ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico – Community members and social justice advocates will mark César Chávez Day differently this year. 

Although large gatherings aren’t happening due to the spread of COVID-19, the legacy of Chávez and his fellow organizers during the 1960s remains significant – particularly in Southwest states.

“César taught us to trust the judgment of humble people,” Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of LUPE, wrote in an essay in 2019 for Marguerite Casey Foundation. “When he was working on solving a problem, César always sought the counsel of those most impacted. By involving regular people in creating solutions, he acknowledged their role in the process and won their loyalty to the movement.”

Tomás Garduño, national field director for Mijente, didn’t learn the details of how César Chávez and Dolores Huerta organized field-workers in California until he got to college. But looking back, the influence of Chávez was all around him during his childhood in New Mexico.

“My aunt had a picture of the two of them at a rally in Santa Fe in the 1970s,” he says. “My dad had a UFW [United Farm Workers] flag in his den.”

Garduño learned more about their work in college and when he started organizing in his twenties. The current health outbreak is highlighting the importance of listening to the needs of workers who are still showing up every day, from farms to grocery stores.

“The people [who] grow, pick, cook and deliver our food are ultimately the core of our existence,” he says, adding the current crisis has highlighted the importance of ongoing campaigns on issues such as a living wage and health care access.

Both César Chávez and Dolores Huerta were born in the Southwest. Huerta’s father was a farmworker, miner and union organizer in New Mexico. Chávez was born in Arizona, and his own experiences working in the fields in California galvanized his desire to organize other workers for better conditions.

Together, they founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). They joined Filipino American grape workers in 1965 in the Delano Grape strike and boycott, which received national attention. The campaign focused on nonviolent action, and the boycott lasted until 1970.

In many ways, their work in the 1960s has lasted, says Garduño. “For certain generations and certain groups of people, their lives have improved. And we’re in a different moment where there’s a different set of folks that are on the frontlines.”

Across the country today, supporters of farmworkers planned to hold rallies and events to honor their legacy and continue to draw attention to the most pressing needs of farmworkers and their families, like sexual harassment on the job and low wages.

“They’re feeding the world, regardless of what’s going on,” Diego Salcido Morales, a junior at the University of New Mexico, says. He helped organize the UNM Farmworker Student Appreciation Day, part of Farmworker Awareness Week for UNM Camperinos.

Although they can’t gather to celebrate and draw attention to current issues, he says the group and their local partners will continue to talk about farmworkers in the current crisis “so people know that they are fighting for us.”

“One of the opportunities we have with people in isolation is they’re more likely to be online,” says Salcido Morales. Organizers are encouraging community members to record short videos sharing the story of farmworkers in New Mexico. They are also sharing information on boycotts to draw attention to current organizing among farmworkers.

Emma Torres, executive director of Campesinos Sin Fronteras in Arizona, grew up working in fields alongside her parents. She said her parents’ hard work and the message of César Chávez influenced who she is today.

“…the idea of being in la lucha – the struggle to achieve social justice – stuck in our minds, as we listened to a man who looked like us shout that we were worthy human beings who deserved better wages, better working conditions, portable toilets, clean drinking water and respect,” she wrote for Equal Voice in 2015. “That was something I had not heard before and have never since forgotten.”

Access to education remains a key concern for farmworkers and their children.

In California, the Center for Farmworker Families leads tours with local workers near Watsonville to highlight the significance of their work and the challenges they face.

In 2018, the Center for Farmworker Families and Food Empowerment Project worked together to successfully advocate for a change in the “50-mile rule,” which mandated that farmworkers move away for three months each year to be eligible for the state’s migrant farmworker housing centers.

At the time supporters said the change would ensure students did not have to change school districts during multiple moves each year, which has been an issue for generations of children whose parents work in the fields.

Some of the most powerful advocates for farmworkers, both in the 1960s and today, are people who share that lived experience.

“Part of what César Chávez and Dolores Huerta modeled was being from the community, having that delicate balance of some level of connection and experience in the community and a certain level of distance and perspective on the context and the issues to be able to agitate and push people to move out of and take leaps and take risks,” says Tomás Garduño.

Chávez died in 1993, but organizers across the Southwest and beyond continue to work with farmworkers and families to influence policymaking that will affect their lives – from access to affordable housing to child care and worker’s rights.

Dolores Huerta continues to be the face of fearless protests. “She’s been marching, advocating, gotten into some trouble and that doesn’t stop her,” says Diego Salcido Morales. Huerta was arrested in a 2019 labor protest in California.

Her influence in New Mexico has received more formal recognition in recent years. In 2019, Bernalillo County Commissioners voted to rename part of Bridge Boulevard, located on the edge of southwest Albuquerque, Avenida Dolores Huerta. Fittingly, it connects with Avenida César Chávez.

“They were the inspiration for a whole other generation – frankly, several generations – in the Southwest,” says Tomás Garduño. He says that organizations like Mijente are also addressing homophobia, transphobia and sexism, as they organize around the needs of people in the Latinx community.

After the coronavirus crisis, there will be more to do to address the economic impact on working families in the Southwest and beyond. And the lessons of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta’s work will help show the way.

Editor’s Note: The above feature, authored by writer Sarah Gustavus, first appeared on the Equal Voice Network website. It appears in the Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of Marguerite Casey Foundation, which funds the Equal Voice Network. Click here to read the original posting.

Editor’s Note: Marguerite Casey Foundation is a national independent philanthropy that is nurturing a movement of low-income families to strengthen their voice and mobilize their communities for a more just and equitable society. LUPE (La Unión del Pueblo Entero), Mijente and Campesinos Sin Fronteras are Foundation grantees.

Editor’s Note: Sarah Gustavus is a journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has covered state politics, immigration and Native American communities for 15 years as a public radio and television producer and reporter. She can be reached on Twitter via @sarahgustavus.