– As Californians celebrate the Cesar Chávez Day state holiday
today, many San Benito County residents remember the man who led
the fight for farmworker rights in a more personal way.
Hollister – As Californians celebrate the Cesar Chávez Day state holiday today, many San Benito County residents remember the man who led the fight for farmworker rights in a more personal way.
Chávez, co-founder and leader of the United Farm Workers, came to Hollister and San Benito County often through his four decades as an activist. While here, Chávez led strikes, met with workers in public parks and was one of the most visible advocates of farmworker rights and equality.
Jose Carmen Lezama, 53, who worked for Bertuccio Farms for 30 years, became the picket line captain for Chávez-led UFW strikes in 1981. The months of the strikes were hard, Lezama said, but Chávez inspired him to be strong.
“I get very emotional because I remember the need,” Lezama said Friday with tears in his eyes. “All of my children were small and they didn’t have the necessities.”
Lezama even spent a night in the San Benito County Jail with the legendary leader. Along with Chávez and 37 others, he was arrested for trespassing on the Bertuccio property while attempting to challenge strike regulations.
His wife, Maria Luz Lezama, said the family doesn’t regret going through the strike because Chávez’s will made the family stronger.
“It was something good for our family,” Maria Luz Lezama said. “We learned a lot during that one year to be more united as a family. When we lived on McCloskey, Cesar visited us and he told us to move forward and that in the end something good was going to come out of it.”
Efforts by Chávez and the UFW brought about change for farm workers here and throughout California, including higher wages, better living and working conditions, and union benefits.
One man receiving those benefits to this day is 86-year-old Hollister resident Jesus Salcedo, who spent almost 40 years picking grapes in Cienega Valley and near Paicines for former San Benito County wine giant Almaden.
“I’m happy with the benefits I get from the union,” Salcedo said. “I worked for it.”
Salcedo did not know Chávez personally, but met him several times. Through the years, Salcedo marched with the UFW and met with other farmworkers to educate them on worker rights.
The octogenarian has much to thank the UFW for. It gave him the opportunity to educate his children and teach them a sense of community.
“The biggest satisfaction is to see your kids,” Salcedo said. “Because I feel very bad about the people who have kids who are on drugs and are fighting or killing.”
Chávez was an inspirational figure who helped shape the future for many people, said Mickie Luna, president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Luna was only 20 years old when she first met Chávez at a worker rally in Hollister’s Dunne Park in 1966. His speaking impressed the young Luna.
“He was talking about having benefits and equality,” Luna said. “I remember the word ‘equality.’ He was saying it in Spanish.”
By the time of his death in 1993, Luna had come to know Chávez well. She said he was a humble and religious man. Chávez liked to visit the old St. Francis Retreat in San Juan Bautista to recover after fasts.
To continue what Chávez started, Luna and other LULAC members take their youth chapter to a retreat every September in La Paz, where Chávez is buried.
And Luna is confident that while there are no leaders like him today, Chávez lives on in everybody.
“If we could just put that message forward to our kids, our families: Never give up,” Luna said.
Michael Van Cassell covers public safety for the Free Lance. He can be reached at 831-637-5566 ext. 335 or [email protected]