Annual dinner celebrates life, work of Cesar Chavez

Published on Thu, Apr 3, 2008 by Amanda SanchezBlaine H.S. Senior

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Annual dinner celebrates life, work of Cesar Chavez

By Amanda Sanchez
Blaine H.S. Senior

On Sunday, March 30,the 2nd annual dinner honoring Cesar Chavez’s life and work was held at St. Luke’s Community Health Education Center in Bellingham.

Chavez founded United Farm Workers (UFW), led several strikes for workers rights, boycotted and protested the use of toxic pesticides, won the Pacem in Terris award, which has been given once a year since 1964 and honors work towards peace, justice amd charity. He has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times by the American Friends Service Committee. Chavez has been honored with a postage stamp by the U.S. Postal Service, and his birthday, March 31, is celebrated as a holiday in eight states.

The dinner was hosted by Community 2 Community, a women-led, grassroots organization committed to movements towards social, economic and environmental justice. The group has several different divisions which focus on separate areas from human and civil rights, to women’s strength and equality, to potato gleaning, which is the salvaging of excess crops after a harvest. The organization was founded five years ago and has since wanted to provide a voice for the under-represented population and educate the community about culture, land and food.

Roughly 200 people attended the event and $3,000 was raised. The proceeds will go to a youth group called De Colores. The group consists of two parts, elementary school-aged children who play classical guitar, and high school girls who put a documentary together about peer pressure. The teens are planning on making another documentary soon with a topic of equal importance to peer pressure, such as teen pregnancy, workers rights, or immigration. All the expenses are covered for the youths in De Colores through donations to Community 2 Community.

The guitars are bought for them, the video editing is done at the Community 2 Community office and transportation is also taken care of. These are all provided because the members of De Colores are from hard-working, busy families that don’t necessarily have the needed income to put their children into extra-curricular activities. But “we don’t just hand everything to them and expect nothing back,” said Rosalinda Guillen, the executive director of Community 2 Community. “That’s why they are all here tonight,” and that’s why the teens will be mentoring middle schoolers on how to make and edit videos.

At the dinner, which cost $20 a person, organic beans, rice, and chile relleno were served along with rice pudding and guests had the option of drinking horchatas or water. De Colores played songs on their guitars, La Bamba being one, and the high school girls presented their peer pressure documentary. Everything left over from the dinner went to compost including table scraps, plates and the eating utensils which were made from biodegradeable cornstarch.

The dinner ended in passing around a petition to make Cesar Chavez’s birthday a national holiday.

Who are migrant workers?

A migrant farm worker is either foreign- or domestic-born, changes jobs at least every 150 days and lives somewhere other than his or her permanent residence during that time, said Alice C. Larson, who conducted a migrant enumeration study for the Washington State Migrant Health program in 2000.

According to the study, 289,235 migrant seasonal farm workers are employed in Washington – 11,362 in Skagit and Whatcom counties. Approximately 81 percent of farm workers nationwide were foreign-born, and of these, 95 percent were born in Mexico, according to a 1999 National Agricultural Workers Survey by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Labor from these workers translates into more than $200 million in annual contributions to the local economy in the form of vegetables, seeds, berries, potatoes, bulbs and flowers in Skagit County alone, according to a 2000 Cost of Community Services study by the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Not just for immigrants

Guillen said the organization was started in an effort to turn the public eye toward everyday work and living conditions of migrant and second- and third-generation farm workers.

Farm workers undergo exposure to a wide variety of potentially toxic substances, such as fertilizers and pesticides, and subsequently are more at risk for developing certain types of cancers, such as brain, prostate and skin cancer, according to a 1997 study by the United Farm Workers of America. Workers also are more at risk for illnesses such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukemia and tuberculosis. Limited access to health care and farm-worker housing, which often is substandard, nonexistent, overcrowded or lacking proper sanitation utilities, exacerbates the problem.

In addition, nearly three-quarters of migrant workers earn less than $10,000 a year with an average hourly wage of $5.94, according to a 1999 National Agricultural Workers Survey by the U.S. Department of Labor. While federal minimum-wage laws apply, state and federal laws exempt employers from providing migrant seasonal farm workers with worker protections such as a day of rest, overtime pay, workers compensation and unemployment.

Guillen said migrant workers also experience frequent discrimination and hostility from members of the communities where they live and work.

Why are they coming?

Western Washington University American Cultural studies professor Larry Estrada said the pattern of immigration into the United States is changing. He said fewer people are coming from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and more are coming from central areas in Mexico as well as Central American countries.

Estrada said this creates a particularly difficult language barrier as even Spanish-speaking people often are unable to communicate with people from those areas.

“Many of these new migrant workers are from indigenous backgrounds and tend to speak their own indigenous languages rather than Spanish or English,” he said. "It is not uncommon to hear the languages of Purpecha, Zapoteco and Mixteco spoken in the streets of Burlington, Mount Vernon and Lynden."

Estrada said workers who come from these areas often are subsistence farmers who have been displaced or forced to leave their native lands as large international companies increase their cash-crop production.

Cash crops are monocultures, grown in large-scale quantities for export, usually to the United States. Many of these crops, such as avocados from Michoacan, Mexico, have devastating impacts on local ecosystems, he said. For example, avocados use a tremendous amount of water, which leaves little for the production of other subsistence crops.

“They are literally sucking the water out of the lakes,” he said. “The impacts are incredible. Where once you had completely sustainable communities ... people are now relegated to working for large agriproduction concerns for less-than-subsistence wages.”

Estrada said the situation is exacerbated because most of these crops are exported, and the revenues go directly to a corporation in another country, so no resources are returned to the local economy. “We have to understand this notion of free trade is causing a lot of economic and social disruption,” he said. “When we ask, ‘Why are these people coming?,’ we have to understand we’re helping to create the economic and environmental conditions that force them to seek work here.”

Community 2 Community’s next project is “Viva La Campesina,” at WWU on April 4th. It is a presentation about the farm workers movement starting with Cesar Chavez founding the UFW. To learn more about this event call 360/650-3827

To find out more about Community 2 Community go to foodjustice.org or call 360/756-2330.

Tara Nelson contributed to this story.