UFW Memorial Honors Lifelong Activist Fred Ross : Labor: Cesar Chavez eulogizes the man ‘who changed my life.’ His mentor’s many causes included Dust Bowl migrants and the civil rights movement.
For a few glorious hours, the men and women who led the United Farm Workers fight during the lofty ‘60s and ‘70s put aside their own family feud to pay homage to Fred Ross, the mentor and mensch who died here three weeks ago at age 82.
Ross spent his entire adult life in the trenches fighting for the rights of the poor, from Dust Bowl Okies on ditch banks in Bakersfield to Japanese-American internees in Cleveland to black civil rights workers in the South. He plucked a young Cesar Chavez out of a San Jose barrio called Sal Si Puedes --Spanish for Get Out If You Can--and channeled his raw anger into an epic movement.
As he had done so often in life, Ross brought together at Saturday’s memorial the varied personalities who shaped the UFW in its heyday--lettuce pickers from Salinas, grape pickers from Coachella, clergy, progressive attorneys, sympathetic politicians and Chavez himself.
Chavez delivered the eulogy, recalling for the crowd of 400 the first time he met Ross: “Then he started talking and changed my life.”
There was nary a mention of the infighting and purges that have turned old friends into bitter foes, or of Ross’ death having come at a time of enormous doubt about the legacy and future of the UFW. In 1975, the union had contracts with 80% of the grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley. Today, not a single contract remains.
Instead, this was a day to bask in the past, to sing old field songs, to fly the union’s black and red and Aztec eagle flag and recall the good gringo in the shadows whose work changed the lives of so many.
“Fred fought more fights and trained more organizers and planted more seeds of righteous indignation than anyone we’re ever likely to see again,” said Jerry Cohen, the UFW’s general counsel in the glory days of successful strikes and boycotts.
Cohen said he dreamed of Ross the night before. “He was 12 feet tall standing in that doorway and he had all this life growing out of him--branches and twigs and leaves. . . . This is not just about the past, but the fighting and organizing that will go on forever.”
The service was held at the Delancey Street Foundation along the waterfront beneath the Bay Bridge. To those present, it felt, at times, like Delano must have felt in the hellish summer of 1966 when the towering Ross and the tiny Chavez--teacher and student--broke the back of the Di Giorgio Fruit Co., the first of many victories.
Jerry Brown showed up in cowboy boots, faded jeans and a black jacket with his 800 number on back. Brown first met Ross on a UFW march to Calexico in 1967. “Fred Ross was a full-time citizen-organizer who gave power to the powerless,” Brown said.
There were Danny and Luis Valdez of Teatro Campesino and “Zoot Suit” fame who led the gathering in rousing renditions of “Well Done, General,” the strike song, and “Solidarity Forever,” the union anthem.
Luis Valdez said: “In the century of the ‘Ugly American,’ Fred Ross was the beautiful American, the human American, the American who came out to the barrio and put his life on the line.”
And there were Robert, Julia and Fred Ross Jr., each born on the road in a different “hot spot,” each carrying on their father’s work in a different way.
Ross grew up in Echo Park and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1937. He had planned to teach English, but the Depression got in the way. In 1939, working for the state, he oversaw the Arvin Migratory Labor Camp where 4,000 Dust Bowl refugees had come to pick cotton.
Replacing a brutal camp director, Ross won the trust of the migrants by instituting a form of self-government.
“You never do for people what they can do for themselves,” he wrote. “A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.”
Historian Carey McWilliams wrote of Ross’ “exasperating modesty.” When Ross stepped into Boyle Heights in 1947 as a member of Saul Alinsky’s Community Service Organizations, he disarmed a group of wary Chicanos.
“I’ve got two strikes against me,” he said. “I’m an outsider and an Anglo. I hope you keep those doubts because having them is healthy. I hope you’ll hold on to them until I’ve had time to prove you’re mistaken.”
To overcome the chasm, Ross learned Spanish from flash cards and met small groups of Chicanos in their homes over beer and salsa. Each group then would branch out into the community and organize other groups until a foothold was established. The beauty of the “house meeting” was its simplicity, and Ross’ technique is still used by labor organizers across the country.
This barrio army registered 50,000 voters on Los Angeles’s Eastside, and in 1949 helped elect Edward R. Roybal as the city’s first Latino councilman.
Ross never lingered long to savor his victories. He left for San Jose to organize one of 30 Community Service chapters statewide and it was there that he met the young Chicano apricot picker named Chavez.
“I think I found the guy I’m looking for,” Ross wrote in his journal that night.
Over the next 30 years, teacher and student would change the course of labor history.
“I tagged along to every one of Fred’s house meetings during that first campaign in San Jose--sometimes two a night,” Chavez told the gathering. “The thing I liked most about Fred was there were . . . no pretensions, no ego gimmicks. Just plain hard work--at times grinding work.
“I shall miss him very much.”
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