A silent Cesar Chavez once marched through North County

leallan@tcsn.netMarch 31, 2014 

A movie on the life of Cesar Chavez opened over the weekend at local theaters.

And Monday was Cesar Chavez Day.

As a journalist I had my own encounter with the farm labor union organizer. He and a number of his supporters were making a march through the Central Coast approximately 30 years ago.

I came to the assignment with at least some familiarity with farm laborers and their plight. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. In addition to poultry, my family had a small 40-acre vineyard of table grapes.

We hired farmworkers to pick our grapes, but I was often in close with them working at roughly half their speed either picking the fruit, or turning trays (for making raisins) and more. I did much of the tractor work for my dad and the irrigation during the summer.

Many of my friends in school were the children of farmworkers. In fact, it was the Hispanic population that got me elected student body president over the popular football quarterback. Maybe they felt closer to me because I made up my own minority group — short, nerdy, non-athletic and a loner.

The start of school was often delayed until the grapes were harvested, so I knew it wasn’t just the moms and dads who worked, but the whole family.

My folks didn’t provide toilets, drinking water or any other amenities for the workers who picked our grapes. The workers sort of “swooped” in, did the job and were gone. I think my dad just paid some guy who paid some guy who paid some guy. This was in the mid-1950s.

I learned that Chavez and a small group would be marching toward Atascadero from Santa Margarita. Armed with my empathy for the plight of the farmworker, I drove south on El Camino Real to encounter the marchers. I saw them walking along the edge of the road, heading toward Atascadero, as I approached Santa Clara Road.

I locked my car and joined the marchers, working my way up until I was walking right next to Chavez. I noticed there was no talking; all so very silent. I asked something like, “What do you hope to accomplish here today,” or some similar insipid question he’d probably been asked a million times by other well-intentioned journalists. No response. I asked about a dozen other questions about his efforts on behalf of the farm laborers, how the campaign was going, did he feel he was making a difference, ad infinitum. Still, absolutely no response. Not even a “Get away from us, you creep!”

So I walked along in silence with them. I easily adapt to my surroundings. When the group got to Santa Barbara Road, the marchers jumped into waiting vans and took off. I don’t know where they went. I had to walk a mile or so back to get my car. I know they didn’t march through Atascadero.

Later in the day there were some protesters from the United Farm Workers union in front of state Sen. Bob Nimmo’s office on El Camino Real. But that was it.

I ended up with no story and only a single photo of the marchers approaching the southern end of the city.

Lon Allan’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Atascadero for nearly five decades and his column appears here every week. Reach Allan at 466-8529 or leallan@tcsn.net.

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