On a hilltop, framed by beautiful, mountains and majestic skies at the National Chavez Center stand three cross, a star of David, and a crescent moon. Behind Cesar Chavez’ grave, adorning a mural of the Delano picket line are 5 waterfalls, constantly recycling water to and from a reflecting pool. Both the religious symbols and the waterfalls represent the five martyrs of la Causa.
I asked Paul Chavez to tell me more. “My father always remembered the martyrs,” Paul said. I was reminded of this story today because of what is going on in Wisconsin. People then and people now know the importance of unions to protect themselves against corporate greed, thievery, injustice and inequality. People then and people now are viciously attacked for having those beliefs, but never give up!
1) Nan Freeman (1953-1972)
Nan is commemorated by the first fountain by Cesar’s gravesite and the star of David on the hill. She dies when she was picketing in front of the Talisman sugar plant in Florida. She was a young Jewish college student from Boston. She died when she was hit by a 70,000 pound truck hauling sugar cane from the fields into the plant. Cesar Chavez said about her: “We can remember Nan Freeman. We can honor her life and express our thoughts to her family. We can give more of ourselves just because she has given everything. We must work together to build a Farm Workers’ Union that is worthy of her love and her sacrifice.“
2) Nagi Daifallah (1949-1973)
Nagi is represented by the second fountain and the crescent moon on the hilltop. He was among a group of immigrants from Yemen working in the California fields. He was only 24 when he died, 5 feet tall and 100 pounds. He died when a Sheriff’s deputy swung a metal flashlight at him during a peaceful protest, breaking his neck and skull. No ambulance was called and three other protester were arrested when they tried to help. Cesar Chavez said of him: “Nagi Daifallah was an immigrant. Like so many thousands of Farm Workers, he came to this country seeking opportunity and fell into the trap of poverty and powerlessness that has enslaved so many migrant Farm Workers in our country.”
3) Juan De La Cruz (1913-1973)
Juan is the third martyr that died in the name of the cause. He was a bracero from Mexico and was shot on a picket line that stretched from Arvin to Weedpatch. He died only a few days after Nagi. The UFW decided this picket line was too dangerous and the strike was called off. Of Juan Cesar Chaves said: “Juan is a martyr in a just cause. We will give purpose and memory to his life and death by what we do. The more we sacrifice, the harder we work, the more life we give to the spirit of our brother, Juan De La Cruz.”
4) Rufino Contreras (1951-1979)
Rufino was the fourth martyr that died: he was shot by company foremen when he and other peaceful protestor tried to enter the lettuce field to talk and negotiate with the foremen. Every time Rufino’s friends and family tried to re-enter the field to retrieve the body, they too were shot at. Cesar said: “What was their reward for their service and their sacrifice? When they petitioned for a more just share of what they themselves produce, when they spoke out against the injustice they endured, the company answered them with bullets. The company sent hired guns to quiet Rufino Contreras.”
5) Rene Lopez (1962-1983)
Rene was the fifth martyr who died for the cause who is commemorated at La Paz. He was shot by hired gunmen when he was trying to unionize dairy workers to collectively bargain for better work standards and higher wages. apparently he was very proud to become part of the UFW telling his mother: “Today I am a man. Today I signed a UFW authorization card to become a member of the United Farm Workers.” Cesar said of him: “Rene is gone because he dared to hope and because he dared to live out his hopes.“
These are some beautiful and empowering stories. We, like Chavez, should always remember these people who could no longer watch injustices happen all around them, even risking their own lives to do so. Let’s not give up the cause! Our work continues!