Monday, December 28, 2015

I Grew Up in the Central Valley and Never Learned about Cesar Chavez

Image Source: User Jill111,

Anybody who links vineyards with extravagant weekend getaways and splendid wine tasting is not where I am from. Madera isn’t ‘blessed’ with elegant hotels, four star dining options, and yuppie tourists. Madera, the so-called exact center of California, is a farming town. It is not a bucolic tourist trap, but rather a place full of hard working people. You own a farm, work on a farm, work for a farm, or do business for a farm.

Growing up, the miles and miles of grapevines were not romantic. They were excruciatingly normal. You tended to forget they were there. Half the year there was nothing but dirt and pruned branches. The other half there was nothing but rows of sun-baked plants waiting to be harvested.

I am from California’s Central Valley. Beside being the ‘food basket’ of the world, it is a place full of civil rights history. I grew up miles away from the footsteps of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Philip Vera Cruz, and Larry Itliong. These individuals, along with so many other seemingly ordinary citizens, blazed a trail of activism and civil right’s leadership for exploited workers of color.

I never learned any of this in school. 

I never learned of the grape boycott. I never learned about the United Farm Workers of America. I never learned about the hunger strikes. I never learned about the marches lead by the individuals above.

Image Source: User Davispigeon0,

As a young individual of Mexican descent, with a family history of farm labor (including myself), I was clueless to the rich multicultural history around me. I couldn’t recite the history of my own locale, my own people, my own culture, but I could certainly tell you who ‘sailed the ocean blue’. I could spit back the inventions of Benjamin Franklin. I could tell you all about the California gold rush and our ‘beautiful’ mission system.

This is shame. 

I never learned the words ‘Viva La Huelga’. Nobody bothered to teach me about the Mexican ‘Repatriation’ of the 1930s. I was never introduced to a single book by a Latina author in all my reading classes. We once or twice sang ‘De Colores’ in Spanish class, but nobody mentioned the rich contexts of the song.

Why does this matter? 

It matters because schools are political institutions. Curriculums reinforce structures of power and oppression. Leaving out key moments of history are not passive oversights. Exclusions are intentional. Students understand this. They internalize their alienation. If we strive for students to be empowered participants of this world, they must be able to step back and interrogate it. It is no easy chore to understand one’s self vis-à-vis the world around us. A veiled curriculum makes it nearly impossible.

Too often, we let our world be created for us. Ignoring the need to critically examine the world, to be intellectually curious, leads one to repeat its most disheartening features. Teachers must help break these cycles. I suspect my teachers could not teach with a multicultural perspective because they were not engaged in the process of becoming a multicultural person. Therefore, they sided with a system that refused to acknowledge a critical, multicultural history. A history that was so near to us.

I often look back with sadness to my early education. I feel like I was robbed of so many opportunities. A large part of me suspects nothing has changed. Another year of mission reports will come and go. Kits will be bought, papers typed. All the while, the vineyards of my town yearn to speak. They have a story to tell, a song to sing. If we don’t listen, all we hear is silence.

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