In the summer of 1973, César Chávez came to Dayton from the strike lines in Coachella, California to talk about the plight of farm workers. There was a week of activities and WYSO News was right in the middle of it. Rediscovered Radio’s Jocelyn Robinson takes a look at the struggles facing the migrant worker community, then and now.
When United Farm Workers union organizer César Chávez spoke at the University of Dayton over forty years ago, the hardships he described sounded real, but seemed far away.
"Thursday I left Coachella from directly from the picket line at about 2:00 in the afternoon and the temperature there was 121 degrees," said Chávez. "You could see the men and women and children on the picket line going through the tremendous sacrifice of standing there under the blazing sun, and being a witness to those things they believe in."
When I was growing up, grapes were never on the menu. Back then, households all over the country boycotted grapes and lettuce to show solidarity with the striking California workers and César Chávez.
"These men, women, and children who are asked to migrate 2-3 thousand miles a year, they’re responsible for the fruits and the vegetables and the nuts and the cereals, the grains, that you eat, almost every time you sit at that table," said Chávez in his Dayton speech. "And when you sit at the table and see a luscious piece of fruit, or vegetables, keep in mind that almost, with very few exceptions, that fruit got their because someone was exploited, someone was sacrificed, with no hopes of any return for the labors, to get that fruit there to feed you, and the rest of the country, and part of the world."
We were largely unaware, though, of the struggles of farm workers right here in Ohio, right here in the Miami Valley. WYSO News reported on a UFW rally held on Dayton’s courthouse square on May 2, 1974.
Thursday’s rally was the climax for National Farm Worker Week activities in Dayton. The ceremony was conducted to break a four-day fast undertaken by several farm worker supporters. Bread and Italian Swiss Colony wine, a union brand, was shared. Following Thursday’s rally, WYSONews spoke with Dayton’s UFW Coordinator Dave Koehler about the National Farm Worker Week activities.
"We wanted to demonstrate this to the public that not only in California and Arizona, thousands of miles away, but right here in Ohio we have more than 60,000 farm workers coming in and they asked, the farm workers themselves have asked the church to stand with them in the their cause, that is to help them build a union," said Koehler.
At that time, migrant workers in the Dayton area mainly kept to the camps near the tomato fields and weren’t welcomed into local communities. Most of us rarely heard Spanish, and never saw signs in Spanish, or foods like cilantro or jalapeños at the supermarket.
But things have changed. Today, native Spanish speakers from all over are the fastest growing demographic in Ohio, increasing over 63% since 2000. Yet the migrant worker population has dwindled. Many who first came here from Mexico for seasonal work have settled permanently, attracted by the low cost of living and potential for year-round jobs. Now Spanish is heard in grocery stores and malls, and the people who seemed invisible forty years ago are neighbors, classmates, and co-workers.
Dr. Erendira López-García, a psychologist at Wright State University and an advocate for Latinas in Ohio, feels there’s need for a new activism, one that embraces the diverse peoples now woven into the fabric of the Miami Valley.
"Now we have to move into another type of boycott, and another type of action, and another type of intervention, and then not only bringing someone in here, but what support systems you are going to have in order for these people to succeed," she says.
In 2011, the City of Dayton proclaimed the area to be immigrant-friendly. Groups like the Latino Connection, El Puente, and Del Pueblo in Clark County are working to make that claim a reality.
Major funding for Rediscovered Radio is provided by the Ohio Humanities Council and the Greene County Public Library.