When I was a kid and we drove to visit my grandma in Santa Barbara, we’d pass through the Salinas Valley. Â You always knew you were there, largely because of the fields that seemed to go on forever, neat green rows and rows alongside the 101. Â There was that particular smell in the air, too, a mix of fresh vegetation and fertilizer, a smell that doesn’t change over the years. Â And occasionally, there would be people in the fields, small dots of bright clothing in that endless green landscape, bent over and picking the crops.
It always seemed like a very difficult way to make a living.
In high school I read The Grapes of Wrath. Â Years later, I taught it to my own high school students. Â And that story put such a human face on the experience of migrant workers, those dots in the field from my childhood. Â As I taught the novel, I discovered more about Cesar Chavez, Â the founder of the United Farm Workers. Â Through noviolence, he fought for the rights of those farmworkers, who were so often unprotected and exploited. Â It was a struggle for justice that was totally informed by his faith; he and the workers marched with the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and prayer sustained him in the many struggles that came with shaking up the system. Â As he wrote, memorably, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving life do we find life. Â I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. Â To be a man is to suffer for others.”
On today, Cesar Chavez’s birthday, I like to think about those words and the Gospel that inspired them. Â I hope that I’m always moving towards compassion for the less fortunate rather than away from it. Â And I will pray tonight for all those who pick the food that ends up on my table. Â It’s so easy to overlook those dots in the field, and I thank God for Cesar Chavez, who made it harder for us to do so.