Hey Area: What was Cesar Chavez up to in Oakland’s Fruitvale District?

Mar 22, 2018

If you’ve ever been to Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, chances are that you’ve seen Cesar Chavez’s name somewhere.

A library, park and educational center are just some places named after the civil rights icon. Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers union back in 1962, and fought for fair treatment of farmers and Mexican Americans.

Since his name is all around the Fruitvale neighborhood, one listener wanted to know if he ever actually visited the area — and if so, what he did when he was there.

Oakland was a training ground for the young Chavez

Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo has a picture in his downtown Oakland office taken of him and Cesar Chavez. Gallo was in his late 20s in the photo.

“He was very close to our family,” Gallo says. He’s beaming as he remembers his late mentor and friend.

The photo was taken at the Unity Council building in the Fruitvale neighborhood — a diverse community with a large, working-class Latino population. Fruitvale is part of Gallo’s district. It’s also where Gallo grew up and still lives. He first met Chavez around the neighborhood when he was a boy.

Years later, when he became an activist, Gallo formed a bond with Chavez.

“He was a regular in Oakland,” Gallo recalls. “He was a very humble, kind guy. He was not loud and didn’t want to be recognized that he was there.”  

Chavez’s ties to Oakland are deeper than taking pictures with admirers. Gallo says Oakland was one of the first places Chavez trained to be an organizer.

“The Oakland area was one of his developing stages, starting off with the Community Service Organization,” he says.

Chavez was an apricot farmer in San Jose when he learned of the Community Service Organization — a Latino civil rights group. They led voter registration drives and legislation campaigns for immigrants.

Chavez was frustrated by the the injustices against farmers of color, such as low pay, inhumane living conditions and use of child labor.

So he joined the organization in 1952. Not long after, he spent four months in Oakland starting a local chapter there.

Eventually Chavez “graduated from that,” Gallo says, and moved on to “union organizing, labor organizing, specifically with the farm workers.”

In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club, Chavez said: “Before we founded the union, we experienced some successes in voter registration, in politics, in battling racial discrimination … But deep in my heart, I knew I could never be happy unless I tried organizing the farm workers.”

Fruitvale connection

Chavez co-founded United Farm Workers in 1962 with another icon, Dolores Huerta, along with other farmworker organizers.

Gallo was a kid when the farmer’s union formed. He remembers Chavez’s frequent trips to the Fruitvale neighborhood, visiting people such as Carmen Flores, who was a community activist and the chief representative for United Farm Workers in the area.

“Right next to where the Unity Council is on Foothill and Fruitvale today, Carmen Flores lived there,” says Gallo. “You would always on a regular basis see Dolores Huerta, because she was one of the the godmothers of some of the kids that Carmen had. And Cesar Chavez would be there. That became a hangout.”

Chavez had a major influence on Gallo’s political career from the beginning. On the weekends, Gallo and his friend would picket with the United Farm Workers and their supporters outside of the local Safeway.

“We used to see people out there marching and picketing and making a lot of noise. So we would go grab a sign and join them,” Galle says.  

Black and Brown Power

United Farm Workers targeted the Safeway grocery chain with a boycott in the late ‘60s. They called for all grocery stores to refuse to carry produce grown by agricultural businesses who denied farm workers the right to unionize.

Lauren Araiza is a Bay Area native and history professor at Denison University in Ohio, and the author of a book about racial justice and farmer’s-union movements.

“Safeway, was the largest grocery chain on the West Coast,” Araiza explains. “An incredibly powerful cooperation refused to stop carrying products the UFW was boycotting. They did this with grapes. They also did it with lettuce.”   

The Black Panther Party had a problem with the grocery chain too.

Araiza says the store wouldn’t donate food to the Panthers’ Free Breakfast program for children — which they started in 1969 after studies found poor kids struggled in school because they were hungry in the mornings.

“When the UFW and the Black Panther Party realized that the Safeway was really not supporting either of them, they decided to join forces,” says Araiza, and picket in front of Safeway stores together.

Araiza writes that the Panthers were one of the most vocal supporters of the boycott. She explains their creative tactics to bringing down Safeway’s business.  

“The Panthers had a motor pool. And as people approached to shop, they would say,  ‘Please don’t shop here. We’ll drive you to Lucky’s which does support our boycotts and we’ll drive you home.’ That worked incredibly well and ended up closing a Safeway store in West Oakland for a period.

 

The shared boycott was not the only notable moment between these two organizations.

The United Farm Workers protested against the government killing and imprisonment of Black Panthers.

Chavez said in a statement to the UFW: “We may not agree with the philosophy of the Black Panther Party, but they are our brothers and nonviolence extends to standing up for whomever is persecuted.”

The sentiment was reciprocated.

In a 1971 press conference with KPIX, Black Panther Elaine Brown spoke about intimidation practices used against farmers and why the Black Panthers supported the boycott.

“You have people that are armed with weapons,” Brown said. “Everyone knows the United Farm workers has remained and always been a nonviolent organization. And yet violences of that nature is perpetrated against them. “

Chavez even supported Panthers in their political aspirations.

He endorsed Black Panther Co-founder Bobby Seale’s 1973 run for mayor. In a press release, Chavez and the UFW lauded “Bobby Seale’s approach to gaining political power for his people and all poor people in the city of Oakland.”

Seale, whose family worked on farms, also supported Chavez and the UFW.

“Bobby Seale created a platform that really addressed the diversity of people of Oakland,” says Araiza. “He included a few things in his platform that appealed to Mexican Americans. But also specifically to farm workers. So when Chavez would come to Oakland, to campaign against Prop. 22, he would also campaign on behalf of Bobby Seale.”

While Seale was campaigning to be mayor, Proposition 22 threatened farm workers rights to organize and boycott.

Although Seale lost his run for mayor, the Panthers galvanized Black voters to vote no and defeat the proposition on election day.

Chavez’s legacy in the Fruitvale

A lot has changed in the Fruitvale neighborhood since Chavez died in 1993.

There are homeless tents on some of the sidewalks. Across the street from a Mexican grocery store is a remodeled apartment. Nearby that building is a Google bus stop.

But Latinos are still facing the same obstacles that Chavez fought, such as pay inequality and immigration issues.  

Councilman Gallo answers, “The reality is we got to keep, not only keep the dream alive, but giving back to your neighborhood.

 

Chavez once said: “I began to realize that the only hope was in organizing, and people like me had to develop the skills it would take to organize, to educate, to help empower the Chicano people.”  

Chavez came to Oakland more than 65 years ago to develop his organizing skills and empower his people. Today there are children in Fruitvale who read at the library and study at the educational center that bear his name.

And many people have benefited from service organizations, right in the neighborhood, that are inspired by Chavez’s activism. His grassroots legacy runs deep in the Fruitvale community.

This question came to KALW through Hey Area, a crowdsourced, collaborative reporting project. Got a question for Hey Area? Ask it below.