When the United Farm Workers National Executive Board unanimously voted last summer to replace Arturo Rodríguez as UFW president with Teresa Romero, the first Latina and first immigrant woman to become the president of the U.S. national union many could have wondered what would be the future of the UFW under the new leadership.
After all, Rodríguez, son-in-law of Cesar Chávez, stepped down as UFW president on Dec. 20, 2018, after 45 years with the UFW, the last 25 leading the union, fighting for farmworkers not only in California but nationwide and helping it survive and make meaningful progress for farm workers following Chávez’s death in 1993.
It would be the first time the UFW was not led by someone in the Chávez family.
“I think it’s good, you know. It’s not a family front business. It’s an organization of people that are committed to helping folks,” said Paul Chávez, who spoke about his father Cesar’s legacy on March 19 at Clovis Community College Forum Hall as part of the college’s celebration honoring the life of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century whose day is celebrated on his birthday, March 31. “In our case it just happened when my dad started, no había mucho equipo, so we were the ones who helped him. We worked.”
As a young boy in the early 1960s, Paul Chávez joined his seven brothers and sisters on weekends in Central Valley farm towns, handing out leaflets and helping his father, Cesar Chávez, organize the union that would become the United Farm Workers of America. Paul and his family endured the hardships and sacrifices of the five-year long Delano grape strike and boycott, and the struggles that followed.
“Arturo had the privilege of working with my dad nearly 25 years before he passed away, I worked with my dad 24 years before he passed away. And so I was talking early about some of the lessons learn and so you know we are beneficiary of that,” said Paul Chávez, who since 1991 has led the Cesar Chávez Foundation, also founded in the 1960s.
“But I understand that the future of the organization is going to be based on people that never knew him or are related to him, but that subscribe to his principles and that’s the future,” said Paul Chávez.
As the new UFW president, Romero made history for being not only the first woman, but an immigrant woman proud of her U.S. citizenship and Mexican and Zapotecan heritage leading the national union.
“You know in the history of the movement, we always had strong women leading. Dolores Huerta, right no push over, a tough woman, people like my mother and Jessie de la Cruz from here in Fresno,” said Paul Chávez. “So women always played an important role and I think that is a good decision by the UFW executive board to pick Teresa. She is the person, es la indicada que, to take us to the next level.”
“Teresa Romero has a big job. When my dad passed away I felt that already had the tougher job in the world, but now I can see that Teresa is facing the same challenges,” he said. “The future, I don’t know what the future of the UFW is going to be other than I do know is that Teresa is going to create her own leadership.”
“She is going to have to take a look at things that are happening today and develop programs that, not honor the past, but more importantly attack the injustices that we face today,” said Paul Chávez, adding that “I worked with Teresa and she is a strong woman and I believe she’ll do that.”
Paul Chávez said that one of the things that he always reminded people in the UFW, even though he hasn’t work in the UFW for many years, “I told them, you know that my father was an inspiration to them; they shouldn’t take his work literally.”
“The mission remains the same, las tácticas tienen que cambiar; they need to change so I am confident that she has the strength and the wisdom to change those tactics to address the needs today,” Paul Chávez said. “But more importantly, to stay committed to the founding and ideales del movimiento.”
Paul Chávez said that one of the things his father realized many years ago when they passed the California Agriculture Labor Relations Act (of 1975) was that “he felt that, from a strategic point of view, we made a mistake.”
Paul Chávez explained that his father had invested time leading the boycott with the American public.
“They would boycott and will support us and we trade it that for this legislative or legal system where there will be elections and we did it in good faith,” Paul Chávez said. “Well after we did that and we dismantled the boycott then we quickly realized that growers knew how to exploit the system and how they can delay justice. You could have an election today and they would file appeals, and appeals, and appeals and maybe in six or seven years we get a victory but by then workers were gone or demoralized.”
“And so what happened he realized that what we gave up a lot of strength,” Paul Chávez said of his father. “So the Agriculture Labor Relations Act is there and sure should be use but I think we all recognize that the future of the UFW is not based on that. It’s a tool to be use but its only one of many tools.”
“The idea of having a strong legislative presence is important, so you can have bigger (presence), you can help big numbers of people doing that,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of the Act, it’s going to be legislation but also it’s going to be multinational work. I think those kinds of combinations that would make up a lasting impact on workers lives.”