One early evening, the first Friday of March this year, I was driving down Central Avenue, just south of Indian School Road. On the east side of the road, I noticed a large ochre-colored billboard looming over Macayo’s Mexican Restaurant. The billboard advertised the upcoming release of a film about Cesar Chavez. Chavez was the United Farm Workers’ union leader. In my estimation, he was also a very spiritually driven man. I have not seen the movie, but I understand that the arc of the film begins in California and ends in Phoenix in June, 1972 at a rally where Chavez broke a twenty-four day hunger strike.
As I drove by, I wondered if the billboard placement was coincidence or synchronicity. Across the street from the Chavez billboard, stands three mini-skyscrapers once known as the Del Webb Towers. They were a prominent business hub in Phoenix in the 1970s. Cesar Chavez broke his hunger strike in a rented convention-style room in one of those skyscrapers, now known as the 3800 building, for its address. I hear the film ends with the end of the hunger strike. I remember it. I was there. I witnessed the good history.
In June of 1972, I was just another long-haired hippie kid trying to find his path in the world. I had a weakness for protest marches. I marched against the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and Exxon Oil. Phoenix was a hotbed of political protests in those days, surprising to many, considering it was not Columbia University or Watts or Chicago. The United Farm Workers were also on the march at that time. I knew about their cause and had marched with them. The UFW represented migrant farm workers throughout the West. They asked for fair pay and bans on certain pesticides, among other basic rights. The UFW worked hard to get a foothold in Arizona. Mr. Chavez began a hunger strike to bring attention to the plight of the workers. Not everyone agreed with Cesar Chavez or the UFW. Then-Governor Jack Williams, known to some as “One-Eyed Jack,” sided with the big growers in Arizona. He labeled the UFW as troublemakers and Cesar Chavez their kingpin. Williams vehemently denounced the UFW and Chavez in the press. Nowadays, Cesar Chavez has respect. Parks, roadways and buildings are named after him. In 1972, he was considered an outlaw.
I heard about the UFW rally and made plans to attend. I drove to the Towers, parked and headed to the tower. That June day was warm and sunny. People were crowding into the building. Inside were a sea of Latinos. Some were UFW members. The rest were their friends, families and supporters. I saw a few Anglos like myself. A clipboard carrying a petition labeled, “Recall Jack Williams” was shoved into my hands. I worked the crowd, gathering signatures. I made my way back to the lobby where I heard an old latina woman call out to someone. I looked in the direction she shouted and saw a young, attractive, dark-haired woman walk toward us.
The woman looked travel-weary and oddly familiar. She bent to embrace the old woman who had called out to her. A tall, tanned young man with flowing golden locks followed behind. He looked familiar, too. Suddenly, I realized who the young woman was. It was Joan Baez of Woodstock fame. I had listened to the Woodstock album and had heard her sing the union anthem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” againa and again. I swear, I nearly fainted. Before me stood one of the strongest voices of the American anti-war movement, a beautiful woman with the voice of a songbird. To say that she was one of my idols then, as she is now, is an understatement. I soon learned that the young man with her was Joseph P. Kennedy II, eldest son of assassinated presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy. Joseph had been on a white water rafting trip up north with his family. He left the trip early to come to Phoenix to be at the rally.
The word spread that Cesar Chavez was soon to arrive. He would end his fast with the body and blood of Christ. Communion. Everyone moved into the big room where the ceremony would take place. There were several hundred people in the audience already and more filed in. Large red and black UFW banners, with the big black Aztec eagle image, hung around the hall. I was thrilled to be in the room and still cherish the memory of being there. I seem to recall prayers being said. Joan Baez was introduced to the crowd and she made her way to the front of the room, guitar in hand. She spoke of her support for Chavez and the farmworkers, then began to sing. Everyone began to sing along with “We Shall Overcome.” The audience joined hands and swayed back and forth as we sang. It was all very moving. I felt as if I were part of something important, a thing so much larger and more passionate than anything I had experienced before.
A small crowd of people entered the room from the left and proceeded to the front of the room now crowded with people standing. Cesar Chavez had arrived. Weakened by his fast, he rode in a wheelchair pushed by friends and family. The communion ritual began. I don’t recall if he spoke or not but his presence in the room spoke loud enough.
When the rally ended, I left feeling elated, yet somewhat sad too. I hoped that something would come of that beautiful event. But the 70s were a time of upheaval in this country. Public protests and incidents of civil disobedience happened many times on both coasts and several points in between. Concerned citizens voiced their disillusionment with our government. The UFW did not win it’s fight that June. But they went on to provide a voice for the farm workers and to remind Americans that anyone could stand up and be heard through peaceful protest. Of course results are not always immediate. Changing the minds of people takes time.
Yet most historians agree the Vietnam war ended years sooner than it would have due to the protests. So many people spoke out against it. The first Earth Day happened on April 22, 1970. Ideas from that time have become a part of national practices, from recycling to hybrid automobiles to the Green Movement. The legacy of Cesar Chavez and what he and the UFW attempted lives on in these movements.