Jessica Govea was born on January 4, 1947, in Porterville, a town in the San Joaquin Valley in California. During her childhood, the San Joaquin Valley was an agricultural epicenter as well as a center for attempts to organize agricultural workers. Her father emigrated from Mexico to work on the railroads as part of the Bracero Program, which was designed to bring agricultural and railroad workers to the United States during the World War II labor shortages. Her father also worked as an organizer for Community Service Organization (CSO), the Latino civil rights organization to which César Chávez and Dolores Huerta were also members. During her childhood, Govea Thorbourne worked during the summer as a field worker picking crops. By the age of 12, she had been elected president of the Junior CSO and organized a petition to construct a local park.
Govea Thorbourne graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1964. She remained involved with the UFW while she attended a local community college but dropped out of school after two years to devote herself to the UFW, the fledgling organization Chávez and Huerta had founded after leaving the CSO. Her earliest responsibilities with the UFW included clerical work and casework. As a result of her casework, Govea Thorbourne met with other women who complained of similar symptoms to those she had experienced as a child. Govea Thorbourne was one of the first to recognize the link between pesticide use and illness among workers and later became a strong advocate for contract provisions that required growers to disclose pesticide use.
The UFW joined the strike against table grape growers from Delano, California, in 1965. By 1968, as a testament to the widening influence of the Delano grape strike and boycott, the UFW sent Govea Thorbourne, Marshall Ganz, and Mark Day to organize a boycott of table grapes in Toronto, a large export market for Delano growers. Their collective organizing efforts created broad common ground shared by union members, clergy and lay leaders, and university students. According to the January 1970 issue of El Malcriado, the UFW's monthly newspaper, exports of table grapes to Toronto dropped by 23% between 1966 and 1969. Due to her success in Toronto, Govea Thorbourne was transferred to Montreal, Quebec, then the world's fourth largest consumer of table grapes, where she single-handedly coordinated the boycott. As an added difficulty, Govea Thorbourne did not speak French, the primary language in Quebec. The strike and boycott against Delano growers ended in August 1970 and was aided from the considerable pressure leveraged by Canadian purchasers.
The organizing skills Govea Thorbourne had demonstrated during the Toronto and Montreal boycotts were quickly recognized within the UFW organization. After returning from Montreal in 1970, the UFW quickly shifted her to other organizing priorities, such as a dispute with lettuce growers throughout California and Arizona. Throughout this period, Govea Thorbourne remained active in political organizing. She had previously helped register voters for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's California presidential primary campaign in 1968. She later worked on Jerry Brown's successful 1974 gubernatorial campaign. Both Kennedy and Brown won their respective elections due to the broad support they enjoyed from UFW members. Govea Thorbourne returned to Toronto in 1975 to organize another grape boycott, this time against products from E & J Gallo Winery. In 1977, she was elected to the executive board of UFW in recognition of her considerable organizing experience and dedication to the organization.
Govea Thorbourne left the UFW in 1981 due to concerns of the direction the organization was moving; over time it had transitioned from its original decentralized, grass roots structure to a more conventional, top-down union structure. She continued to work as an organizer and advocate for disenfranchised people. In the 1990s, she worked to reestablish the coffee processors union in El Salvador, which had been decimated by the country's civil war. In New York City, she worked with candidates from politically underrepresented minority populations run for public office. Her experience as a union organizer also led her to such position as the assistant director for civil rights in a large, textile union, and as the statewide director of the AFL-CIO in New Jersey.
Govea Thorbourne died from a relapse of breast cancer on January 23, 2005. She attributed the disease to her exposure to toxic pesticides as a child working in the fields. As a labor organizer, she had championed the elimination of these dangerous chemicals.
Hendricks, Tyche. "Jessica Govea Thorbourne -- labor advocate." The Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2005; Ruiz, Vicki L., and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, eds. Latinas in the United States: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006; Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle For Justice in the 21st Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008; Woo, Elaine. "Jessica Govea Thorbourne, 58; Organizer for UFW Sounded Alarm on Pesticides." The Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2005.