• Share
  • Read Later

(8 of 11)

she had a vacant lot that she let us use. So we put up a tent. It was a very small tent—I guess about 8 by 10. That's all we had. All the family stayed there. And it rained that winter. Oh, it rained. Rain, rain, rain. We had to go to school barefoot. We had no shoes. I can't forget it."

The family lived that winter on beans, tortillas and an occasional potato. Chavez's father sometimes picked peas for 50# a day, half of which went to the contractor who drove the workers to the fields in the back of a flatbed truck. There was nothing else to do. By the next spring, the family had learned more of the harvest schedule, and it set off for the first of many years on the circuit familiar to every migrant worker in California. Starting in the Imperial and Coachella valleys of the south, through the state's bulging middle, the San Joaquin Valley, on up north of San Francisco and into the Napa Valley, they worked each crop in its turn: asparagus, grapes, beets, potatoes, beans, plums, apricots—anything that needed picking, hoeing, thinning, leafing, tipping, girdling, digging or pruning.

In 1941, the family moved to Delano, where Chavez met his future wife, Helen Fabela. At the movies with her one night, he had a jarring brush with discrimination. He refused to stay on the right side of the theater, which was reserved for Mexicans, and sat instead with the Anglos on the left. "The assistant manager came," Chavez recalls. "The girl who sold the popcorn came. And the girl with the tickets came. Then the manager came. They tried to pull me up, and I said, 'No, you have to break my arms before I get up.' " Chavez, then 16, was hustled off to the station house for a lecture from the chief of police, but he would not promise not to do the same thing again.

Like many other teen-age Mexican Americans, Chavez became a pachuco, affecting a zoot suit with pegged pants, a broad flat hat and a ducktail haircut. Some sociologists now see the pachuco movement as the first example of militant separatism among Chicanos, an assertion of a distinct identity hostile to Anglo culture. The Anglos took it that way, in any case, and reacted violently: during a series of riots in the Southwest during the summer of 1943, several thousand soldiers, sailors and Marines beat up hundreds of Chicano youths. Police promptly arrested some of the victims.

Because of his own experience of poverty and acquaintance with prejudice, Cesar Chavez has made la causa more than a labor movement. He is determined to better the lot of all Mexican Americans. There is much room for improvement. There have never been Jim Crow laws against them, like those against blacks, but overt discrimination undeniably exists. Chicanos still find it hard to get into the barbershops and public swimming pools of south Texas. Still, though the Chicano is set apart by language, assimilation is often easier for him than for the Negro. For this reason, and because most of the Chicano population lives in relative obscurity in the barrios or rural areas, the Mexican-American community has been slow to develop aggressive leadership.

Now, because they have seen that organized black action gets results, the Chicanos have begun to stir with a new militancy. They have formed the Brown Berets, modeled on the Black Panthers, and set up a $2,200,000 Mexican-American

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11