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The Last Time I Saw Csar

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Omaha Steve Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Apr-23-08 08:02 PM
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By Richard Steven Street

Mr. Street is the author of Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850 to the Present (forthcoming in September 2008 by the University of Minnesota Press). In the third volume of his multi-volume, comprehensive history of California farmworkers, Mr. Street abandons the third person, draws on decades of scholarship, and provides a vivid, eye-witness account, in words in pictures, of a pivotal event in the history of the farm labor movement. This article is excerpted from the book. Photographs by Richard Steven Street. Courtesy of Street Shots.

Csar Chvez died on April 23, 1993. He was alone, book in hand, resting in a house near his childhood adobe outside of San Luis, Arizona. Most of us who knew him believe that he was worn-out by his many death-defying fasts and non-stop schedule. Two days on the witness stand at the end of a long, drawn-out legal battle with Salinas Valley lettuce grower Bruce Church Co. may have pushed him too far.

When Chvez died, his hopes, dreams, and aspirations did not die with him. These continue in the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), and among campesinos and campesinas, and thousands of supporters inside and outside of agriculture, in California, in Mexico, and across the United States. So great was the shock and genuine outpouring of grief that his funeral six days later became the greatest media event in UFW and farmworker history. Every photographer who had ever covered the union, and many more who had not, packed into Delano, California the day before the funeral.

The sun was topping the Sierra Nevada when I arrived at Forty Acres. For several hours I kept busy watching people assemble along the two-lane highway that would convey the funeral procession across town. Grammar school children stood outside their classrooms, waiting with their teachers and displaying long paper banners with messages written in crayon. Families spread blankets in the grass and opened umbrellas. Vans arrived, disgorged originales field hands who had participated in strikes, and boycotts. Police cars patrolled the parks. Traffic cops kept busy on the side streets. Airplanes circled. News helicopters hovered. Satellite trucks with their generators making a disrespectful racket packed a dusty parking lot. With all of their antennas extended and pointed skyward, they formed a kind of surreal media encampment ready to beam the event worldwide.

I tuned my Sony Walkman to Radio Bilingue. Samuel Orozco was covering the event. Listening to him alternating between English and Spanish, I sensed a kind of Chicano version of Edward R. Murrow. Orozco was pouring his soul into a broadcast. His deep and distinctive voice transported me back six years, to a peach orchard near Del Rey, where we had walked past rent-a-cops to interview striking workers. Every so often his voice would crack with emotion and he would have to pause and gather himself.

Around mid-morning, I spotted glowing spots of color on the horizon several miles to the east. Looking through my 300 millimeter telephoto lens, I watched the spots of color grow into union banners and flags waiving, filling, and inflating in the light breeze. Over the next fifteen minutes, the sea of banners and flags grew into a procession filling several miles of the east-west highway.

FULL story at link.

At my local meeting I informed the membership it was my proposal for negotiations that start in a few weeks to ask for Csar's birthday as a holiday. I followed the AFL-CIO lead.

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