Eladio Bobadilla was 11 years old when he moved from Mexico to Delano, where his parents worked in the vineyards. Without papers and frustrated with his lack of options, Mr. Bobadilla nearly dropped out of high school. Eventually he became a historian of immigrant rights.
In a way, in a talk given by Mr Chavez last week, he noted that conditions in the fields are worse than they were decades ago. In real dollars, many farm workers earn less today than they did in the 1970s. Before Mr. Bobadilla’s parents retired, they had to bring home the dirty trays they used to pick grapes during the week and wash them on their day off. They didn’t know, and their son didn’t know, that it was against the law. They just knew that if they did not stick to it, they would lose their jobs.
“The fight continues,” said Mr. Bobadilla. “It’s still a deeply exploitative kind of work. It doesn’t have to be unworthy work. It doesn’t have to be cruel work. It’s always been difficult. But it doesn’t have to be cruel. “
On the day President Biden took office, the White House released a photo showing a bust of Cesar Chavez prominently displayed in the Oval Office. The first lady is expected to attend an event at the old UFW headquarters in Delano, now a historic monument, on Thursday, Mr. Chavez’s birthday, a California state holiday.
Symbols are important. But they are not enough. Just as Mr. Chavez’s legacy must be more than the name of the Delano High School Mayor Osorio attended, so the commitments to “justice” and “a new normal” must mean more than a tribute to the valor of essential workers.
Perhaps the administration should not look to the past but to new models, such as the worker-centric programs established by the Immokalee workers’ coalition and the fair food program, which have made real strides for workers in Florida.
It will be up to the next generation, whom Mr. Chavez foresawed, to make changes not only in the cities but also in the fields. Not to rebuild failed guest worker programs, but to find ways to bring dignity and a living wage to the millions of American farm workers.