UFW's Gilbert Padilla recalls battles, boycotts of Cesar Chavez era

Black-and-white photos cover the dining room table in Gilbert Padilla’s Fresno home. Among the many faces staring out from the images captured 30 and 40 years ago is that of Cesar Chavez.

From 1955-1981, Padilla and the much-honored Latino American activist fought shoulder-to-shoulder for basic rights for local farmworkers. A small part of their work – the 1960s boycott of table grapes waged by the farmworkers union – is the focus of a feature film, “Cesar Chavez,” which opens Friday in 100 cities including Fresno.

The movie stars Michael Peña as Chavez; America Ferrara as Chavez’s wife, Helen; and Yancy Arias in the role of Padilla, who eventually served as the secretary-treasurer for the labor organization.

In connection with the movie opening in theaters, special screenings are planned throughout the state, including one at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Edwards Stadium 22 in Fresno. It will be followed at 7 p.m. with a fundraising cocktail reception at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, 7844 North Blackstone Ave. in Fresno. Guests will include United Farm Workers Foundation board member Tanis Ybarra, plus members of the United Farm Workers Association and the Chavez family.

“Cesar Chavez” director Diego Luna became interested in Chavez after expanding his film production company from Mexico to Los Angeles. He was looking for a project that would be a “bridge between Latin America and the Latino experience in the United States.” When he started seeing roads and buildings named for Chavez, Luna became intrigued and was surprised that a major motion picture hadn’t already been made.

Padilla’s not surprised it took so many years to take this story from fields to film.

“We were approached about doing movies before, but Cesar never wanted one to be made because he thought it would be a distraction,” Padilla, 86, says. “I know this will be a Hollywood story that looks more at Cesar and his family than the overall movement.”

Padilla won’t attend the local screening because he will be in Texas, where he plans to see the movie with most of his eight children and their families. His wife, Esther Padilla, who was also very active in the movement, became the first Latina elected to the Fresno City Council in 1991. She died a year ago.

“They were as much a part of the movement as I was,” Padilla says of his family. “When I moved from Delano to Los Angeles, I took them. I moved them to Texas. I moved them to Philadelphia. No matter where we were, they worked for the union as volunteers and on picket lines.”

Padilla’s own concerns about the way farmworkers were being treated started after he returned from Japan after being drafted during World War II. His family had moved to Los Banos when he was young, which is where he started working in the fields. After he was released from the Army in 1947, Padilla quickly learned he didn’t qualify for any government assistance.

One of the areas he and Chavez always agreed on was how poorly soldiers, especially immigrants, were treated after having completed their service.

“I was angry,” Padilla says. “We had fought for our country and the conditions in the field had only gotten worse. They had milk cans of water and all you had was a beer can with a hole in it to drink out of. There were no bathrooms. We were making about 90 cents an hour.”

He funneled that anger into volunteer work for the Community Service Organization (CSO) from 1955 to 1960. Padilla was attracted to the group because of their work in voter registration, public services and education for various groups, including farmworkers. At the CSO national convention in 1962, Chavez told Padilla that if the board didn’t approve the farmworker program he had proposed, he would resign as director. They didn’t and Chavez left the group and immediately formed the National Farm Workers Association, which a few years later became the United Farm Workers.

Chavez asked Padilla to join him. That would mean he had to quit his paying job with the CSO – that came with health insurance – to work for the NFWA on a volunteer bases.

“I told Cesar to give me a week to decide. Everyone said I was crazy, but I agreed to leave the CSO.”

The movie focuses on this time period through the grape boycott in the late ’60s.

Padilla hasn’t seen the film, but he talked with Arias when the actor visited him to talk about the role. They discussed everything from Padilla’s history with the group to the way he wore dark glasses when he was younger. Topics included the violence shown toward the farmworkers and the hunger strike by Chavez that brought global attention to the movement.

Although Chavez stressed the farmworkers should never resort to violence, three farmworkers were killed during the protest and boycott. “One man was killed and we all knew who did it but no arrest was ever made. Our reaction to the killings was that it made us stronger,” Padilla said.

Padilla left the union in 1981 because he thought the group had lost its focus on social services. After settling in Fresno, he continued to work with other local groups on a volunteer basis. He’s proud of the people he’s been able to help over the years.

“I worked with people who could not speak a word of English and their children ended up going to college to work in medicine and business. We changed things for the better,” Padilla said.