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Looking for union's future

Vida En El Valle

(Published Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 11:59AM)

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First of a 7-part series.

The question keeps getting asked.

When growers signed contracts with the Teamsters in 1973 -- thereby shutting out the United Farm Workers from extending their 3-year contracts -- the union's obituary was written.

When its charismatic founder died in 1993, the UFW's obituary was written again.

Every time a Republican governor was elected and selected his own appointees to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the death knell was sounded.

Fifty years after the farmworker union was built by César Estrada Chávez and Dolores Huerta in Delano, the question keeps coming up.

Sure, the UFW remains a functioning organization, and, California -- along with Texas, Arizona and Colorado -- celebrates Chávez's birthday as a state holiday. However, veteran supporters like Venancio Gaona won't be around forever.

So, where will be the future support for el movimiento come from?

"If you stop organizing you die, simple as that," said Armando Elenes, UFW national vice president. "The older folks keep talking to the youth about the issues farmworkers are facing, which are still the same ones from years ago."

Elenes, who is based in Delano, travels throughout the country and see "an explosion of youth organizers willing to help.

"With social media, we are reaching to younger generations and keep them interested, involved and engaged in the movement," said Elenes during a Chávez celebration in Modesto last week.

"This next generation, they're going to be powerful because of their knowledge, skills, and their ability to do things like utilize technology for social justice; for bringing about respect and dignity for farmworkers. It's going to be exciting to see," said UFW president Arturo Rodríguez at a Chávez celebration in Visalia last Saturday. "We're going through a different period: Demographics are changing dramatically here in the United States. The schools are going to be forced to really make changes and teach about our people, and the heroes we have in our community, whether it's César Chávez or Dolores Huerta. There's been so many others that have walked before us; the five martyrs of the farmworker movement."

Gaona -- who was instrumental in starting annual Chávez celebrations organized in the Fresno Unified School District -- comes from a family of farmworkers. His father, Jesús, immigrated to the U.S. from México, as did all of his uncles except one, to work in the fields.

Gaona, who grew up in Bakersfield, picked grapes, cotton and decidious fruits during the summer in Kern and Tulare counties. When he was 17, he landed a job at a grocery store.

"I used to go play baseball in the summer on weekends to Delano. By 1959, I was married. It (movement) made the news, and I followed it closely," recalls Gaona, a former Spanish instructor at Fresno City College who recently retired as chairman of El Concilio de Fresno.

Gaona heard about the grape pickers' strike on television.

"By 1966, I started to help out the best I could. When the grape strike began, one of the things that I did, there was a taller gráfico (graphic workshop), this was the way that the union raised money by selling pins, wrist watch bands, earrings, and other items, regalia that had the emblem of the union," said Gaona.

Gaona quickly sold $1,000 worth of UFW mementos, with most of them bought by students. That interest no longer exists, he said.

Gaona's support of the UFW did not begin with him. His father was present at early UFW meetings.

"When they first started forming, they had a convention here in Fresno in a local theater on G Street. The theater no longer exists. That's where Ricardo Chávez introduced his concept of the eagle and union flag, and my father was present there," said Gaona.

Ganoa was president of El Concilio de Fresno when he officially welcomed supporters to the 1973 UFW Convention in Fresno.

The union will thrive, Gaona believes, using 21st century technology.

"There's going to be some radical changes, and we have to wait for them, but we should be prepared. And we should take advantage of the changes in agri-business system, and how we can survive within these changes," he said.

Magdalena Gómez is a 1993 graduate of Selma High School and the daughter of UFW pioneer Humberto Gómez, who joined Chávez, Huerta and Gilbert Padilla in the early days of union.

The entire family was born into the movement.

We were part of the union brats, the huelga kids," said Magdalena. "It was a joke between all the families. At the time, you're so little, you don't understand, you're living things on a daily basis, going to marches."

Padilla said his first five children did not graduate from high school because they were traveling and doing union work. All of them returned for their GED, then attended college.

"It was never talked about: A day to celebrate César Chávez, a stamp," said Gómez. "It's gone far beyond that. I'm proud of my roots. I'm proud of everybody who helped me become who I am."

Gómez, who gradauted from Minnesota's Carlton College, learned about investments and worked for one of the largest investment firms in the world.

Recently, she returned to union work, as a community liaison for Labor's International Union, where her father is a top-ranking official.

Her older brother Humberto, Jr. just finished medical school and is searching for residency at a hospital. Her sister María de Jesús works at Radio Bilingüe.

"These are the ironic influences that we've had," said Gómez.

These days "what happens across the world, you get to know the news right away. It's global, the text messages, students are very important because, in the past, we only used radio and TV. Now millions of people get together through the Internet."

That social network, she said, will keep the UFW alive.

The UFW has an active website and reaches out to supporters through Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.

Padilla is Magdalena's godfather. His children also grew up in the union.

'I started in 1962, in late April," said Padilla. "Your kids and the field work: You don't send them there now because you have no future there. My satisfaction to the whole thing is that the workers are doing better."

"People like Magdalena understand everything about it because she was involved," said Padilla, "but a lot of them stayed and they educated their kids."

Gómez said her family lives the UFW legacy.

"We kind of live it everyday; we take all those teachings, all those lessons learned," said Gómez, who is also a board member of the organizing committee of the May 1 marches in Los Ángeles.

Bianca Jiménez, a Fresno High School senior, has never worked in the fields, but she considers herself a UFW supporter.

She said there is no class or instruction that focuses on Chávez, the other union pioneers, or the history of the movement. But, she knows about the union through her father, Miguel Jiménez, a UFW supporter.

"If this movement didn't start, our parents would still be struggling in the fields," said Jiménez, 18.

"I've seen marches, speeches on the Internet. My father said it was very hard, and that we're lucky that we have the education that we have now. And to pursue our education so that we don't have to struggle like he did," said Jiménez.

Many of today's UFW supporters are second- and third-generation children of farmworkers. Their knowledge of the UFW comes from textbooks, or from recollections of their parents or grandparents.

Lupe Martínez, a former UFW official, said it takes more than reading a book to understand the movement.

"Books can give you a lot of history to understand what took place," said Martínez. "You need to know where you come from; you need to know where it's at.

"Can you get everything from the books? No. It will give you the information, it will give you everything else, but in order to experience (it), you need to get out there and do it. Read the books, and take action."

He also sees a future wave of supporters.

"People would like to think the new generation is probably born, both tech-savvy more able to use the tools that we didn't have, or that my mom had, when she was out there."

"I'd like to think that now, because we have more tools, it should make it better and hopefully easier to help organize the communities and the campesinos," said Martínez.

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Managing editor Olivia Ruiz contributed to this report.

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