Honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez

By David G. Oddo, retired teacher and a former volunteer with the Child Labor Coalition

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement since 1968. In September of that year, I was a freshman at the University of San Diego High School and the United Farm Workers-led grape boycott was in full swing. One day, my father handed me a “Boycott Grapes” button and he told me I should wear it to school. When I asked my father how I should respond to questions regarding the boycott, he calmly told me: “Tell your fellow students that you like to eat grapes, however, you do not like the way in which farm workers are being treated.”

Eight years after surviving my first “baptism under fire,” I became an active participant in the farm workers’ nonviolent struggle for social justice. During the period of 1976-1991, I marched with Cesar Chavez, walked dozens of picket lines, and spent two weeks in Ohio as a volunteer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. I also had the privilege of meeting Cesar on two occasions. In September 1991, however, disaster struck.

While vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, I became seriously ill with a neurological condition known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Within a week, I had become completely paralyzed and was in danger of losing the ability to breathe. I was immediately airlifted to the intensive care unit of Scripps Mercy Hospital, where I nearly died due to complications from my illness.

Fortunately, my condition gradually improved. After a seven-month stint at Mercy and Sharp Rehabilitation hospitals, I was able to return to my home in San Diego. However, the next several years were spent confined to a wheelchair. As well, I faced the daunting task of relearning to walk.

To be completely honest, I don’t know how I survived those difficult times. I am certain that my faith in God was essential to my recovery. The love and support of my family and friends were equally important. Perhaps I was just plain stubborn, especially after being told by my doctors that I would never again be able to walk.

During those difficult days, I would often think of the accomplishments of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement. For example, the banning of dangerous agricultural pesticides such as DDT, the elimination of the infamous short-handled hoe, and the enactment of a collective bargaining law for California farm workers. Perhaps the most enduring legacy, from a personal perspective, was the “Si Se Puede” (Yes, it can be done) attitude of the farm worker movement. This was a source of inspiration as I was recovering from my illness.

It has been nearly 18 years since I became seriously ill. However, I am vastly improved. Despite daily challenges and numerous setbacks, I am currently able to walk with the aid of a walker and a quad cane. And the wheelchair? It is collecting dust in my condo’s storage area. More important, I am now physically able to rejoin the struggle for farm worker justice. I realize that I have a difficult journey on the road to recovery. And there is much work to be done with regard to our nation’s agricultural workers. Indeed, the vast majority still labor under hazardous conditions, earn poverty-level wages, and are excluded from the benefits of collective bargaining agreements. Child labor is widespread.

As I move forward with these challenges, it is my hope that the spirit of Cesar Chavez will guide me on my journey.