Today in History: August 22
Mexican Americans and United Farm Workers of America
¡SÍ SE PUEDE!
(Yes We Can!)
Slogan used by Cesar Chavez,
First president of the United Farm Workers
On August 22, 1966, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), later renamed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), was formed. The UFWOC was established when two smaller organizations, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), both in the middle of strikes against certain California grape growers, merged and moved under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO. Under the founding leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the UFW won many labor or civil rights concessions for disenfranchised Mexican-American farmworkers, an important aspect of the Chicano movement. The Chicano movement has been an often-ignored part of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s; it was, nonetheless, a landmark period for the second-largest ethnic minority in the U.S.
Before the rise of the UFW, working conditions were harsh for most agricultural workers. On average, farmworkers made about ninety cents per hour plus ten cents for each basket of produce they picked. Many workers in the field were not provided even the most basic necessities such as clean drinking water or portable toilets. Unfair hiring practices, such as favoritism and kickbacks, were rampant. Seldom were their living quarters equipped with indoor plumbing or cooking facilities.
Through a series of demonstrations, strikes, and protests, the UFW brought these issues to the public's attention. In 1965, one of the first major actions taken by the UFW was to call for a boycott of table grapes, which became a nationwide boycott by 1968. Several other boycotts against lettuce and strawberry growers were organized in following years. On February 14, 1968, UFW President Cesar Chavez began the first of many fasts in protest of the treatment of farmworkers. During this first fast he received a strong letter of support from Martin Luther King Jr. On March 10, he broke the fast with Robert Kennedy at his side.
In 1973, the UFW organized a march through the Coachella and Imperial valleys in Central California to the United States-Mexico border to protest growers' use of illegal immigrants as strikebreakers. The thousands of marchers were joined by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. In 1970, Chavez was jailed for defying a court injunction against boycotting. While imprisoned, he was visited by Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy.
Through these dramatic moves the UFW won many important benefits for agricultural workers. It brought comprehensive health benefits for farmworkers and their families, rest periods, clean drinking water, sanitary facilities, and even profit sharing and parental leave. The UFW also has pioneered the fight to protect farmworkers against harmful pesticides.
Learn more about farmworkers and labor unions in American Memory:
- Search American Memory's photograph and print collections on labor union, worker, or strike to find more images of workers.
- Search on the term Mexican workers in the black-and-white photographs in America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945 to see more images of migrant workers of the Depression era. Search on the terms colored (African-American), Filipino, and white (Anglo) workers for photos of laborers of other ethnicities also involved in UFW activism. In addition, there are many interviews located in the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection where Mexican Americans speak of their experience as migrant workers.
- The UFW has led strikes against growers of many types of produce. Search the same collection on the terms grapes, strawberries, or lettuce to see images of these types of produce being harvested. For example, see a farmworker holding up a bunch of newly harvested California grapes in Grapes Grown in Kern County, California. Also, get a sense of what difficult work it is to harvest lettuce in Filipinos Cutting Lettuce, Salinas, California.
- Visit Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941 to get more information on migrant workers of the Depression era. Search under El Rio and Mexican to see images of and hear interviews with Mexican migrant workers. In the interviews, Augustus Martinez and José Flores, two Mexican labor-camp workers, discuss topics such as discrimination against Mexican workers, labor issues, and the beginnings of the effort to organize migrant farmworkers into unions, as well as general topics about life in the labor camps. This collection also includes a scrapbook with several articles on the nascent movement to organize farmworkers.
- Search the Today in History Archive on the terms labor union or strike to get more information on the history of labor activism in America. Learn, for example, about the National Labor Union and the eight-hour workday.
- Learn more about the UFW and Cesar Chavez at the history section of the union's official Web site (external link).
Our state fair is a great state fair,
Don't miss it, don't even be late.
“Our State Fair,”
Music by Richard Rodgers, words by Oscar Hammerstein II
August 22 falls in the midst of the state and county fair season. State and county fairs are an American pastime in the late summer and early fall—a remnant of a cross-cultural tradition rooted in ancient times.
The earliest fairs, such as the great Aztec fair that Spanish conquistadors found on the present-day site of Mexico City, were created to solve problems of distribution. Located along major trade or pilgrimage routes, fairs and festivals provided opportunities for people to demonstrate their skills and crafts, exchange ideas, and barter for goods.
Today, fairs provide opportunities for travel, entertainment, commerce, and socializing, and also play an important role in the social and economic lives of rural Americans. For urban folk, they provide a means of learning about and appreciating rural and agricultural lifestyles.
Livestock and agriculture competitions sponsored by manufacturers and agricultural societies, such as the 4-H Club are fixtures of state and county fairs as are various other contests. Traditional homecrafts such as quilting, lacemaking, rugmaking, baking, and canning, are showcased and awarded ribbons for "best of show."
Interviews from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 include many accounts of fair visits:
The State Fair…was the biggest social event of the year. Everybody who was anybody as well as those who were not would come from all the country round about…to exhibit…stock and products.
Sara [B.?] Wrenn, interviewer,
January 13, 1939.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
…we regarded a visit to Columbia and the State Fair then just about like you or I would look upon a visit to London or Berlin now.
"Judge J. H. Yarborough,"
Winnsboro, South Carolina,
W. W. Dixon, interviewer,
June 28, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
Outside exhibition halls, fairgoers sample entertainment ranging from country music to races and pie-eating contests, follow midway barkers' calls to take in sideshows, try for prizes in game booths, and indulge in cotton candy or a ride on the ferris wheel.
Learn more about fairs and festivals in American Memory:
- Search on county fair or state fair in America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945 to see more pictures of fairs.
- Search on county fair or state fair in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 to read more stories about fairs. Read, for example, about the "Fair Booking Agency" as told by Eddye Kendall of Midlothian, Illinois, to Alfred O. Phillipp.
- Explore one of the crafts featured at county and state fairs by visiting the collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996 which features images of award-winning quilts and interviews with the women who crafted them. Visit the Today in History feature on Quilting for some background on the craft.
- Search on state fair in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress to view items such as invitations to Lincoln to attend various state fairs.
- Search on state fair in Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs to view panoramic images of fairgrounds.
- America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945 contains numerous images of state fairs and county fairs. Search on those terms as well as 4-H, fair and contest, and fair and amusement for a variety of images at these events.
- Visit the collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982 for a multimedia presentation of life on a ranch, including videos detailing many traditional practices of this branch of animal husbandry and agriculture.
- Search the American Memory collections on the terms parade or rodeo to find more material on festivals celebrated in many parts of the United States.
- Learn about parades and pie-eating contests and celebrate the Library of Congress' bicentennial in Come Celebrate within the Web site for kids and families, America's Story from America's Library.