Roberto ‘El Capitán’ Bustos, the youngest of 14 children – 8 boys, 4 girls – was 12 years old when he started working in the fields of Arizona picking cotton, grapes, tomatoes and other crops alongside his family.
That helped set the stage for what would be a 10-year career with the United Farm Workers, highlighted in 1966 when he was handpicked by union founder César E. Chávez to organize a historic, 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to bring attention to the plight of farmworkers.
Bustos, now 75, spent 10 years with the UFW, but the 1965-75 time period with the union has come to define his life.
“My dad worked in the fields all his life,” said Bustos, who dropped out his sophomore year from Eloy Union High School to work in the fields. His father was a surgero, an assistant to the foreman.
“Like most of us, I had to leave school to go to work,” he said. “I had to live with my brothers once in a while too because we couldn’t do it in our home.”
He worked for $5 a week, the standard pay by the union. He was arrested five times while picketing or trying to organize workers.
“Even when I went to jail, I still had my $5 waiting for me,” he said.
Bustos, who lives in Tulare, retired from the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency after 26 years in 2007
Only four of the children are still alive today. Bustos has five children and 11 grandchildren. He met his second wife, Alicia, when he volunteered for the union. They have been married 52 years.
1. What do you remember about the first time you worked in the fields? What did you pick?
“Well, it was cotton. We used to go after school out there and they would let us do something to get some money to go to the movie, buy some popcorn. At age 10, 12 we were out there picking papas also.”
2. Growing up, did you ever think of what career would be best for you?
“I took classes to get into the health field. I trained back then for the orderlies, something like nurses aide. I took a course at Ventura College under a Department of Labor grant that was around in those times. I passed and became an orderly back in 1962, 63. Then went back into the fields again.”
3. What was your first impression of César E. Chávez when you met him?
“I was a little bit surprised when I saw him directly in front of me. I was expecting someone bigger, an hombre bigotón, mustache, hat and all that. When I first met him, he was a short guy, chubby guy. There were 60-70 of us. My brother told me, ‘Let’s go see this guy yelling huelga, huegla.’ But then he started talking and talking and talking. He’s talking about my dad. He knows what he’s talking about: Work and wages and treatment. He’s talking about my brothers and sisters. That was my first impression in Earlimart.”
4. What was your first impression of Dolores Huerta when you met her?
“There were so many people going in and out during our time there. I met here about three days later. She was working in the office, like a secretary. At that time, she was not that really involved. It was not until she went out in the fields. I found out later about her and who she was. She is a great lady. I call her now the Jefa (The Boss).”
5. What are your memories of the 1966 march to Sacramento?
“It was convincing the people that we had to walk. César came one night into the organizers’ meeting. He said ‘Guys, what do you think we march to Sacramento? People are not picking grapes, they’re striking. Let’s see what the governor can do. We’re having problems with the police. The growers are not answering our letters.’
“Fifteen of us organizers would meet at night to talk about what happened during the day, then plan for the next day. So when he said that, we said, ‘Hell yeah, we’ll go.’ We figured we’d do a caravan to Sacramento. It would be a 3 hour or 3½-hour drive. We’d get there at noon and then come back. That’s when we heard the bad news. César said he was talking about walking. We thought this guy was crazy. No farmworkers had walked to the state Capitol. ‘Think about it,’ he said.
“There were meetings and more meetings. We said, ‘Yes, let’s go.’
“He gave us all tasks. I would be in charge of the march. I asked him to get somebody else. ‘Roberto, people listen to you,’ he said. I kept thinking about it and accepted. We talked about going up Highway 99 and going on the frontage road. ‘No, we are not going that route. We are going on the back roads. We will march in other farmworker communities to tell people why we’re doing this and to join us. And, tell them not to break the strike,’ he said.
“We hit 53 towns. Every night, we’d have a rally and explain why we were marching. I remember we had to spend two nights in Madera. We marched to Chowchilla, but we had no place to sleep there. We were bussed back to Madera, then bussed back to Chowchilla the next day.
“We crossed the freeway three times. In Fresno, we crossed it to go to Firebaugh and Mendota. In Madera, we crossed back to get to Merced and Planada. We crossed again to go to Lodi and get into West Sacramento.
“We only took clothes and our necessities. We had sleeping bags in case we didn’t have a place to sleep. Sometimes the church would lend us a hall, or a union would allow us in their halls. Some marchers had a family take them in and given a bed or couch to sleep on. When they would pack the person a lunch, they’d ask them to pack two lunches: One for that person, and one for another.
“In Porterville, a shoe company from L.A. donated 100 pairs of boots to the marchers. That was great and helped a lot. I was marching in regular, everyday shoes. The boots was like stepping on clouds. No more blisters.”
6. You left the United Farm Workers after 10 years? How did you reach that decision?
“I finished my assignment, my duty. I said we won the union contract, so it was time to work. I lost my car in the union because I couldn’t make the payments. I had a 1960 Ford Fairlane that I brought with me from Salinas. In 1975, there were other things for me to do. I had three kids with me. I had to work.
“Any employment I found was related to farm work. For example, in Bakersfield I worked for the Department of Labor’s farmworker training programs. I’m still marching every year in Visalia; I’m still helping people if they have problems with discrimination, wages or anything.
“I’m president of the Democratic Club in Tulare. We have another program called Tulare County Revisited where go go back in time to find out what happened many years ago. I want to continue until I die.”
7. What did you like or not like about the 2014 movie ‘César Chávez’ made by Diego Luna?
“There were a lot of things that were left out. It should have been more coverage. There were more issues going on. But, I know it was about César. Still, there should there should have been the background of the other people who were out there fighting every day. I think we were kind of left out. Also, how could you put 50 years of history out there when you only have a 1½-hour movie?”
8. There has been a lot of theories about the reason for the decline of the UFW membership. What has happened?
“We knew about the ARLB at first was very good, very strong. New Republican governors came in and replaced and changed some of the members. The new ones didn’t care so much for what we were doing. It weakened the ALRB. Farmworkers know they need union representation, but there are a lot of new workers coming in and they don’t know what happened in 1965.
“They don’t know who César Chávez or Dolores Huerta were. We’ll tell the workers, ‘You don’t have to do what we did. We had to go out on strike. We had to leave our jobs and our paychecks. All you have to do is sign that (union organization) card, give us 51 percent vote and that’s all you gotta do. We’ll petition the state and by law they have to come out there and conduct elections.’ Even so, they are still intimidated.”
9. Where were you when you first heard about Chávez’s death?
“It happened the same way that when I heard that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was driving when JFK was killed in Texas. I was driving from Salinas to Gonzales to a store. I stopped the car when I heard the news.
“Same thing with Chávez in 1993. I was in Visalia coming through the back roads. I stopped and listened. I could not believe it. I called people to find out.
“César would tell us every day on the picket line or in the fields that, ‘If something happens to me, don’t stop. Keep on.’ We even thought he’d be around for many years still. His dad was 95, his mom 94 (when they died). So, we thought he was going to be around for a long time. It’s a shock that he died too young.”
10. If you could change any one thing about your work with the UFW and Chávez, what would it be?
“I would like to go back. I would like to be 100 percent working with him again. Knowing what I know now, I would have knowledge and more experience in doing things differently than I did.”