By: Stuart A. Kallen
Publisher: Twenty-First Century Books
Publication Date: August 2010
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: December 2010
People hungered for the riches of California and made their way across the United States to partake in whatever the land had to offer them. Gold was its first offering, but the land itself was said to be the “second gold discovery.” Those who were willing to work hard quickly discovered that huge farming operations, or bonanza farms, were money makers. These farms created “some of the richest people in the United States.” There was money in agriculture and soon not only the hardworking farmer was at work cultivating the land, but also the unscrupulous. After the railroads were completed in 1969, farmers looked to the Chinese for a cheap, plentiful source of labor. Later the Japanese laborer entered the picture when it became less expensive to take them on as they were willing to work for “thirty-five or forty cents a day, less than half the wages earned by the Chinese.” A history of the exploitation of the farmhand had begun and would continue for more than a decade.
It seemed to matter little who was exploited for grueling farm work. Agribusiness preyed on the “poor and desperate” as a seemingly endless source of cheap labor landed on their doorsteps. In the early twentieth century the white European immigrants came by the thousands to labor in the fields. The work could be dangerous, but no matter for people had children to feed. There were unsanitary living conditions, the proverbial “country store,” and disgusting practices such as charging for water as people worked in extreme temperatures. In 1917 agribusiness looked toward the Mexican worker when every able-bodied worker marched off to war. There were attempts at organization, but “As they had done for generations, the growers used their collective power to keep tight control over their new labor supply.” They later brought in braceros in WWII to undercut the Mexicans and Filipinos. It was, unfortunately for them, an underhanded tactic that would not last forever.
And then there were the “wetbacks,” who were among “the poorest, worst-treated workers in the United States." There was one man who would step up to help change the working conditions for all, but it would not happen overnight. His name was Cesar Chavez whose mother, Juana, once said to him, “God gave you senses, like your eyes and mind and tongue so that you can get out of anything.” Nonviolence was ingrained in him. He eventually “dropped out of school to become a full-time field worker,” but he continued to educate himself about people such as Gandhi. He would soon become an activist who would spend his entire life fighting for the rights of the simple farmhand. In this book you will learn about his family, his work with the Community Service Organization (CSO), the organizations he formed, how he organized field hands to fight for themselves, how he organized boycotts, strikes, you’ll learn how Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy supported his work, you’ll learn how the growers tried to undermine his every move, you’ll read about the 250-mile protest march from Delano to Sacramento, and you’ll learn many other fascinating facets of the life behind the man behind the Delano Grape Strike.
This is a magnificent book about a man who never gave up fighting for the California field worker until the day he died. This is a very powerful work that will fascinate anyone who is interested in civil and political rights. One line that was quite poignantly stated said in part: “it will not be over until the farm worker has the equality of a living wage and decent treatment.” We not only meet Cesar Chavez, but we also meet many other individuals who stepped forward and gave their time, effort, and sometimes their very lives to the cause. This book really gave me the sense of how hard people worked and how much they sacrificed so others could benefit. There were also many other eye opening things such as talk about cancer clusters with “unusually high incidences of childhood leukemia” due to pesticide use and a shocking statistical profile of today’s field workers. There are numerous photographs and informative sidebars scattered throughout the book. In the back of the book is an index, a glossary, source notes, a selected bibliography, a timeline, portraits of several people mentioned in the book, and additional recommended book and website resources to explore.
Quill says: This is a stunning look at Cesar Chavez and his lifelong effort to help the simple field workers gain their civil rights!