At a recent performance of Hamilton, the lump in my throat didn’t form until the emotionally charged song at the end, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” The lyrical conclusion struck even harder as I applied the question to myself.
I don’t know if anyone will be telling my story 200 years from now, either in history books or by my family’s descendants. Both seem unlikely. I often reflect on the subjects of mortality, remembrance and heritage — run-of-the-mill existential dread as a childless 30-something. I was raised around a side of the family that placed high importance on “passing things down” and knowing the stories of those who came before us.
The ancestors I know best are on that side, yet that knowledge centers just two generations back, on my paternal grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II.
Before opening an account with the online genealogy service Ancestry, I knew next to nothing about my mom’s side, the Colville line. This knowledge gap has since been swiftly filled.
As you start building a family tree on Ancestry, the site begins finding connections to the public records (birth, marriage…
She went to happenings with Allan Kaprow and on mushroom treks with John Cage. She was in a Yoko Ono film, performed in avant-garde festivals and dined with Marcel Duchamp. Nye Ffarrabas, aka Bici (Forbes) Hendricks, was a central figure in the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s. She and others created intermedia events that pushed the boundaries of prevailing norms in painting, sculpture, poetry, music and theater. They erased distinctions between art and life as they celebrated daily activities. Their radical aesthetics influenced subsequent postmodern performance and visual art.
Ffarrabas’ works are in museum collections around the country, including at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. But several factors conspired to blur art history, leaving far too few who remember Ffarrabas’ legacy. After divorcing her husband,…
Although Memorial Day has passed, it is never too late to tell of a massive sculpture that is to be installed in Washington D.C.’s Pershing Park in 2024.
Sabin Howard’s sculpture will consist of five tableaux about a U.S. soldier in World War I and called “Battle Scene.” For now, the site features a photograph of 20 sculpted figures and a full scale drawing. Smithsonian Magazine has posted Jeff MacGregor’s beautiful article about this memorial at https://tinyurl.com/255hrnpn. The project is also being documented on YouTube at https://tinyurl.com/2p9yb5ab. “One sculptor and his team of artists take on the epic project of conveying the century-old conflict through a massive bronze installation.”
National Archives Helps Beginning Genealogists
The records held by The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) include census, military, immigration, naturalization and land records. NARA has posted information about these records and how to access them at https://tinyurl.com/2x2uzmak. “Start Your Genealogy Research: Introduction to NARA Resources” is intended for beginning genealogists, but advanced researchers would be wise to check this website as well since it includes links to many helpful videos and other resources including tips, books, articles, tutorials and guides.
Slaves & slaveholders named in censuses
Tom Blake has posted “Large Slaveholders of 1860” and “African American Surname Matches from 1870” at https://tinyurl.com/ywh4jwc4. Blake has included an Introduction and Purpose of the site, who can make use of the site, updates and other helpful links. The site…
TRAVERSE CITY — The Traverse City Area District Library has digitized over a century’s worth of marriage, birth, and death records from Immaculate Conception Church in Peshawbestown for genealogy research.
As part of TADL’s efforts to increase access to material, the library released a collection of 18 PDF documents scanned from three reels of microfilm containing various archival records collected by the Immaculate Conception Church, also known as St. Kateri Tekakwitha or the Immaculate Conception Indian Church of Peshawbestown, dating from 1850-1953.
The digital copies were created from a microfilm copy that was donated by Northwestern Michigan College in the spring of 2020. All the original records are privately held by the Diocese of Gaylord and are not open to the public without permission.
“To make these records publicly available is very exciting,’’ said Michele Howard, director of TADL.
Before digitization, the process of going through the reels was incredibly time consuming, and would require an individual to go reel by reel, explained Howard. This format makes them available anytime, anywhere with working internet, and that she hopes this helps “connect the community with more resources.”
Adult Services Coordinator and project lead Melissa McKenna said the idea of formatting them into digital copies was quite simple. “They’re not our records,” she said, adding that it’s important for the families to have ownership of their own history.
The project is a close partnership between the library and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and both Howard…
At noon June 8 there will be a one-hour online presentation given by DNR historian Jeannie Regan-Dinius from the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. The topic will cover how to handle discoveries of bones, tombstones or grave goods on a property. This kind of evidence is sometimes uncovered during construction or utility work, especially on or near an old cemetery site. She will discuss the steps of reporting, the rules and ethics covering the discovery of old burials and how the community can help to preserve them. To register for free go to https://tinyurl.com/2p82zfs7.
From 6 to 7 p.m. June 13 the New England Historic Genealogical Society will confer the Coddington Award of Merit upon Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, “for her many valuable accomplishments and contributions to genealogy. . . Elizabeth Shown Mills has been a leading figure in American genealogy for more than forty years. She has published extensively in genealogical and historical journals, mostly about the South, especially Anglo-Celtic frontiersmen, French and Spanish Creoles, Native Americans, and the enslaved. She is a popular lecturer at genealogical conferences on these areas as well as on methodology. Her codification of genealogical methodology is the basis of the Genealogical Proof Standard, now recognized as the standard in the field of genealogy.” In this program, she will discuss her work and changes in the field of genealogy. To view this online for free, go to https://tinyurl.com/x92n2ctv and register.
From 4 to 5 p.m. June 16 there will be a free online lecture…
SAN ANTONIO – Mara Benitez didn’t think there would be much to her Hispanic family tree, but when she started learning more about her genealogy she said it not only made her more proud of where she comes from, but realized her family had a story.
“I was just kind of like, you know, I’m your average Mexican-American from the San Antonio area, you know, your average Hispanic,” Benitez, the assistant librarian at the Seguin Public Library said.
For example she learned her last name used to be Benito before it was Benitez.
“A lot of people you’ll notice, that have a Hispanic name like Ramirez, Gomez, Perez,” Benitez said. “You don’t realize is that E-Z or E-S ending like, Cervantes, that actually denotes the word ‘of.’ So you come from the Benito family. I’m Benitez. That’s what I am, of Benito.”
She also always thought her family’s roots were mostly linked to the border towns near Brownsville, but she discovered that both sides of her family have links to the town of Venado, Mexico.
“I didn’t realize I had generations of rich history on one specific town until I did this research,” Benitez said.
It’s why Benitez is teaching a free “Find Your Roots” class in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month in the 2nd Floor Technology Lab at the Seguin Public Library on Sept. 30 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. You can register for the class by clicking here.
Benitez said in the class you will learn what to look for and how to get past certain road blocks. She says a lot of Hispanic family history can get lost or forgotten and it’s important to research and learn it.
“So that’s kind of what I want everybody to get out of this class, that you have your story and it’s just out there for you to find,” Benitez said. “You just have to go looking for it. A lot of our history sometimes can’t be found in a textbook. And mainly that’s because it’s just lost. You know, we’re in a country like America, the majority of us are immigrants whether it was thousands or hundreds of generations ago. You know, we all came from somewhere else for the most part.”
She said knowing your own history as a Hispanic is important because the word Hispanic is really an umbrella term.
“But really Hispanic covers all of Central and Latin America, you know, and each country is so different,” Benitez said. “The islands, even across the ocean in Spain, all of them bring their own flavor into the word Hispanic. So it kind of helps round that out. And knowing exactly where you come from, what all of your personal history is, all of your personal culture is and where that comes from. And that just kind of rounds yourself out as a person and you’re kind of helping the world uncover that story whenever you’re doing that,” she said.
For a full list of events happening during Hispanic Heritage Month, check out our full list here.
Sri Lanka – In 1996, 14-year-old Dewi Chandrika Bruins travelled with her family to Sri Lanka, where in an airy school room in the town of Avissawella she met a thin, shy woman.
This woman, a social worker told the teenager, is the woman who gave birth to you.
For Bruins, who had been adopted by a Dutch couple when she was three months old, this meeting should have been the crescendo of her search for her roots. It was, however, the start of an unravelling.
The encounter felt “strange”, and the woman, Bruins recalls, appeared distant, scared even. At the end of the meeting, the social worker offered no contact information for her birth mother, and no way to stay in touch. All she was given was the lady’s photo.
“They told me she moved, and she didn’t want to leave her address with me,” says Bruins, now 39 and a psychologist in the Netherlands. “So it was, again, a very big rejection.”
As a teenager, she tried to deal with the curdling pain, the sense of loss. Then in 2011, as a 29-year-old, she was spurred to gather up the skeins of her search again. This time, she knew exactly who to contact: Andrew Silva.
From her sister, Bruins had heard about Silva, a Sri Lankan tourist taxi driver with a formidable reputation as a searcher in the Dutch adoption community.
“I heard he was experienced,” says Bruins, “that he was both realistic and reliable.” So she sent him an email.
‘This is not a business’
It is a humid January evening, and Andrew Silva is locking up his boxy Nissan van to settle down for dinner. He whips out two squat brown-paper notebooks; scrawled on each in maroon letters are the words “Mothers” and “Childrens”. As the headings suggest, the books contain information on Sri Lankan mothers who placed children for adoption and want to find them (200-plus entries), or children who were adopted and are looking for their birth families (1,000-plus entries).
Clad in cargo shorts and a pink T-shirt, his analogue phone and smartphone in front of him, Silva constantly fields calls. Someone wants to know if the DNA test results are back yet; someone else asks when he was going to meet them. His phones gurgle with notifications; messages from Italy and Switzerland, desperate adoptees seeking updates.
Since 2002, Silva, a 56-year-old father of two and cab driver in the coastal city of Negombo, has been connecting international adoptees to their birth mothers in the island nation.
Over two decades, he estimates he has helped reunite about 175 individuals who were adopted and their families. This is pro bono – he continues to work his day job, ferrying tourists across the country from the ruins of Sigiriya to the tea estates of Kandy and the beaches of the south. “This is not a business. This is one of the best things to help human beings,” says Silva. He only asks to be reimbursed his fuel costs if he is able to find their families.
Silva has no background in genealogy, bureaucracy or detective work. He is simply a man with a van, a network and an investigative zeal. “I can’t promise. If you say, ‘Andrew, help me find my biological mother’, I can’t say, ‘OK, I will [be able to] do it,’” he says. “But I say, ‘I will try.’”
It is not easy. From the 1970s onwards, at least 11,000 children in Sri Lanka were adopted by white Western couples often in dubious circumstances, with poor women exploited, and babies even sold. The Netherlands, Sweden and France were the top three receiving countries from Sri Lanka, according to Peter Selman, a visiting fellow at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and chair of the Network for Intercountry Adoption. According to his data, Sri Lanka went from being tenth in the 1970s to fifth in the 1980s as an origin country for international adoption.
As the scale of the wrongdoing was exposed, particularly in the wake of a 2017 Dutch documentary programme, the Sri Lankan government announced an investigation. Shorn of answers and sundered from their roots, grown-up adoptees have been increasingly returning to Sri Lanka in the past two decades.
“As adopted people, we want to know our stories,” says Helene Iresha Deschamps, 29, a French lawyer in Lyon. “There are so many questions.”
But poor record-keeping and the desire to cover up misdeeds have often stymied their searches, especially in a country where they do not know the language or even where to start.
For instance, Celine Breysse found conflicting information in the paperwork handed to her French parents in 1983. In 2009, when she went to Sri Lanka, the hospital that is listed on her birth certificate claimed to have burned its files. Silva tracked down the village of Breysse’s birth mother after finding the woman’s name in hospital records that were not mentioned in the adoption papers. It later turned out that the woman who had handed Breysse over in court was an “acting mother” – she had completed the formalities, but not actually given birth to her.
“Andrew was able to gain access to institutions that had lied to me for years,” says Breysse, 39, whose recent memoir, Good Morning Nilanthi, refers to some of these experiences. “Alone I would not have succeeded.”
The first case
Silva was raised in Negombo, a touristy beach town about 40km (25 miles) from the country’s capital, Colombo. Born Catholic, but not especially religious, he grew up a football fanatic in a cricket-mad nation.
In “little Rome”, as the town is called for its richness of churches, Silva had few plans other than playing as goalie for his beloved Jupiter football team and driving his taxi.
But life took a turn around 2002 when a Dutch tourist he knew through football introduced him to a Dutch family who wanted to do a tour. The family was also hoping to find their daughter’s birth mother but had run up against some hurdles. An intermediary claimed they could help, but only if they paid them.
Aggrieved, the family turned to Silva, their driver for the trip: would he be able to tackle an additional request?
Silva went through the paperwork at hand, puzzled at first by the enigmatic language. Through a process of trial and error, and following curious clues about “the houses near the river”, Silva hit upon the right person.
“I was happy after that,” he says. He did not expect that one success would launch a cottage industry. But the word of his breakthrough spread abroad and set off a ripple effect of requests.
‘This is my mother’s name’
By the time Silva received the email from Bruins in 2011, he was depressingly familiar with the unscrupulous practices rife through the 1980s: agents who coerced mothers into giving up children; nurses, lawyers and church officials who brokered shady agreements; government authorities who looked the other way.
With Bruins’s photo of the pink-sari-clad woman she was introduced to as her birth mother, Silva pounded the pavements and knocked on doors, asking around Avissawella where Bruins recalled having the meeting. But nothing worked and the search stagnated.
Then in 2017, Bruins reached out to him again, spurred on after watching a television documentary on adoption frauds. Tapping into his network of media contacts Silva was able to place a story in a local Sinhala newspaper on Bruins and her futile quest. The story mentioned the birth mother’s name, along with a photo from 1996.
For days, nothing happened. As Silva tells it, some weeks later, he received a call. The caller said she knew the name of the woman mentioned.
“She said, this is my mother’s name but this is not her photo,” Silva recounts. “But we know my mother [placed] a child for adoption.” The caller said they didn’t subscribe to this paper regularly, but they chanced upon the frayed pages while using old newspapers to protect their furniture during home renovations. She had accidentally read the story.
Even though the name and the photo did not match, it felt like the case had been cracked open.
Cautiously optimistic, Silva went to meet the family in a village near Negombo. He was instantly struck by the older woman’s resemblance to Bruins. Retrieving a DNA kit from his van, Silva pulled out a stick and swished the inside of the woman’s mouth for a sample.
‘One day you can find your mother’
Tourism has been erratic since the COVID pandemic struck, decimating a major plank of Sri Lanka’s economy. But before that, Silva did roughly two tours a month. Traversing the expanses of his homeland also gives him a chance to meet families in remote crannies, cultivate contacts in hospitals and government offices, and pursue leads everywhere.
“I can’t say I know all the places. Still, I am learning something new every day,” he says.
In recent years, Silva has been coordinating with people like Breysse who are based abroad and active in online adoption communities.
Frenchwoman Helene Deschamps describes watching Silva at work the first time she visited. He even joked to her at one point, that “searching for hotels and restaurants was not as interesting as searching to reunite mothers and children”.
Silva’s Nissan, with “big fan of the world” emblazoned across, is a veritable storage room; DNA kits lie in the boot, along with large name cards and pamphlets. In another compartment he has stashed stacks of photos in polythene bags; photos of brown mothers and white mothers, passport photos, baby photos, holiday photos.
He has a typically restrained answer on the nuts and bolts of his work. “I think every case is difficult; when I [solve it] then I say, this is easy!”
Part of the work involves sussing out frauds and insisting on a DNA test before an adoptee plans a visit; or undertaking new searches for those who doubt the families they found years ago.
The word “lottery” comes up – the vagaries of fortune determine who will find their birth mother today, next year, ever. Silva buys a national lottery ticket for 20 Sri Lankan rupees ($0.07 at the current rate) almost daily himself. He knows the feeling of chance wins – on occasion he has won more than 10,000 rupees ($36).
When adoptees feel frustrated, on the edge of giving up, Silva does not. “I say, one day you can find your mother.”
‘They can give her a nice life’
One January morning, Silva is on another search. He parks his Nissan and enters an unpainted house in the coastal town of Marawila. A woman waits inside.
Grecilda Lurds Fernando Malwaththage has been waiting for more than 35 years.
Malwaththage, 63, a cherubic woman in a skirt and blouse, narrates as Silva scribbles notes, and studies the sepia baby photos. Jobless, besieged by poverty, with her husband having walked out on her, Malwaththage, a school dropout, says she was cajoled by church officials into placing her daughter, Galgamage Shanika Priyadarshini Silva, for adoption when she was one.
When Silva gently asks her why, she bursts into tears.
Her niece translates as Malwaththage speaks: “The priest tells her, you cannot take care of the baby, you are poor. The people who are getting the baby, they can give her a nice life.” Silva commiserates. “If you decided to [raise] the child, the child would have suffered, you might have thought like that.”
Malwaththage’s second-born went with a “nice young couple”, who she remembers as tall and beautiful; possibly Dutch or Italian.
A few months later, she says she received four photos of Galgamage, but any questions she asked at the church were stonewalled. Her grief festered and gnawed. Four years ago, her brother heard about Silva, and thought, perhaps he would know what to do.
“I think god will one day help me find her,” says Malwaththage, as Silva translates. “I only want to see her and that is more than enough for me … I don’t want anything from her.”
She sometimes scans the faces of young women she meets, catching phantasmic glimpses of her own daughter in them. Before leaving, Silva asks if she knows of other mothers like herself, and if they might like to get in touch.
‘I want to find more mothers’
At first, those contacting Silva were mostly adoptees searching for their families, but as his name grew, families in Sri Lanka who had placed children for adoption, also began reaching out.
It is harder for these women; many do not remember dates or places, some are uneducated, and clueless on how or where to start searching. They tell him about unwanted pregnancies, about incestuous rape, about premarital sex and abusive husbands; freely unburdening themselves to this middle-aged male stranger.
Silva is attentive, asking uncomfortable questions delicately, giving them space to open up and making no extravagant promises. At times, he sizes them up and senses they are not telling him everything.
In the home of Warnakula Suriyage Premalata, a former tea estate worker in the winding hills of Opanayaka, Silva first makes discrete inquiries. He waits for one family member to leave before opening the conversation in Sinhala, then alternates with Tamil.
“Before I die, I somehow have to see her face,” says Premalata, 69, a thin woman in a nightdress and a tight bun. As she runs through a potted family history, Silva slaps his knees, in Eurekaish delight. “OK!” he exclaims, “Now I know!”
Brow furrowed, Silva is working something out in live time, but iceberg-like, much remains below the surface. Of Premalata’s two daughters who were adopted, the older one is possibly in Sri Lanka; it turns out he may have met her already. He suspects she was sent to a local convent, and the younger one abroad.
“How do you spell New Zealand?” he asks, as he jabs at his phone while trying to find photos of the older one. Festive fireworks go off outside.
On this trip, Silva has been working with Sri Lankan-born Dutch adoptee Amanda Janssen and her nonprofit, the Sri Lanka DNA foundation; Janssen provides the DNA kits and tracks matches with adoptees abroad.
At the end of the chat, Silva unwraps a new kit and extracts a stick. He peers from the top of his glasses, asking Premalata deadpan: “How many teeth do you have? We are going to pluck two.” Horrified, Premalata covers her mouth, then sensing the joke, rearranges her face in giggles.
Like Premalata, Silva is cognisant of time, and of mothers ageing and dying, which weighs his work with an added urgency. “I don’t know how to explain because these 20 years I am always thinking, before I die I want to find more mothers,” he says. “Because I know if I stop this, many children are going to lose something.”
‘It’s a big part of his life’
After Silva left the village near Negombo where he met the woman he thought could be Bruins’s mother, he sent her DNA sample for testing. Within weeks, the results came in: the two were mother and daughter.
It turns out that essentially, in 1996, Bruins had met a stand-in, or in adoption argot, “an acting mother”.
Bruins had sunk 20 years into a misapprehension, but at last, the truth had tumbled out.
In 2018, along with Silva, she travelled to Sri Lanka to meet her birth family. “It was a very nice meeting, very warm, but it was also very strange, because you look similar but there is also a distance,” says Bruins.
Her birth mother spoke of having had to place her for adoption as they were a large family and her husband had been sick. She claimed she too had been hoping to find her daughter, but did not know where to start until Silva arrived like a deus ex machina.
For Bruins, it brought closure. “I’m so happy that I met Andrew because otherwise I would always have questions which couldn’t be answered,” she says. “It’s very important to know where you come from.”
Silva is often present on these emotionally raw occasions. Helene Iresha Deschamps recalls Silva arranging her visit in 2021, and choking up himself. “He was the one crying the most and I was like, it’s OK,” she says. “He really is very invested, it’s a big part of his life.”
In the clip Silva filmed of Deschamps, she is panting, weeping, laughing as she embraces her birth mother. Few words are spoken. Silva swipes open his phone to reveal more such videos, a highlight reel of his work.
The camera shakily pans – side-to-side, up and down – struggling to capture the scale of the moments; climactic comminglings of disbelief and relief.
Silva looks on, then chuckles, “always I am also crying”.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.
One thing Henry Louis Gates Jr. has learned in his years of fascination with genealogy: The differences that separate human beings are microscopically small.
“At the genome level,” Gates said, “all human beings are 99.99% the same. And there are demagogues that want to make us forget the fact that we are all created in the image of God.”
Gates was in Tulsa on Friday morning as the final speaker for Tulsa Town Hall’s 2021-22 season. He spoke to a full house in the Tulsa PAC’s Chapman Music Hall and took part in an informal question-and-answer session with students from Tulsa Community College prior to his lecture.
Gates, a literary critic and professor at Harvard University, has written more than 20 books and earned 59 honorary degrees for his work in exploring and expounding upon the history and contributions of Black culture.
However, he is perhaps best known as the host of “Finding Your Roots,” the popular PBS series in which he guides celebrities through the often densely packed branches of their family trees.
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Gates said his interest in his own family history began in 1960, at the funeral of his grandfather, a man so light-skinned that the children in the family secretly referred to him as “Casper.”
After the funeral, Gates’ father took him and his brother to the top floor of their grandfather’s house to show them a collection of old ledger books that Gates’ grandfather had used as scrapbooks.
“He started turning through the pages until he found what he was looking for,” Gates said. “He pointed to a clipping, then showed us a photograph of a woman. He said he wanted us to remember this person.”
She was Jane Gates, Gates’ great-grandmother. She was a midwife, and the headline for her obituary described her as “estimable colored woman.”
“The last thing I did before I went to bed that night,” Gates recalled, “was to get out the big red dictionary on my desk and look up the word ‘estimable.’ When I saw what it meant (worthy of great respect), I thought maybe some day I could be estimable, too.”
Like many African Americans, Gates was galvanized by the story told in Alex Haley’s book “Roots” and by the landmark TV mini-series adapted from it.
It wasn’t until 2000, when DNA testing had developed to the point where it could determine the various strands of a person’s ancestry, that the idea for what would become “Finding Your Roots” was born.
Originally, Gates focused on famous African Americans, such as astronaut Mae Jemison, composer Quincy Jones, actress Whoopi Goldberg and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
“Why did I want Oprah (to be in the first series)?” Gates asked of the Town Hall crowd. “Simple — I needed $6 million in order to do the series.”
Gates later expanded the scope of the program after receiving a letter from a woman of Russian and Jewish heritage, accusing him of racism because the show did not include people of other nationalities and cultures.
“Finding Your Roots” is one of the highest-rated series on PBS, something that Gates attributes to the fact that the United States is, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “a nation of exiles.”
“Everyone here is from somewhere else,” Gates said. “And what truly makes America great is the fact that we welcome those people who are willing to risk everything to a find a home in this ‘city on a hill,’ as Ronald Reagan called it.”
Gates believes that one of the most effective ways to heal up the divisions in our society is to use the history and science involved in genealogy. Students would be tasked with searching through databases of census records to create their own family trees, then follow that with DNA tests to reveal one’s true ancestry.
“After all,” Gates said, “your favorite subject is always yourself. And when you open that vault of history and stories of your ancestors, you will discover information about who you are in ways you could never imagine before.
“Your genome is a walking family tree,” he said. “And being able to help let these stories live is why I’m so honored to host ‘Finding Your Roots.’”
Featured video: Tulsa Race Massacre graves researchers need DNA, genealogies to tie burials to victims
In 1993, UCLA named its Chicana and Chicano studies department after labor leader César Chávez to honor his commitment to fighting for the rights of marginalized farmworkers and use of nonviolent tactics to “challenge the moral conscience of the nation and the world.” Students in UCLA’s labor studies program also immerse with Chávez’s contributions to the labor movement through courses that analyze transnational farmworker labor struggles and labor organizing history.
To honor the labor icon, labor studies faculty members Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at the UCLA Labor Center, Center for Mexican Studies director and an expert on farm workers, immigrant workers and social movements, and labor studies faculty chair and history professor Tobias Higbie, who studies U.S. labor and social movement and migration history, discussed his legacy and lessons that remain vitally relevant to the worker struggles of today.
What surprises UCLA students about César Chávez and the farmworker movement?
Rivera-Salgado: Students are surprised by the genealogy of ideas that informed Chávez’s activism. They’re surprised to learn that he really learned how to organize as a community organizer, not as a union organizer. He worked under Fred Ross and the Community Service Organization and it is how Chávez learned about the house-meeting technique, which consisted of organizers educating workers about their rights in their homes, face-to-face. The house meeting became a fundamental strategy for organizing farmworkers that is still common today.
Students are also surprised by the multiracial nature of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and to learn that the Delano Grape Strike in 1965 was led and started by Filipino farmworkers who had been working for 30 years in California.
Therefore, the origin of the UFW had two big branches. One was the civil rights activists and community organizers, led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. The other was composed of Filipino farmworkers who had been in California since the 1930s, led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.
Higbie: As someone who teaches a longer perspective on history, sometimes students aren’t aware that people have been organizing farmworkers for far longer. Not to take away from Chávez’s accomplishments or the UFW, but to highlight how complex and difficult this struggle was. Farmworkers have been organizing since the late 19th century in different parts of the country. And there were massive organizing drives in the World War I era of farmworkers in the Midwest and the West, and even in California, that were crushed by local and federal officials.
The second thing, which is not as happy of a story for César Chávez and his memory, but students are surprised to learn that Chávez, at a certain moment, was opposed to undocumented immigrant workers. Yet, Chavez’s position on undocumented immigrants evolved from being opposed and aligning with the immigration authorities to deport undocumented workers to eventually coming around and defending immigrants and amnesty. It’s important to be aware that even our heroes sometimes evolve and have a change of heart, a change of mind and strategy. And we can all learn from that.
How did farm workers pull together to gain some rights as workers?
Rivera-Salgado: It was in 1965, when you have the confluence of all these histories. There was community organizing, radical unionism, labor-conscious Filipinos farmworkers who had staged strikes in 1930s, the end of the Mexican Bracero program, which allowed millions of Mexican migrants to work legally in the agriculture industry between 1942-1954, and U.S.-born Mexican Americans working in the fields. Combined, these provided a multi-pronged strategy for farmworkers to finally be successful in establishing a permanent union.
Because the Delano Grape Strike wasn’t just for salaries and working conditions, it was for growers to actually recognize the union. That was so important. We take it for granted, but before the strike, farmworkers were excluded from the New Deal, so they were not covered by the National Labor Relations Act so they didn’t have the same rights as industrial workers.
We often hear the phrase “Si Se Puede” when we talk about Chávez, how did that slogan come about?
Rivera-Salgado: It was actually Dolores Huerta, who was in charge of a lot of the strategic organizing decisions alongside Chávez, who coined the famous slogan: “Si Se Puede” (yes we can). She was talking to supporters in Arizona because that state had passed a law prohibiting farmworkers from organizing into unions. They couldn’t even say the word “strike.” So, when she was organizing them, supporters were saying: no se puede, aquí no se puede hacer nada (no we can’t, you can’t do anything here). She challenged them by saying: Si Se Puede. And that became such a powerful idea. And I think it reflects her contribution to the movement.
What would you say are the lessons from Chavez’s contributions to the labor movement as we consider the challenges facing frontline workers amid the pandemic?
Higbie: It goes back to what Gaspar was just saying about Si Se Puede. Back then everyone was saying, you will never organize these farmworkers. It’s too difficult. They don’t have any power. They move around too much. They’re immigrants. But the point is that organizers took on that challenge and fought for improvements and it’s been an ongoing, continuous process but you can never really stop struggling for these improvements. It’s not like you get one law passed, and then you get to go home and rest. So, one of the lessons for us today, for our students, is that we all have to be in this for the long haul. You have to envision the world you would like to create and then to go out and find other people who share that vision and organize alongside them.
Rivera-Salgado: By studying the history of organizing farmworkers and the legacy of César Chávez, one can always sense that building a union is always done under adverse circumstances. The United States is a hostile territory for building unions. But it’s interesting to also realize, that people who we think are very marginal in our economy, sometimes do amazing things. Not only farmworkers in the 1960s, but now warehouse workers at Amazon, Uber drivers, and even baristas at Starbucks — people who haven’t traditionally been activists or radicals, by any stretch of the imagination are leading our renewal of organizing.
Chávez also planted the seed for social movement unionism, which means that you have to connect to workers within the larger context, with the realities of how workers are living. You don’t leave politics aside. You don’t leave elections aside and you don’t leave the issues of race and poverty out of your fight. You need to work with other sectors of civil society.
So in the case of farmworkers, they spearheaded corporate responsibility campaigns, they spearheaded the environmental movement that was part of their reality. They came up with demands of companies that subcontracted their workers and they were very creative. They were also very critical of the lax policies and regulations and the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the fields because their use also affected their community.
How could we honor the day in a way that’s consistent with the lessons and values that Chávez dedicated his life to achieve?
Rivera-Salgado: The easiest way to honor César Chávez is to recognize that when you eat a strawberry, you have a direct connection with the worker who picked that fruit for you. I think we forget that fundamental aspect in our complicated lives. Especially in a post-pandemic California, these humble workers were deemed essential but they don’t feel essential. Farmworkers will tell you over and over: “My wages don’t tell me I’m essential. My working conditions don’t tell me I’m essential. The way I’ve been treated doesn’t make me feel essential.”
So look at who’s behind your own ability to live your life and as you walk on campus, this beautiful campus, how is it maintained? How is it possible that we’re here? And the second lesson: organize.