Changing the Lives of Farmworker Families with Cesar Chavez
In 1968, Dr. José Villa was a freshman at the University of Oregon. There, he helped start a student group called the Chicano Student Union that would forever change his life.
Why was this group needed?
We were looking at increasing the enrollment of Mexican-American students at the University of Oregon. Out of almost 15,000 students, we maybe had 15 to 20 Mexican-American students. We went through the University’s Student Association to request funding for an office. Through those efforts, we brought several speakers such as Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, Reies Lopez Tijerina, and Jose Angel Gutierrez from La Raza Unida. We also brought groups like El Chicano, a Chicano musical band and Cheech and Chong, who were popular comedians then. The grape boycott was in full force at the time. Cesar Chavez was promoting the lettuce and grape boycott and did speaking tours in California, Washington and Oregon. We contacted him and were surprised how responsive he was. We arranged for him to travel to Eugene, Oregon to talk to the students at the University of Oregon. Throughout this period of time, we talked about organizing and helping with the boycott. We advocated to our university’s administration that it should stop buying lettuce and grapes.
How did you convince the University of Oregon to join the boycott?
Cesar Chavez talked directly to the University’s President. In addition, many student organizations pressured the University. After several meetings, the University decided to support us. This was a victory not only for the United Farm Workers (UFW), but also for Chavez and the student groups at the university. The boycott was a worldwide effort because the grapes and lettuce were being exported to other countries. Chavez wasn’t only organizing here. He was also going abroad to work with the leaders in other countries and governments. Through our contacts, we organized to boycott the largest grocery store in the western states every Saturday. Also, one of his closest advisors, David Martinez, is a good family friend. David is from my hometown San Juan, Texas. That’s another point of contact I shared with Chavez. David used to migrate to Minnesota to work with my family. We worked hoeing sugar beets, weeding onions, and planting potatoes. Later, Chavez went to the Woodburn area, which is where my family and I settled as migrants in 1968. This was the heart of where the migrant population settled in Oregon. We worked with him to organize the farmworkers in the Woodburn area, he got men to go to La Paz, California, where the UFW headquarters was located. The objective was to train them as community organizers and for them to go back to their respective cities and states to organize individuals to boycott lettuce and grapes. A couple years later, my dad, Alberto, went to train as an organizer.
Why do you think your dad joined the campaigning efforts?
My dad had always been a man who saw everything as work, work, and more work. He would say, “We don’t know if we’ll be able to work tomorrow. We don’t know how the weather might affect us.” It was a huge surprise to me for him to go to training for two to three weeks and not generate income working in the fields. But I think it was his way of telling me he had not been doing what he had been preaching. If you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. In earlier years, I had considered not starting my education at the University of Oregon although I had already been accepted. My dad had emphasized the importance of an education, so that I could sometime in the future continue working on behalf of the migrant population. I’m glad he was able to go to La Paz. Through these trainings, my friendship with Cesar Chavez grew.
By the time you graduated from the University of Oregon, how many Mexican American students were enrolled?
In 1972, we had at least 150 students. Around 1967, the high school equivalency program was implemented at the University of Oregon. The emphasis was to provide opportunities for migrants that had dropped out of high school to go back and get their GED. Raising our numbers was possible because we worked with programs geared to advise the incoming Mexican-American population. For example, Project Life, a support-based program that helped students with scholarships as well. Migrant students that obtained their GED or those coming in as freshmen would receive mentoring from us. There were only three Hispanic professors in the whole university. They were our mentors and support. Out of the three of us that entered in 1968, I was the only one that got my undergraduate degree.
When did you see Cesar Chavez again?
In 1988, Cesar Chavez was invited to come talk to the students at The Ohio State University. I was a coordinator at The Ohio State University working with the migrant community at the time. The person responsible for bringing him to the university asked me to please introduce Cesar Chavez to the crowd. I immediately said yes to having the honor of presenting him and the opportunity to talk to him again. Chavez recognized me and said, “You’re Alberto’s son, you’re José.” It’s very humbling and rewarding for me to have known Cesar Chavez that closely.
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