State Fair

State Fair exhibit honors California’s farmworker movement

Fairgoers stop to look at the United Farm Workers exhibit at the California State Fair on Friday, July 14, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.
Fairgoers stop to look at the United Farm Workers exhibit at the California State Fair on Friday, July 14, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.

California’s 400,000 farm laborers are being celebrated in an educational exhibit at this year’s State Fair, running through July 30.

The exhibit, in Building A at Cal Expo, focuses on the past, the present and the future of the farm labor movement, which had its roots in the 1960s.

Photographs, videos and narratives tell that story, along with displays of field tools and other memorabilia, including artifacts from Cesar Chavez and other leaders of the United Farm Workers union.

The UFW was founded in 1966 in California by Chavez, Larry Itliong and Dolores Huerta. Chavez and Huerta had already founded a workers’ rights organization for Latinos while Itliong had pioneered the Filipino farmworker movement.

The three merged their groups to create a union after the Latino organization chose to support a Filipino grape strike in the town of Delano in 1965. The UFW now operates in 10 states and works for higher pay, benefits and improved working conditions and lobbies on immigration issues.

Farmworkers have played a critical role in the development of one of the state’s largest industries, said Rick Pickering, chief executive of the California State Fair. As he put it, most of our food has been in other people’s hands before we put it in our mouths. And, most of the time, these other people are farmworkers.

Additionally, Pickering said the “diversity of our agriculture is tied to the diversity of our people,” including farmworkers who have been instrumental in introducing new crops such as rice to the state.

Pickering and Tom Martinez, the fair’s chief deputy general manager, approached the UFW with the idea for an exhibit focused on farmworkers. Marc Grossman, spokesman for UFW and communications director for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, said the union was eager to participate.

Adrian Perez, chief executive of Sacramento’s Pop-9 Communications, called the exhibit “long overdue and extremely exciting.” A social activist within Sacramento’s Latino community, Perez was the child of farm laborers and was working the fields at age 10.

While picking grapes, he said he witnessed troubling working conditions including long hours in unbearable temperatures, injuries and dangerous bug bites. Although Perez decided not to become a farm laborer, he said he has dedicated his life to improving conditions for Latinos in and out of the farmworker community.

Like Grossman, Perez said he sees the exhibit as an opportunity to educate people about the importance of agriculture and the individuals behind it.

Paul Chavez, one of Cesar Chavez’s sons, was scheduled to speak at the fair Sunday afternoon and in prepared remarks said his father would be pleased with the exhibit’s educational aspects, having once stated that “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read.”

Pickering said he hopes to fulfill Chavez’s vision by encouraging other state fairs to honor farmworkers as well.

Last year, each visitor spent about $14 on food and beverages.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee