April 5, 2010
It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco after college that I found out who Cesar Chavez was. Being from Pennsylvania, where his birthday is not celebrated as a state holiday, perhaps I knew his name, but certainly not his legacy as a leader and organizer for farm workers rights. But in California, where his birthday, March 31st is celebrated as a holiday and where street signs bear his name, I learned of his great achievements. Most notably, Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (now United Farm Workers) in 1962. A tireless activist for human rights, farm workers rights and civil rights throughout his life, Chavez promoted ideas for a Livable Future though non-violence, education and service. He helped give a voice to farm workers, who “… till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance” and “have nothing left for themselves.”
While California was the first state to put his birthday, March 31st, on the books as a State Holiday to honor his many achievements, it is only one of 8 to do so. Since Maryland is one of the 42 that don’t, I probably would have forgotten that last week would have been Chavez’s 83rd birthday, had it not been for my trusty twitter feed to alert me that President Obama has honored the original Si se puede chanter with a nationally recognized holiday.
As I read the news, I wondered who might be the current champion for today’s modern farmworkers – who is rallying on behalf of those who contract to the major food animal production corporations to raise our chickens, cows and pigs in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)? I worried that the current vertically integrated system of food animal production in the United States often leaves the operators of the farms on their own with little support from the companies with whom they contract. On the farms, they are exposed to high levels of air pollution including antibiotic resistant bacteria and suffer health consequences of it. They are the scapegoat for the larger companies, assuming the burden and risk of waste management on the farms without realizing a comparable economic benefit from their work. All of this goes on with very little in the way of laws to protect their health and their job.
Perhaps we can let President Obama’s announcement be a catalyst for change in our nation. Let us consider how we can celebrate Chavez’s principles of dignity, education, service and non-violence to advocate for the workers in the modern industrial agriculture system. So for all of us in the 42 states for whom this is a new holiday, how can we celebrate?
We could celebrate by volunteering with an organization serving your local farmworker community, or by taking a trip to the farmer’s market and picking up some food straight from the source. You can celebrate by buying organic and local. You can celebrate by encouraging our government to protect modern industrial farm workers…to regulate the air inside of CAFOs and to pass more stringent regulations that hold the larger companies, instead of the individual farmers, accountable for the management of waste from these facilities. We can let President Obama know that we commend him for establishing this National Holiday, and that a great way to apply the leadership embodied by Cesar Chavez would be to push harder for the protection of environmental health in the communities affected by today’s industrial agricultural system.
How are you going to celebrate the legacy of Cesar Chavez?
Beth Feingold is a PhD candidate in Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a Predoctoral fellow with the Center for a Livable Future.