Labor of Love

In early March of this year, I received a call from the regional office in Denver of the U.S. Department of Labor telling me my name had been submitted for an event in Washington, DC and that Secretary Hilda. L. Solis wanted representatives from across the nation, like me. She said I would get an email.  I hung up and just sat at my desk wondering, ‘what does this mean?’.

A few days later, the invite from Secretary Solis arrived for the induction of farm workers. I was still in the dark. To end my curiosity I called the contact, Lucero Ortiz and learned that Secretary Solis would be recognizing farm workers as well as those who have served farm workers into the Labor Hall of Fame. The event would also serve to dedicate and name the Cesar Chavez Memorial Auditorium. Present at the event would be martyrs and icons of the Mexican farm worker movement: Dolores Huerta, Arturo Rodriguez and relatives of Cesar Chavez. At this event, all those who have worked with farm workers would be recognized as part of the farm worker movement. My role was to be inducted, not as an individual, but as a representative for the many who have served farm workers and their families.

I was stunned. All the years working at Migrant Legal Services, helping farmworkers with their basic civil rights, I never expected this. My career as a paralegal has served me well to do a job that I love because I am helping those who are where I, my parents and siblings used to be, farmworkers. I have never forgotten where I come from; working in the fields and coming home all dirty and sweaty. We worked hard and the pay was not meager. But there were also good memories of our family together working in unison for our future. I wouldn’t trade the lessons of my family and that hard work for anything. They shaped the person I am today.

The date for the Induction of Farmworker was March 26, 2012. I had little time to prepare but quickly decided ‘this former farm worker’ is going to Washington, D.C. to rub shoulders with the famous folks of the farmworker movement!

March 25th, I arrived to a dark D.C.. The following beautiful morning, I put my dress shoes in my purse and walked in my suit and tennis eleven blocks to the familiar landmark building housing the Department of Labor on Constitution Avenue. In the rush to get a good seat, SMRLS (Southern MN Regional Legal Services) pin and business cards forgotten at the hotel. However, the good seats landed me next to Eva Nunez, Arizona activist, a prominent paralegal from Colorado Legal Services, and an attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center. I was also fortunate enough to meet Eduardo Morones from Border Angels and Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza.

Then the Master of Ceremonies Michael Peña, an actor starring as Cesar Chavez in a new movie set to begin filming this spring, arrived. He introduced Paul Chavez – Cesar Chavez’s brother, and long-time advocate of farm workers who worked alongside Chavez. Then, he announced Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta. Huerta was received with a round of applause and a standing ovation. After Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar and Secretary Solis were introduced, the Color Guard marched in, and Julie Rodriguez and Christine Chavez, who are granddaughters of Cesar Chavez lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Marmuriel H. Powao, granddaughter of a Filipino farm worker in Fresno, CA, gave an amazing rendition of the National Anthem. The invocation came from Father Richard Estrada of California, a close friend of Secretary Solis and Cesar Chavez.

We heard inspiring speeches from Kenneth Salazar, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack,  Cecilia Munoz, Director of Domestic Policy Council,  and Arturo Rodriguez and David Chavez both of whom received standing ovations. But when Dolores Huerta walked up to the podium, she received a standing ovation for at least five minutes before she even spoke a word. People chanted “Si se puede!”. It was amazing and moving to see this tiny woman who has been repeatedly beaten down, gotten up, and now grows stronger in the farm worker movement. I had to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. It never occurred to me that I would ever meet her, yet there she was in front of me; a person whom I had only read about and very much admired.

Secretary Solis then spoke and introduced the families of martyrs of the farm worker movement:  Nan Freeman, Nagi Daifallah, Juan De La Cruz, Rufino Contreras, and Rene Lopez, all of whom were killed on the picket lines of the farm worker strikes; she mentioned names of others who are very active in the farmworker.movement and their accomplishments. Then, I got to participate. Secretary Solis asked for all those who have served farm workers to stand up and be recognized saying, “I also recognize all of you who have helped farmworkers in fighting the injustices and helping them obtain their basic civil rights.” One, after another, we advocates from different parts of the nation stood together.

As the ceremony drew to a close, and before we dedicated the new auditorium in memory of Cesar Chavez, mariachis appeared bellowing “De Colores”. Many of us standing outside joinedin singing this old Mexican folk song.What a powerful moment; I had tears in my eyes. Memories of my parents singing that song when we were kids flooded my mind. I felt that my parents were beaming down at me. I could hear my Papi saying “Bien aiga Mija!”. I also relished those memories of getting up early in the morning to help my Mom make breakfast and lunch to take to the fields; walking up and down the rows of sugar beets; picking cucumbers in Wisconsin and the onion and spinach fields of Crystal City, Texas. I reflected on all the hard days under the hot sun or other elements of bad weather, like las mojadas from the morning dew, the mosquitos, and yes, the seriously hard work. As hard as it was, coming home all sweaty and dirty, I look back and marvel at the fortitude and pride it developed in me; and that’s not bad at all. We consider ourselves lucky that we had work and counted the blessings of working together as a family. I remember the rare occasions when my father would go into town and sometimes bring us a treat. Life was tough, but it made us tougher. All of this shaped me into the person I am today.

As I pondered my past, we all followed Secretary Solis to the auditorium singing “De Colores” the whole way.

More speeches followed and Secretary Solis unveiled the tile portrait of Cesar Chavez and dedicated the auditorium to Cesar Chavez. While the mariachis continued playing I did another reality check. Had I really spoken face-to-face and taken photos with all these amazing people?  I had indeed, and continued the conversations at a VIP reception which stretched into the early hours of the next day. Like a fairy tale princess walking home, I was thankful for the magical evening that honored us, the farm workers, who helped feed this nation and the world. I was also proud that farm workers were finally getting a recognition  – – like any other type of work – – which demands they be treated with respect and dignity.

To all those who made this possible: Thanks! Although there are those who don’t not fully appreciate the farm worker, events like this bring us a bit closer to the realization that farm workers help sustain our food system, our economy and our way of life. I especially thank my parents, Pedro and Armandina Castañon who taught me that fieldwork is honorable work which we should all be proud of.

You can go to www.dol.gov for more information on the Labor Hall of Fame.

Questions/preguntas/commentary: mcastanon59@gmail.com

by Martha Castañon

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