Cesar Chavez gestures as he speaks during a March 8, 1989 news conference in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Alan Greth
She had long, reddish-black hair that seemed to sparkle in the sunlight. We were about the same age, but the thing I remember most about Patti Orozco, a childhood friend, is how she always smiled, no matter how much pain she was in.
We didn’t know it then – Patti was only 13 or 14 when her physical pain began – but her lifetime exposure to pesticides as a migrant worker was slowly beginning to kill her.
It was a battle that farm labor leader Cesar Chavez had been waging a war against for years – trying to stop farmers from using, and the government from allowing them to use poisonous chemicals to treat crops – poison that was often sprayed while workers were in the fields – getting in their lungs, seeping through their pores, eyes – causing severe illness and in many cases the deaths of farmworkers every year.
The Orozco and Ramos families – longtime migrant working families - grew up together in Adrian, MI, where we had both settled in the 1960s and 70s. While my uncles and aunts and I went to school full-time and enjoyed sports and other afterschool activities, the seven Orozco children continued to pick local crops after school, sometimes instead of, depending on how badly the family was struggling financially.
Occasionally, my father would get temporarily laid off from his factory job; my parents and I, along with my grandmother, uncles and aunts would load up in our station wagon and join the Orozco’s on the migrant stream – until the factory called my father back to work.
By the time I turned 11, my family’s life had stabilized and we never again had to return to the fields. The Orozco’s weren’t so lucky. I still remember the tears, the long embraces that we never wanted to end when they had to move away for good to pick crops year-around.
Even today, the thing I remember most about Patti Orozco is how her long, reddish-black hair sparkled in the sunlight and how her smile never seemed to fade, no matter how much pain she was in.
None of us ever saw that smile again. Less than three years later, her family wrote to tell us that Patti had died of a kidney-related death due to extended exposure to pesticides, according to the family doctor.
The thing about pesticides is that they stick to your clothing, skin, and hair – everything, my uncle Richard Ramos explained to me. A longtime migrant worker, he was closest to the Orozco family and after our friend’s death spent many years speaking out against the dangers of pesticides.
That’s why Cesar Chavez fought so tirelessly to get the most dangerous ones banned, my uncle recently reminded me. Mr. Chavez saw many children and adults becoming sick and dying from exposure.
That’s what prompted Mr. Chavez, at age 61, to conduct his last – and longest public fast to draw attention to farmworkers and their children whose health was being harmed by pesticides.
The year was 1988. For 36 days the migrant labor leader fasted at the Forty Acres Complex in Delano, CA. When Mr. Chavez ended his fast on Aug. 21, others took up the cause, taking turns fasting so that the issue would remain on the public conscience longer.
First was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who fasted for three days before being replaced by a long list of celebrities and political leaders at the time: Actors Danny Glover and Edward James Olmos, Peter Chacon, a Democrat legislator from California at the time and Rev. Joseph Lowery, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It was one of the most challenging moments in Mr. Chavez’s career – the strength of his organization – United Farm Workers – was being challenged on many fronts; many farm owners and politicians were challenging farm worker rights, and trying to undermine their right to unionize.
There was also a great deal of concern about the labor leader’s waning health, said Ramon Perez, a community organizer for United North in Toledo. At the time of Mr. Chavez’s fast, Mr. Perez was working for Toledo’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee.
“I was very worried when Cesar decided to fast for the third and last time because of his age,” he said.
But he also understood the labor leader’s passion for justice and worker rights, said Mr. Perez, who had the opportunity to meet Mr. Chavez on several occasions during the 1970s and 80s
“Cesar was very low key, but spoke extremely powerfully about fighting for basic human rights for farmworkers,” Mr. Perez said.
Baldemar Velasquez, who founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in the mid-1960s, was at Mr. Chavez’s bedside for several days during the 1988 fast and did some media work as a volunteer.
“I recall that apart from many being concerned about his health, staff and other supporters were frenetically trying to do what they thought they missed doing during his first and most famous fast when Robert Kennedy came to help break the then 24 day fast in the late 60’s,” Mr. Velasquez said. “There was a constant flurry of activities surrounding the event which interested me less than the spiritual base provoking this man’s life’s actions.
“Cesar had a genuine spiritual base to his life and therefore his work life with the union. He might have taken a page out of Gandhi’s history or even his contemporary Martin Luther King Jr. as they all were guided by principles beyond their own. I know how difficult this is when the realities on the ground may tempt your supporters and even some staff to depart from non-violence and personalize the issues.”
Cesar Chavez, farm labor leader, eats a piece of bread to end his first fast, a 25-day fast that ended March 11, 1968 in Delano, Calif. About 4,000 farm workers joined him in a symbolic bread-breaking ceremony marking the end of their leader's fasting for the principle of non-violence. With him are Sen. Robert F. Kennedy who came from Washington to take part and Mr. Chavez’s wife, left, and mother. AP Photo/Fresno Bee, Richard Darby
Fasts are different than “hunger strikes” which are meant to excite moral outrage over an injustice, Mr. Velasquez explained. Fasts are supposed to retreat to reflection and renewal of purpose and intention through prayer and meditation and inspire others to recommit to a purpose and increase in dedication.
Mr. Chavez’s first fast was in response to some violence that was perpetrated by some of his followers and felt that it might get out of control after some packing sheds were set on fire by strikers during the grape strike, Mr. Velasquez said. His first fast was truly driven to renewal to the spirit of non-violence. The public was enthusiastic that while the violence was troubling they were completely won over by “Cesar’s” response calling for prayer, repentance and self-reflection.
The labor leader’s final fast was effective, but not as powerful as the previous one, Mr. Velasquez said.
“The last fast seemed to be a call to bring back the focus on a forgotten group of workers that only seem to be remembered in short cycles of attention brought on by a major documentary or some other innocuous report,” he said. “Most people probably can’t remember why he was fasting but only remember the goodness in this man who cared deeply about the exploited workers who labored in the nation’s fields and was willing to sacrifice his health and his own well-being if it would bring attention to their plight.”
The fast did succeed in bringing national attention to the issue and there was some success in prompting the United States Environmental Protection Agency to ban some of the more toxic chemicals, he said.
But the problem still exists because pesticide poisoning is very hard to prove, Mr. Velasquez said.
Cesar Chavez died on April 23, 1993.
Cesar Speaks: During his last fast, Mr. Chavez held a national press conference. This is a transcript of what he said.
“A fast is first and foremost personal,” Mr. Chavez said at the time. “It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farmworker movement.
“The fast is also an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more. The fast is finally a declaration of non-cooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes.
“During the past few years I have been studying the plaque of pesticides on our land and our food. The evil is far greater then even I had thought it to be, it threatens to choke out the life of our people and also the life system that supports us all.
“This solution to this deadly crisis will not be found in the arrogance of the powerful, but in solidarity with the weak and helpless. I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple deeds for justice. Carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible."