¡Sí Se Puede! Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight on César Chávez & the UFW
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March to Sacramento

Through the winter months of the Delano grape strike, César Chávez gathered supporters to explore ways to maintain the fervor and commitment of the strikers. In February 1966, at a meeting near Santa Barbara, California, the union leader and his advisors, after discussing a number of strategic possibilities, decided to adopt another tactic that had been successful in the civil rights movement—a long march. It would cover a route from Delano to the state capitol of Sacramento, through such towns as Madera, Fresno, Modesto, and Stockton. For Chávez, however, the march would emphasize the religious spirit behind the union movement.

In an attempt to connect even further the union movement with the history and culture of Mexico, the playwright Luis Valdez suggested that they write a "Plan de Delano" to be read in each town through which they marched. The statement would follow in the tradition of a leader of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, who fought for the rights of native peoples against powerful landowners. In 1911, Zapata put forward his "Plan de Alaya," a rallying statement for the underclasses. Chávez asked Valdez to compose such a document for the farm workers. It became yet another symbol around which the strikers rallied.

On the morning of March 17, 1966, Chávez and about 100 individuals gathered in Delano to begin the march. Somewhat disorganized but enthusiastic they set off through the town and onto Highway 99, followed by members of the press, several Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, and other onlookers. Soon, they began to pass some of the vineyards in which they had worked and against which they had organized pickets six months earlier. They carried banners, portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and union flags. Some carried large crosses. Some wore Veterans of Foreign Wars hats. Valdez carried "The Plan of Delano" to be read at each stop and signed by local workers.

As the marchers began to reach small towns, local workers and their families, yelling and shouting, would run toward them and swell their numbers. They cooked hamburgers, tortillas, and beans and rice to feed those in the protest. Covering about 15 miles a day, some of those who had started the journey in Delano began to suffer blistered feet. FBI informants kept their Washington superiors informed of the progress. By the time they had reached Stockton, one of the informants reported, the march had grown to approximately 1,500, many of whom were provided lodging by locals in the towns through which they passed. As the marchers walked through the towns they lit candles.

As it progressed through the San Joaquin Valley toward Sacramento, the march drew increasing national publicity, with many reporters comparing it to the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march a year earlier. On April 3, a week before the marchers were due to reach Sacramento, Chávez received a call from a representative of Schenley Vineyards. Already damaged by the publicity garnered by Chávez and hurt economically by the strike and boycott, the company had decided to cut its losses. They decided to enter into negotiations with Chávez for a union contract. Anxious to settle before the marchers reached Sacramento and the inevitable landslide of publicity that the event would produce, the company signed a preliminary agreement. Dolores Huerta was charged with drawing up a full contract that would be finalized within 90 days.

The company agreed to recognize formally the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). This was the first time in U.S. history that a grassroots, farm labor union had achieved recognition by a corporation. Schenley agreed to a substantial increase of wages and to an improvement of working conditions.

On Saturday afternoon, the marchers rested on the grounds of Our Lady of Grace School on a hill looking across the Sacramento River to the capital city and held a rally that evening. Roberto Roman, a farm worker who had carried a wooden cross draped in black cloth for the entire 300 miles from Delano, stayed up most of the night redraping it in white and covering it with flowers. The next morning, Easter 1966, Roman joined Chávez and 50 others who had walked the entire distance. Led by several supporters on horseback carrying the union flag and many others wearing sombreros, they marched triumphantly across the bridge, down the mall, and up the capitol steps to thunderous cheers.

Roger Bruns


Further Reading
Dunne, John Gregory. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike. New York: Farrar, 1976; Ferriss, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farm-workers Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997; Jenkins, J. Craig. The Politics of Insurgency: The Farm Worker Movement in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
 

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