In 1974 I landed a pretty sweet job in the news department of KTMS Radio in Santa Barbara. I started out by doing simple interviews with newsworthy folks and then sending them on to Associated Press feeds. For example, I had a congenial relationship with former (recalled) California Gov. Gray Davis when he was merely Gov. Jerry Brown’s spokesperson. He always took my calls.
But ambition and short skirts soon got the attention of the news director, and I became an in-the-field reporter. In retrospect, I wasn’t great at the job, but that didn’t seem to be the point. Equipped with a remote broadcast unit that weighed at least 20 pounds and looked like an old car battery, I was sent out to the elite streets of the coastal paradise to record or live-broadcast newsworthy topics.
Not much memorable happened during my time as a roving radio reporter, with one important exception. Cesar Chavez and several hundred farmworkers and supporters spent the night near the harbor on a week-long march to bring attention to the conditions they endured as migrant laborers in California’s farms and fields.
I hadn’t anticipated how important the assignment would be until I arrived and saw the number of men and women who’d already walked from distant points under hot sun, skirting dangerous freeways, sleeping on the ground. I was definitely a misfit, arriving in a short skirt and wearing three-inch platform sandals, hair done up in curls, and fingernails polished. I was immediately out of place. Assuming I only spoke English, a couple of the men in appropriate clothing – sensible shoes, broad-brimmed hats, and neck scarfs uttered comments about my outfit in Spanish, repeating the word “gabacha” (unflattering slang for a white person) more than once. However, they were apologetic when they discovered I spoke adequate Spanish and had understood.
The highlight of that assignment was talking with Chavez himself, a diminutive man with mocha-tan skin and eyes that sparkled like tiny beams of sun reflecting off the ocean. Some of the interview was fed live and the rest recorded for later broadcast. But in that conversation, as his troops rested for the next leg of their journey, I felt a pull. An urge to be more than an overdressed observer. I decided to march with them up the highway to the next spot. I bolted to a payphone on the nearby boat dock and informed the news director that someone ought to be ready to come fetch me somewhere up the road.
I threw my essential shoulder bag (holding makeup, a couple of school books, pens, hairbrush, my 35 mm camera, and other necessities) over my bare shoulder and grabbed the remote broadcast unit. With shouts of “Huelga” and “Si’ Se Puede,” the march headed for the freeway. At first, I chatted with marchers who taught me some new expressions in Spanish and filled me in on their goals. I felt energetic and purposeful. For the next hour, I was educated, in-depth, to the complaints, history, treatment, and demands of farmworkers. Surrounded by men and women whose hard labor fed the state and much of the country, the reality of their lives sunk in like no classroom lecture ever could.
We were marching in twos and threes along the narrow verge, rising up a steep hill leaving the city far behind. Juggling the heavy remote unit (the bottom almost certainly made of lead) with one hand and using the attached mic in the other quickly became impractical, and I stopped recording. After about eight miles, the unit itself began to drag my body down, and I started to fall well behind the great leader of the march. One of the men who’d earlier called me a “parajo elegante” (fancy bird) pulled alongside me and took the unit from my hand, giving me a look that indicated pity. He carried it the rest of the way because, due to the hills and the sun and the pace they all were keeping, I could no longer do interviews anyway.
In another mile or so, I became painfully aware of my feet - strapped into platform sandals clearly not meant for marching of any kind. I took them off and walked barefoot on the hot, packed sand. Within the next half hour, two marchers (a man and woman) walked beside me and, without pausing, removed the bandanas they’d had around their own necks and placed them on mine. In Spanish, the woman said, “You are looking like a lobster, sister.” She gently took the bag from my shoulder and put it on hers. The man chuckled. They handed me a bottle of water.
By then, I realized how unprepared I’d been for everything. For covering one of the decade’s most important labor movements. For walking behind a legendary leader and alongside men and women whose experience defied understanding by those of us treated equitably in life. Of course, most obvious to all (including me) was how I’d underestimated what it would take to march many miles under the California sun. My compatriots not only conquered the physical realities, they did so while singing songs, chanting slogans, and broadcasting hope.
About 15 miles up the road there was a small gas station where I stopped and called the station for a rescue. My new friends said a sincere goodby and thanked me for trying. “Ella esta’ muy brava, pero no muy lista,” one marcher about 40 years older than me said. He was right – I had gumption but not many practical smarts. The station’s intern showed up for the rescue and said, “Jeez, you look terrible. Do you need to see a doctor? Your face looks like somebody boiled you.” He laughed at that. It took two days for the sunburn on my neck, face, and arms to subside and for the blisters on my feet to stop hurting.
I’m thinking about that experience now as we approach Father’s Day because that’s who Cesar Chavez was, the Father of this country’s farmworker movement. The man who lived and breathed for acknowledgment of the people who plant, grow and pick our food. Who demanded fair treatment and pay. Who fought for humane housing and working conditions. Who created a labor union to represent the least in America’s workforce. And whose effort improved (yet didn’t heal) the inequities experienced by laborers who cling to the bottom rung of America’s ladder where fields and orchards lie waiting for their hands.
That march and many others, by the way, did get Gov. Brown’s attention, and in 1975 he signed the California Labor Relations Act, a victory for the men and women I had the privilege of marching with, though not far-reaching enough to create the kind of change they envisioned.
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