Before labor organizers Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong led the Delano grape strike in 1965, every farmworkers union had been crushed, every strike had been broken and every struggle for collective bargaining rights had been stopped, said United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez. The late UFW organizer Joe Serna Jr. – mayor of Sacramento from 1993 to 1999 – played a big role in helping turn that around.
His son, Phil Serna, was among the hundreds in Delano on Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the strike and grape boycott that transformed American labor and grass-roots politics. One of the hundreds of Latino elected officials inspired by the movement, Serna, 47, is chairman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. He remembers his dad hosting Chavez in the family’s Curtis Park living room.
Today, roughly 400,000 farmworkers toil in California, some barely making minimum wage but others, such as unionized mushroom workers in the San Jose area, making $40,000 a year plus paid holidays and vacations and medical, dental and vision benefits. State laws now also require fresh water and toilets in the fields and ban the dreaded short-handled hoe, which condemned farmworkers to hours of stoop labor.
Q: Your dad became Sacramento’s first Latino mayor. How did he teach you about the UFW?
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A: One of my earliest memories, when I was about 5, was on my father’s shoulders and we were picketing the Safeway then at Sutterville and Franklin. I learned it’s not enough to sit on the sidelines and let government happen to you.
I would go to my friends’ houses, see grapes, and explain to their parents why we didn’t have grapes at our house because of the way those who picked them were treated. That strike and boycott were the genesis of not just my father’s political activism but my appreciation for social change and equity.
Saturday was very special for me, having the opportunity to meet Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and speak to him about why the strike and boycott were so profound to my entire family. The most poignant part of it was I’d seen a picture of his father, Robert F. Kennedy, going to Cesar Chavez’s home where he was on a hunger strike and feeding him.
I did meet Cesar when I was very young, he came over to talk to my parents about organizing. His presence was very kind, very soft, very approachable. Sacramento has honored him with a holiday on his birthday, March 31. It will not just be a day off, but a day of service.
Q: Why was this strike and boycott so personal?
A: My father showed me the small shack with dirt floors where he and his family lived in Acampo, San Joaquin County, where they picked tomatoes, lettuce, grapes and peaches, moving from farm to farm. He told me they’d been crop dusted with herbicides.
Before the movement, many Latinos felt stuck at the bottom. There was a quiet frustration that somehow they would always be second-class citizens.
When the movement actually effected change, improved working conditions and got farmworkers contracts, for my father and so many others, for the first time in their lives they felt a deep sense of pride in who they were, that they didn’t have to accept what the bigots and racists of the times told them. For the first time, they could see themselves through their ability to effect social change if it’s done right.
You saw the birth of Chicano art forms, such as the Royal Chicano Air Force (artist collective) and the late Jose Montoya, who used painting, poetry and music to tell the farmworkers’ story. That’s why you have the activism you see today.