County’s largest ag enterprises, would vote in favor of union representation with the United Farm Workers of America.

I was 10 years old and my mind thought little about the rebellion in the fields surrounding my hometown and a lot about the rebellion in a galaxy far, far away because a newly released film called “Star Wars” was a block-buster hit. But the issues of civil rights still made the national news, and journalists came to the sleepy farming community to cover the unfolding drama about the underdog field workers going against the industrialized farming business. It was a major story that summer.

I have photos my father took of the UFW marchers streaming down San Benito Street, the main drag into downtown. I remember the moment because of the tension and because dad said Chavez was a famous man coming into town. We stood on Park Hill looking down at the scene, with sheriff and police cars and motorcycles rolling through and marchers peacefully stepping down the street carrying flags and banners. I got a glimpse of Chavez from a distance. He rode in a station wagon with loud speakers on the roof, speaking in English and Spanish. I can’t remember the words, but his voice seemed filled with electricity. My dad said something unflattering about the man.

Our family knew the Bertuccios well, so I saw the struggle from that side of the story. It was a time, I remember with embarrassment, when the slur “wetback” was easily said in conversation — including from my own lips. I heard comments from the locals about how ungrateful and misguided the laborers were and how Chavez was a self-serving troublemaker coming to town to disturb the tranquility of our community.

Chavez already had a history in the region. He had lived in the East San Jose barrio called by residents “Sal Si Puedes” — “get out if you can.” There he saw Latino workers toiling long hours in muddy fields under oppressive managers and harsh conditions without bathroom breaks. It was there that he first organized workers. In 1966, the year I was born, he held a rally in Dunne Park in Hollister and spoke about “La Causa” to the citizens. In 1967, he negotiated a contract for the San Benito County farm workers with winemaker Almaden, then based in Paicines. Maybe that success gave him the courage to go up against the grape growers in the California Central Valley in a little farming town called Delano.
The Great Boycott of 1968 carried the movement for farm workers rights to the city and far from the fields where powerful agricultural enterprises could control the debate. Farm workers knew the financial and social costs of following the labor leader Chavez. The potential loss of millions of dollars in grape crops revenue if consumers refused to purchase the fruit in stores also hit farm owners hard.

Chavez’s negotiations with Bertuccio Farm went on for three costly years and was a smoldering topic of discussion in the town. July 9, 1981, workers decided it was time to take harder action. The shout of “Huelga! Huelga! Huelga!” (Strike! Strike! Strike!) came from the tranquil farm land when hundreds of Bertuccio’s workers marched out of the fields, many raising the UVW flag. The red and black logo of an Aztec eagle was symbolic of the courage and dignity they needed to risk their family livelihood for their cause. Workers would go without pay, putting a burden on taking care of their homes.

A month later, Hollister found itself in the nation’s spotlight when Chavez, his son Paul and 30 Bertuccio Farm strikers were arrested by deputies for trespassing on farm land while trying to organize workers into the union. That news enabled the movement to grow across the state of California, with Hollister farm workers traveling to Los Angeles and to San Francisco and Oakland to pressure supermarkets and warehouses to remove Bertuccio Farm products from their shelves — or face the stigma of a picket. The Bertuccios risked the loss of millions of dollars in revenue if their fields laid fallow.

Many people saw Chavez as a villain. Some still in San Benito County see the central historic figure in California’s civil rights story that way.

The world has changed much since the day when a 10-year-old Hollister boy stood on a hill and watched Chavez ride into town in a station wagon to face down the Bertuccios in a long and hard-fought battle. But the question of character for America still remains: how do we justly and fairly treat the human beings who do the dirty work of farming and other low-wage jobs?

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday April 1, South Valley will recall the man and the movement he led at the 5th Annual Cesar Chavez Day celebration at San Ysidro Park in Gilroy. No doubt, the speakers that day will bring up the issues of immigration reform our nation still needs to address — the cause, no doubt, that would be at the front of the Latino labor leader’s activism if he were alive today.