The Diary of Joaquín Magón Entry 30: Living Unconquered
“César Chávez: An American Hero” opens in theaters today, bringing to the big screen the story of the beginning of the United Farm Workers.
The film will inspire dialogue – that can help or not help — the farm worker rights movement.
Discourse around farm workers by media, the general community, and even some farm worker advocates, often revolves around the idea of farm workers as victims. There is also a tendency to idolize farm workers.
If we want to change the conditions of farm workers and thereby live in a system where the food we consume comes at a fair price, we must start talking about farm workers in a realistic and humanistic manner.
Some farm workers are fighters who have walked out on strikes, risking their jobs and even deportation to continue their struggle. Some saw their co-workers strike and instead decided to stay and scab.
Like César Chávez said, “Some farm workers are bums, just like some growers are. It’s a mistake to begin by idolizing the workers because they’re the ‘down and outers.’ Most farm workers are just human; they live, like all of us, from day to day; they want happiness and they want to avoid confusion and pain.”
We can credit Chávez’s success in organizing to understanding that farm workers are regular human beings with the capacity to build a movement; they simply lacked the tools to do so. He did not see or talk to them as if they were victims.
“We don’t let people sit around a room crying about their problems,” Chávez also said. “No philosophizing – do something about it. In the beginning there was a lot of nonsense about the poor farm worker…in order to help farm workers, look at them as human beings and not as something extra special or else you are kidding yourself and are going to be mighty, mighty disappointed. Don’t pity them either. Treat them as human beings, because they have just as many faults as you have; that way you’ll never be in trouble, because you’ll never be disappointed.”
This applies whether you are organizing farm workers, participating in civic engagement, or donating to a cause. Do not pity them. We do no one any favors by treating them as if they do not have the strength and capacity to change their situations.
This is the Chávez that comes through in the film. The director, Diego Luna, followed those instructions clearly. And, as difficult as it may be when an issue is dear to us, we have to show what is real. The film portrays hope and workers fighting for their rights, making them instant heroes in our eyes. But the film does a good job at capturing the fear that comes when some don’t strike. The film captures the frustration of a long struggle. The film does not fall into this trap of impeccable good versus absolute evil.
I talked to a group of female farm workers who had attended the meetings to create change in their work place. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to change the situations — low wages, potential wage theft, discrimination for being indigenous, just to name a few. They lacked the space to participate in the dialogue that would engage them in change. They never had the tools to dismantle fears instilled long ago that this was their fate and that they should accept it. They began to dismantle once they discovered the space, walked into the space, engaged in dialogue, and had access to the tools.
So it is with all farm workers. If we had listened to their problems, said, “Oh poor you, here’s some money for your children,” then the cycle of poverty would not change.
Here are a few things we can do to change the way we talk and write about farm workers. We can discuss their problems and how they are working toward solutions. If we have a sad story about their conditions, show also how they are fighting to change them. Our photographs can show the struggle as opposed to the sadness.
One can join an organization that focuses on farm worker issues and actively participate, keeping in mind that we are guests in their space and that we must understand what their issues are — which means actively listening.
It’s a simple set of steps that can be transferred to any person in any situation because the reality is that people don’t want to be pitied, they want to live with the dignity they deserve.
The Diary of Joaquín Magón is written by Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix, a reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers Foundation. He is a regular contributor to Coachella Unincorporated and New America Media.