UFW goes back in history

Roberto Bustos organized the first Delano to Sacramento march in 1966.
Roberto Bustos organized the first Delano to Sacramento march in 1966.

Only on a day like last Saturday could singer Kris Kristofferson; Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of the Kennedy family; United Farm Workers’ leadership; and, various politicians be upstaged by the likes of Roberto Bustos, Wendy Goepel Brooks and John Armington.

That is because Bustos, Goepel Brooks and Armington played as important a role in the farmworker movement as did its founders: César E. Chávez, who died in 1993, and Dolores Huerta, who is still going strong at age 85.

As far as UFW President Arturo S. Rodríguez was concerned, having the pioneers have the spotlight on the 50th anniversary of the Delano grape strike was OK.

“We gather to honor the grape strikers who sparked that revolution five decades ago – plus the boycotters, the marchers and the full-time union staff who helped them achieve victory after five long years,” said Rodríguez to about 1,000 UFW supporters who gathered at historic Forty Acres just outside Delano last Saturday.

“By doing so, the strikers established the first enduring farmworkers’ union in American history.”

Bustos, Goepel Brooks and Armington were among those who helped the UFW.

Bustos, a Tulare resident, organized the 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento to draw attention to the farmworker movement.

“It was an honor for me to be named captain of the march,” said Bustos. “We marched 400 miles, and, I thought we were going to drive over there. When César made the announcement, we thought it would be a caravan.”

The march, said Bustos, was designed to put pressure on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to do something about the “treatment and abuses of farmworkers.”

Goepel Brooks, a “girl from New Jersey who wanted to go to California,” graduated from Stanford and worked at the state Department of Health and led the war against poverty when she joined the Chávez and the farmworkers in time to see the grape strike, which was begun by the Filipino farmworkers a week earlier.

“My family thought that I’d be in good hands,” laughed Goepel Brooks, who joined picket lines and supported the UFW through the years.

“It changed my life. We are different people. We are better people,” said Goepel Brooks.

Armington, an Orange County lawyer, was 12 when his father made the motion at a Filipino AWOC meeting to declare a strike against the Delano grape growers. His mother, Velma, headed the grape strike kitchen.

“People were worried on if they would have money to survive on and retire,” said Armington, who noted the workers were earning $1.20 an hour. The strike vote, he said, was unanimous.

Josefina Flores, 85, didn’t speak to the supporters, but she has been a fixture at UFW marches and rallies ever since she met Chávez near Selma. She was among the first farmworkers who was assigned to go to Chicago to promote the table grape strike.

For Flores, who always carries a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe to UFW events, the changes brought in by the union were massive. She was born in Calexico, and started working in the fields at the age of 8.

“There was no law against children working the fields then,” said Flores, who lives in Casa Velasco, a UFW retirement house in Delano. “We would go work in the fields with our parents.”

Huerta said the early strikers risked losing their homes.

“Some of the people who sacrificed lost their homes,” said Huerta, who received the loudest applause at the celebration when she walked on stage. At the time, Huerta said, UFW volunteers were paid $5 a week.

But this day must be about more than honoring the past. César said if the movement did not survive his passing, then his work - and the work of all those who sacrificed so much - would have been in vain.”

UFW President Arturo S. Rodríguez

Kennedy, who brought his son, Aiden, to the celebration, was mobbed for photos. So was Kristofferson, who was accompanied by his wife, Amy. Kennedy did address the attendees.

“My father had a fondness for the underdog,” said Kennedy about his father, the former U.S. Senator and Attorney General who visited Delano twice in the 1960s to investigate the treatment of farmworkers and later to build on his friendship with Chávez.

When RFK was told by Kern County Sheriff’s Deputies that farmworkers were being jailed “for their own protection,” Kennedy said his father responded, “The Constitution does not allow that. When you have lunch today, go out and read it.”

The friendship between RFK and Chávez was so strong, said Kennedy, that the politician broke the news that he was running for president to the farmworker leader.

“He hadn’t told his aides, his wife or anyone else,” said Kennedy, who credited the UFW and its supporters for helping “my father win the last election of his life.” RFK was assassinated on the evening of his victory in the California Democratic primary in June 1968.

Rodríguez, who succeeded Chávez as UFW president, praised the work of farmworker leaders who have pushed for UFW contracts throughout the state. He also pointed out the work being done by workers at Gerawan Farming in a case which seen ALRB rulings, court decisions and a recommendation by an administrative law judge that could determine if 5,000 workers become UFW members or not.

“All the sacrifices and the shining example of the veterans from ’65 made possible these and many other gains the farmworkers of today already enjoy, or are fighting to win,” said Rodríguez.

The Richard Chávez Memorial Park was commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque near the entrance of the co-op gas station that now houses historic photographs. Richard Chávez, César’s brother, helped design the iconic UFW eagle and was instrumental in purchasing and improving the Forty Acres complex.