50 Years Later, 'Chavez' Film Shows Farmworker's Plight Remains

Few have the benefits that he fought for in California.

March 28, 2014, 1:03 AM

April 4, 2014 — -- They are the people responsible for harvesting the food we eat and who labor 18 hours a day under the blistering sun.

In places off the beaten path and sometimes behind closed gates, farmworkers are America's invisible workforce. They're constantly on the move, all because they want their children to have a better life.

Cesar Chavez spent his life defending them with boycotts and hunger strikes.

Now, Chavez is on the big screen with a film that bears his name.

"There would be no food on our table without these people. These people have names, faces, families. And what I want to accomplish it to give these people a voice," Chavez says in a scene from the upcoming film "Cesar Chavez."

Watch: 'Cesar Chavez' chronicles the life of the civil rights activist.

"Cesar Chavez represents a fight for social justice and for human dignity and he's the epitome of the American spirit, that we have the power to create the world we want to live in," said America Ferrera, who stars in the film.

"It's important for our community, but it's in that sense, important for us as Americans to know this history," said Rosario Dawson, who plays Dolores Huerta, a labor leader and co-founder of the United Farmworkers Association.

As co-founder of the association, Chavez negotiated union contracts that provided workers with rest periods, clean drinking water, protection against pesticides as well as health benefits for them and their families.

For me, this story is very personal. When I was barely a teenager my family and I journeyed all the way from Texas to Michigan and Ohio, to harvest cherries and tomatoes. It was back-breaking work, for very little money.

It seemed like no one paid any attention to the hardship of our lives -- until Chavez staged his hunger strikes and boycotts.

This all happened 50 years ago in California. Today, there are 3 million migrants workers in the U.S. -- some of them here legally, many not -- and they still face the same things Chavez tried to change.

In most of the country, farmworkers are not allowed to join a union. The vast majority of them have no pension and no health care.

Many of the people who harvest the food in the U.S. are known as "H2A workers," which means they're legally allowed in the U.S. but only to work in the fields.

The argument is that there are not enough American workers to take these jobs.

The workers come from Mexico, Jamaica and Haiti. They are people like Elvira Francois, who lives with her three children in government-subsidized housing. She has not been able to work for several weeks because of a strange rash on her neck.

"It's too hot when I'm working. The sun, the sweat do that. I'm allergic to the spray in the fields," said Francois.

Like many farmworkers, she gets no health insurance.

"Because I'm not with this company all the time. When I'm done with the work, I can't sit down and do nothing. I have to go on," Francois added.

"It is an issue that keeps happening and it won't stop until consumers become part of the issue," said Diego Luna, director of the film "Cesar Chavez."

"To be a consumer is a responsibility. And we keep living as if food appears magically in the store, you know? And, we don't ask ourselves 'What needed to happen for this to get in front of me?'" he added.

But advocates say there is something that you as a consumer can do: a campaign called the "Fair Food Program."

Created in 2001, the program asks grocery stores and fast food restaurants to pay just one penny more per pound of Florida tomatoes. That money goes directly into the farmworkers' pockets, making a substantial difference on farmworkers' wages in Florida.

As for Francois, like so many farmworkers, next month she will leave her two daughters and son in Florida while she follows the crops north.

"I'm going to New Jersey for blueberries. After New Jersey, I'm going to Virginia, to Winchester," said Francois, who said she does it to help her family.

For now, she also works along with the other migrants we met in a tiny garden harvesting food to feed their own families on land donated by the city of Fellsmere.

It's quite the irony. A tiny field of hope, that is helping nourish those who feed the rest of us.

For more information about the "Fair Food Program" and farmworkers, visit www.ciw-online.org

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