Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on September 26, 2014
Strike!: The Farm Workers’ Fight for Their Rights
By Larry Dane Brimner
Publisher: Calkins Creek Books
Publication date: 10/1/2014
Award-winning author Larry Dane Brimner has spent his writing career identifying untold stories for younger readers of nonfiction. With his new history from Calkins Creek Books, Brimner hopes to reveal the silences once more with the story of Filipino farm laborers during the 1965 Delano grape strike and boycott.
Strike!: The Farm Workers’ Fight for Their Rights serves as a primer for drawing out a story from a frustrating dearth of information on an underrepresented perspective.
Despite an overwhelming amount of primary source material (FBI files, photos, speeches, interviews, diaries, correspondence and newspaper clippings) on the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), Brimner chose to be fair and balanced. He outlined the contributions of the largely Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), the organizers of the September 8 walkout.
According to Brimner’s research and interviews, AWOC leaders Larry Itliong, Pete Velasco and Andy Imutan had actually struggled to convince NFWA leaders Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gil Padilla to join their coalition. The groups would eventually merge into the juggernaut United Farm Workers (UFW).
The book’s jacket cover and overall design are gorgeously done with vivid captions and headlines in Spanish and English at the onset of each chapter. Choice photographs brilliantly depict the players, events and symbols of the farm worker’s struggle.
Brimner’s journalistic style brings to light consequences farm workers from both organizations might have risked if they picketed California vineyards.
Labor was in short supply during World War II and the federal government agreed to a program of guest workers, braceros, to enter the United States from Mexico. This afforded growers an abundance of labor for picking grapes, lettuce, tomato and celery between 1942 and 1964.
When complaints about working conditions or pay would surface, “rich, powerful and politically-connected” growers routinely set worker against worker. Strike scabs could have easily been hired to take their place.
Brimner cites a 2005 speech Andy Imutan gave on the 40th anniversary of the Delano grape strike. Imutan said he had sought a way to keep Mexican workers from crossing picket lines. He believed joining forces to stop injustice was the only way forward, so he and fellow AWOC leaders courted Chavez, who had promised to do more for farm workers than increase wages when he formed the NFWA.
“On September 20, 1965, four days after the historic vote, the NFWA walked out of the fields and went on strike with the AWOC. Now more than thirty vineyards were affected. The NFWA, with more members than the AWOC, shifted the balance of strikers from mostly Filipino to Chicano and Mexican.”
Aware of how social justice issues are perpetually framed around radicalism, Brimner writes of the Catholic faith that connected Filipino and Chicano pickers and urged a united front into action. Chavez built on that commonality, utilizing organized prayers, fasts, shrines, symbols of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the pilgrimage, la peregrinación, to encourage strikers and to invoke the morality behind their movement.
Strike! introduces a virtually unknown chapter in American history: the Mexican Repatriation. During the Depression, local, state and federal authorities sent thousands of citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent to Mexico over fears of competition for scarce jobs. Many of the people removed from their homes were born in the United States and never lived anywhere else. Imagine the kinds of difficult questions younger readers might ask about our collective amnesia?
Brimner’s history is exhaustive and relevant and reexamines power among groups whose narrative only occasionally sees the light of day. He identifies both the United Farm Workers’ achievements as well as its defeats. And, readers will wonder whether everyone involved in events had been heard.
Larry Dane Brimner is author of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award winner We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin and more than 155 books for younger readers, including nonfiction books about science, history, sports and technology.
Calkins Creek Books is the U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press and publishes picture books, chapter books and novels for ages 8-18.