A Jewel in the Heart of the Fields

While many in this nation might have the mind to start a movement, few have the heart actually to do it. One reason for this is that our culture has been slow to "mine the movement for human treasures," as historian Vincent Harding once wrote. Often we prefer to perceive movements as mindless collectives charging around the countryside with banners and pitchforks rather than focus on the beautiful collection of human jewels that come together to make up movements. By honoring the heart and soul required to participate in struggles for social justice, we will perhaps remember that movements require the fullness of our humanity, not just political theories and organizing strategies.

The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle, a PBS documentary produced, written, and directed by Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles, uncovers the human treasures contained in the history of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). The Fight in the Fields documents the plight of farmworkers in this country and the efforts to organize them by focusing on the heart of the movement, César Chávez, who died in 1993.

In the 1960s, the UFW negotiated the first successful labor contracts for farmworkers in California by using traditional strike and picket tactics in the fields, together with public education and consumer boycotts at supermarkets throughout North America. The unrelenting work of Chávez, Delores Huerta, and the many other UFW activists improved the working conditions for those who put food on America’s tables by requiring such "conveniences" as toilets and drinking water in the fields, amenities now taken for granted. They also won fair labor practices and the right to unionize for workers who were accustomed to the draconian conditions portrayed in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

THE FIGHT IN the Fields shows that César Chávez isn’t a hero just for Latinos, and that the movement he inspired went far beyond the boundaries of race, class, or creed. The humble spirit, personal sacrifice, and sincere poverty of Chávez touched millions of people, from migrant farmworkers to suburban housewives to powerful politicians. Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s intimacy with Chávez and the movement is especially striking now, at a time when many politicians of both parties have abandoned the poor and make their careers by villainizing immigrants. Another politician, Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California at the start of UFW’s grape boycott, also makes a poignant appearance in The Fight in the Fields—munching on grapes and saying that, as far as he was concerned, there was no boycott.

The documentary makes it clear that the farmworker movement isn’t something that took place exclusively among Chicanos. In fact, the UFW got caught up in the labor strife by supporting striking Filipino grape workers. Chávez’s la causa brought together white farmers from Oklahoma and Arkansas, who had lost their land during the Depression; African-American workers from the South, who joined in the ongoing struggle for civil rights; and Chinese Americans, who had experienced a long history of oppression in California.

A funeral procession for an Arab farmworker who was murdered on the picket line is one of the most moving parts of the documentary. There, surrounded by grapevines and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the farmworkers said goodbye to their brother with an Islamic cry of mourning.

As much as The Fight in the Fields honors the life of César Chávez, it isn’t pure hagiography. The documentary makes clear that César and the UFW made mistakes that almost brought the union down in the 1980s, a difficult time for all organized labor. Also included are some backhanded critiques by UFW organizers, blaming themselves for letting César take absolute control of the union. While The Fight in the Fields does a great job of looking at the past, unfortunately it doesn’t include the current revival of the UFW under Arturo Rodriguez and its organizing of California’s strawberry workers, which has made it the fastest growing union in the United States.

Originally shown on April 16 in most PBS markets, interested viewers should check local listings for rebroadcasts of The Fight in the Fields, or call the Independent Television Service, 1-800-903-7804, for more information on how to obtain the video. Because The Fight in the Fields shows how the church became a catalyst in the farmworker movement, it is an excellent resource for faith-based organizers who want to start a discussion about movements of justice for the poor in their communities.

The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle. Directed by Rick Tejade-Flores and Ray Telles. Independent Television Services, 1997.

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