Earlier this year people from all over the world celebrated the birthday of the late Cesar Chavez. For the day, Google even featured the farm worker turned civil-rights activist by putting his face in their logo. Marcos Munoz worked closely with Chavez, he recently spoke about it to a crowd at the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Springfield. What also came to light during Munoz’s presentation was a love-story that started with a shared passion for social justice. Rachel Otwell brings us the story of Munoz and his wife Andrea:
MARCOS MUNOZ: “People like me, we didn’t believe that we had power. Or that we had good ideas or bad ideas. We just thought we were nobody. We didn’t have no faith in us. And Cesar Chavez … he start(ed) helping us to build confidence within ourselves.”
Marcos Munoz was born in Mexico and came to America when he was 13 years old. He was paid 2 dollars a day for his first job.
MARCOS MUNOZ: “I’m no different from people coming from different countries, we come to make a better life. We come to be able to support our families. I come because we were poor in Mexico. My mother raised us, there (were) 8 people in our family. It was hard. So I came to the United States to work.”
But Munoz would end up following a different path than many other immigrants. He would become a major activist in the fight for improved conditions for immigrant farm workers. One of his bosses early on reported Munoz to Immigration. Munoz says the man refused to give him his pay. Munoz says he was taken from one work site to another.
MARCOS MUNOZ: “In my mind I was very angry. In my mind I wanted to take revenge (on) that man.”
Munoz was taken to to a sugar beet farm in Colorado. It was 1965. World-renowned activist Cesar Chavez was forming the union the United Farm Workers in the state. Munoz found his chance to take revenge on the boss who had slighted him – he would go on to work to defend immigrant workers around the country and promote better working conditions – like fair wages, fewer working hours, and better access to food and water. By organizing a well-known uprising, called the Delano Grape Strike, Chavez’s cause was paid attention to by the media and public. It eventually led to collective bargaining on behalf of some ten-thousand workers. Munoz says meeting Chavez gave him an opportunity to use his anger to help others like himself:
MARCOS MUNOZ: “When the strikes come out – I saw a group of people, angry, protesting. (Spanish) ‘Come on! Join the strike! Help us fight!’ And to me, in my mind, here’s a group of people … mad like me. And we’re going to get guns, and we’re going to start shooting people.”
Munoz was right about the passion of the strikers – but he was mistaken about the guns. He soon learned that Chavez was only interested in non-violent protests and activism. Chavez began dispersing immigrant workers to cities across the country in order to further the cause. When Chavez asked who would go to Boston – Munoz rose his hand because there was a girl he liked who lived in Basto, California. He had the wrong city in mind – so it was a surprise for Munoz when he arrived on the other side of the country. But it was there he met his wife of 45 years, Andrea. Andrea was not an immigrant like Munoz, but like him, she was involved in social activism:
OTWELL: “I was wondering how you got involved in the movement?”
ANDREA MUNOZ: “I’ll tell you the real truth (laughing), I used to be a nun. And I left back in the 60s when a lot of people were leaving, but wanted to find something that helped you live what you believed … 1968 was a wonderful time, everybody believed that you could change the world. And the truth is, you can. But it was before a lot of the cynicism that we have today, it was really a much simpler time than it is today.”
Andrea was helping with a newsletter when she met Marcos Munoz. He mentioned that he needed to find a place to live, and she went with Munoz to a local church and asked if the farm workers could stay in a local building the church owned. Marcos and his comrades moved in.
ANDREA MUNOZ: “And then once he was in the neighborhood – they were always looking for people to picket the supermarket or organize a delegation, you know we’d go to different conventions, labor unions – he’d go speak to different groups. So little by little it pulled you in. I was teaching at the time … you were free for the summer, so you got more involved. And then I never went back to school (laughing.)”
During their presentation, Andrea was asked by a young audience member why recent activist causes haven’t been as successful as the one she’s worked for. In particular, she spoke about the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, which protests corporate greed:
ANDREA MUNOZ: “A lot of people turned out in cities across the country. But a lot of people weren’t clear on what exactly is the message. You can be against something, but it’s much more effective if you are for something that people understand – where is this leading, how do I measure my impact…”
For the Munoz’s – Chavez’s message rang loud and clear:
ANDREA MUNOZ: “The message is one of empowerment and one of hope. And I think the greatest contribution Chavez made, aside from the impact on the industry – was taking individuals like Marcos and like other farm workers and showing them that, ‘You are somebody, you do count, you can achieve, you can accomplish when you join with others.’”
Marcos and his wife Andrea are just two of the many people who carry on Chavez’s legacy of non-violent action in the push for civil rights and social justice.