Opinion | Cesar Chavez Did Not Want This Work to Be Cruel

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Eladio Bobadilla was 11 when he moved from Mexico to Delano, where his parents worked in the grape vineyards. Undocumented and frustrated by his lack of options, Mr. Bobadilla almost dropped out of high school; eventually, he became a historian of immigrants’ rights.

In some ways, he noted last week in a talk about Mr. Chavez, conditions in the fields are worse than they were decades ago. In real dollars, many farmworkers earn less now than they did in the 1970s. Before Mr. Bobadilla’s parents retired, they had to bring home the dirty trays they used to pick grapes during the week and wash them on their day off. They did not know, nor did their son, that was against the law; they knew only that they would lose their jobs if they did not comply.

“The struggle continues,” Mr. Bobadilla said. “It’s still a deeply exploitive type of work. It doesn’t have to be undignified work. It doesn’t have to be cruel work. It’s always been difficult. But it doesn’t have to be cruel.”

On the day President Biden took office, the White House released a photo showing a bust of Cesar Chavez prominently displayed in the Oval Office. The first lady is expected to attend an event on Wednesday, Mr. Chavez’s birthday, a California state holiday, at the old U.F.W. headquarters in Delano, now a historic monument.

Symbols are important. But they are not enough. Just as the legacy of Mr. Chavez needs to be more than the name of the Delano high school that Mayor Osorio attended, the commitments to “equity” and “a new normal” need to mean more than tributes to the bravery of essential workers.

Perhaps the administration should look not to the past but to new models, like the worker-driven programs established by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Program, which have made real strides for workers in Florida.

It will be up to the next generation, the one Mr. Chavez presciently foresaw, to make change, not just in the cities but also in the fields. Not to recreate failed guest worker programs, but to find ways to bring dignity and a living wage to the millions of American farmworkers.

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