3,000 March to Honor Chavez and Movement : Labor: UFW officials say procession marks rebirth of crusade. County membership has slipped to a few hundred.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a metal cane in one hand and a union flag in the other, Sebastian Perez shuffled Saturday past the row crops where he once toiled.

The 80-year-old farm worker had marched dozens of times for Cesar Chavez, most recently in Delano as part of a memorial tribute to the farm labor leader who died last April.

But Saturday's procession from Ventura to Oxnard, which drew about 3,000 farm workers and followers of the United Farm Workers union founder, was perhaps the most satisfying to Perez.

"Look at how pretty that is," he said, watching marchers tow a two-ton bust of Chavez along Gonzales Road, waving picket signs and red-and-black banners emblazoned with the UFW eagle. "My heart is swelled with pride."

To the marchers, this was more than just another symbolic bow to Chavez, like so many of the events held in his honor since his death.

UFW officials said Saturday's march represented the rebirth of Chavez's crusade to improve the working conditions of farm workers in Ventura County and across the nation. It was a dramatic setting for launching a campaign to resume organizing efforts in the fields, the approach that built the union.

"We are doing this to show that we are alive, that we are here, that we are going to raise the union in this area," said Jose Manuel Rodriguez, a UFW labor organizer in Oxnard.

Before his death, Chavez regularly visited Ventura County, searching for office space as part of the renewed effort to boost union membership.

In Ventura County, UFW membership now stands at a few hundred workers, and the union only has contracts with three growers. But in the 1980s, at the peak of the farm worker movement locally, the UFW had more than 4,000 members in Ventura County and had negotiated more than two dozen contracts.

"Every day, workers are coming to our office and they tell us how they have been dismissed for no reason, how they are paid sometimes less than minimum wage, how they have no benefits, no medical insurance," Rodriguez said. "They don't have holidays, they don't have nothing. It's worse now than before."

Ventura County growers deny those claims. "None of that has been substantiated by any of the regulatory bodies that have reviewed the situation in Ventura County," said Rex Laird, executive director of the county's Farm Bureau.

The marchers gathered shortly after dawn in a church parking lot in Oxnard's La Colonia barrio, where picket signs were dispensed from the back of a U-Haul truck. They boarded buses and rode to the starting point, roughly tracing the seven-mile route they would soon walk.

Arnulfo Saldana, 67 years old and a longtime union man, looked out the window of a yellow school bus as it lumbered past the upscale north Oxnard neighborhoods where fields used to be.

"I'm going to march to support my union," said Saldana, eagerly producing his UFW card. "I'm going to march just the way we used to."

The event started on Gonzales Road, between the flat green fields where many of the marchers still perform stoop labor.

The bust, sculpted by a team of Ventura artists, was the centerpiece of the procession, which stretched the entire length of Gonzales Road, between Harbor Boulevard and Victoria Avenue. The California Highway Patrol estimated that 3,000 people participated.

The sight pleased Father Ed Donovan, a former UFW worker who years ago stood toe-to-toe with Teamsters members on picket lines throughout the state.

"Maybe this is the start of people getting together again," said Donovan, spiritual leader of a Catholic Church in Carpinteria.

Marchers took turns grabbing hold of thick ropes and pulling a cart holding the Chavez sculpture. Others formed an "honorary picket line" along Gonzales Road and, as the sculpture passed, the picket line collapsed in behind.

Mothers pushed strollers along the route. One boy rode his tricycle, four union flags trailing in the wind. A group of folk dancers, dressed in full costume, performed as they marched.

Roadside vendors sold T-shirts, buttons and Mexican candy along the parade route.

"Viva Chavez!" a lone voice screamed. "Viva!" the crowd responded.

"Chicano!" someone screamed. "Power!" the crowd would finish. "Viva La Huelga!" ("Long live the union:") "Viva!" would be the response."

For some, marching got old quickly.

"I'm not having very much fun," said one boy, who struggled to keep his union flag aloft. "This is hard work."

By the time the procession entered the Oxnard city limits, some of the younger dancers were sitting in the bed of a pickup truck catching their breath.

UFW Vice President Dolores Huerta rode on the cart carrying the bust of Chavez. She talked about the union's shift in strategy that will put organizers back in the fields, enlisting new members and pushing for new contracts.

The UFW will begin a 330-mile trek Thursday from the fields of Delano to the steps of the state Capitol to kick off the new campaign. The trek, which retraces the steps of the UFW's first march, is expected to take three weeks.

"When Cesar was alive, there was a feeling that he would take care of things," Huerta said. "But since his passing, I think we are starting to see people take personal responsibility for improving the conditions in the fields."

The procession sliced through downtown Oxnard and made its way to City Hall. Many of the farm worker tenants who live in downtown boarding houses lined the sidewalks and joined the cheers.

Finally, the marchers made it over the 3rd Street bridge and into Oxnard's La Colonia district, where the bust was put on permanent display at Cesar Chavez School.

Primitivo Garcia, 62, had been part of the march until his granddaughter, Vanessa, fell asleep in his arms. Garcia, who said he marched with Chavez many times, got a ride to La Colonia where he rejoined the procession.

"He was a noble man who dedicated his life to fighting for farm workers," Garcia said of his old friend.

When his granddaughter woke up, Garcia put her on the ground and made her walk. "Now you can say you marched for Cesar Chavez," he told her. "One day, I'll tell you all about him."

* PILGRIMAGE: United Farm Workers will mark their strategy with a march. A1

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