(Originally in Spanish)
What is your name and what did you do in the movement? My name is Alfredo Athie. We have lived in this community since 1956. My work was in construction. I am 73 years old. I have a wife and 7 children.
When was the first time you knew César Chávez? I did not know him immediately. I always liked to read news about him. In La Opinion [a newspaper], there would appear a small paragraph about Chávez in which he spoke of the labor problems they were having in Delano, California. It didn’t say too much because the newspaper did not print much about the worker and the movement of Chávez at that time. I became interested in the articles and I looked for them. I saw many things that were happening and I was interested to know more about Chávez.
Have you known him person to person? I lived with him on various occasions. I went to Delano with two other people to speak to him personally about what could be done in the valley of Santa Maria. We were seeing many injustices and we thought he could possibly help us a little to change or help these people. I didn’t work in the fields; my work was in construction and I am pensioned by the construction.
In those days, my children were young. Occasionally, at the end of the week, usually on Saturday, on vacation time from school, my wife would take the children to work in the fields. I wouldn’t stay home, so I went with them. We lived a life that was very interesting, working in the fields as a family. I didn’t know how to work in the fields, but I wanted to be with them. It was there that I was made aware of the injustices and I decided to find out more about Chávez. One day we went to Delano where we had an audience with Chávez and spoke with him.
How did that last meeting go? What did he say? He asked what we were looking for. He was interested in finding out. It was a moment that we didn’t know the consequences it would bring. It was just a simple question as to whether he could help these people. We were seeing him in person in a humble place, nothing elegant. He was very humble, like a farm worker. His words were attentive. He listened to the problems that we were presenting as we had seen them. He said, “I am glad to hear you. It is good to learn that there are other people who are interested in the worker.” He gave assurance that he would help; and then came a series of announcements from him to declare and prepare for a strike one day in the valley of Santa Maria. It would cover from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara.
To see this, to me and to the other men, it seemed incredible that his word could unite so many people. There were more than 5,000 workers who stopped working.
How did Chávez do this thing? By saying what? Probably, there were some workers who had heard of him and spoke to others. We spoke on the radio, inviting people to come to Santa Maria to hear Chávez declare the strike. It seems that there had been contact with some of the farmers and we found that there was opposition to the workers uniting. It made Chávez more anxious to declare the strike.
When he came and declared the strike, a thing happened with the people that was so incredible. They passed out flags, like this one. The people carried them in their hands; they put them on their cars and they paraded in the fields. It wasn’t necessary to talk to the people. As the cars with the flags passed them, they left their work and came to listen to the words that Chávez gave us. It was incredible. We didn’t know how far-reaching was the strength of his words. So simple, so sincere.
He had great power? I don’t think it was power. He didn’t like power. I don’t think he ever used power. For that reason, we sought him. He searched for something that occupied him. What we felt, all the people felt … helping people, seeking justice.
What was he searching for? He looked for the individual rights and humanity of the people. He never looked for anything for himself. He could see he had been a part of this class of people. He had grown up in the fields; and how many things and how many provisions had been in the life of his parents, his brothers, his family. I think this is what made him see, with compassion, the necessities. He wasn’t searching for power, but for solutions; seeking a way of living with people, with the worker, with the owners of the lands.
You have your sentiments about the non-violence. Can you tell us how Chávez felt and what he said concerning this? And how do you feel about it? In the year 1969-70, I had 7 children in the schools in Arroyo Grande and we always made an effort to work closely with the schools. I had had the experience of working in the field, on the weekends; it was very hard. We saw what little benefits the people had. At that time, they were having bad experiences in the school in a near District; very serious problems. They began talking about the rights of the students in all of the schools and I was involved. It happens that the Chávez children were also in those schools.
One day after we had become well acquainted, a person came seeking me in my home, stating that Mr. Chávez wanted to talk to me in private…I went. I didn’t know what it was about, but I thought it might be something about helping the workers or something we could do. There were two people there; the man who brought me there and one other. Chávez began talking about the situation in the fields, about the workers and their families and then he said, “The fellows have something to tell you.” The fellows said, “We work to guard the life of Chávez; we are working for him. We are not paid.” I was surprised. Then Chávez told me, during the conversation, that there was no need to protect him. He wasn’t afraid of anything, because he didn’t do anything wrong. “I don’t know of any reason to be guarded, if God is with me.” He was a person of faith. “But we’ve decided to invite you and you will live with them, but first I want you to listen. There are conditions.” I was stunned, as if I didn’t know what was happening. He said in part of what he was doing and what he wanted in a person who would protect his life, and the conditions for him to accept me. It was very confusing. It was a very confusing moment for me. He said, “The conditions I impose upon the person who is guarding my life is … He must not carry a single weapon … not in any form.” I said, “But it can’t be. How can we defend you?” “No knives, no pistols, no manner of weapons. If you accept what I am proposing … it has to be without weapons.” I said, “And then how?” Chávez replied, “With your body, with intelligence, with observing, but no weapons. I don’t accept indolence.” It was the most difficult time of my life, especially when I had to have an answer for him. It was something I had never done, but especially apart from that, I had a wife and seven reasons to think of my life and my person. How could I justify that? He said, “I understand. I understand well; but it is the only way I can accept this.” It was difficult to arrive at that decision, but I accepted with no weapons and when necessary, with my body. It was time that I could spend here, but not in other parts. It was a compromise. I couldn’t leave my family; my children were so young. He understood. He said, “It’s good, it’s enough.” He shook my hand, embraced me, and said, “Thank you for accepting.”
I didn’t know whether I had done right or wrong. I knew I had compromised and I was compelled to complete it. In fact, obliged, and that is the way that I did it.
On occasions when we accompanied him and he had to arrive in the valley of Santa Maria, we had to decide where to enter. We would say to the people who were on the roadway he was coming. He would be in the office already. We would say to the people, “Didn’t you see him as he passed by?” It was part of seeking the security for him. We had to think of his life, not only his, but that of all of us. There were many families.
What do you think was the reason that people like you made sacrifices for him? What did he have? I think that comes from way back. I was in the military service, as a Cadet, in a school in Vera Cruz. When I came out, I volunteered for World War II. Mexico was ready to enter the war. We believed we were going to fight for the liberty of man. I had learned that and it was what I believed. When I accepted the position with Mr. Chávez, I felt again the responsibility to fight for freedom and the good of man. It didn’t matter the race, the color, and the language. That wasn’t important.
Did you hear him say these things? When I decided on this, it was because he had told me. When he tells me, he speaks of the freedom of the people, the injustices inflicted, the low salary, no social security, and no pension. The children had to go to work in the fields to help the family earn enough to live on. When explaining this, and the freedom of man, I understood the need to do something. I don’t feel like a hero. We were not looking for fame or fortune; that was not important. What was important was that we fight for the principles.
What can you say to the children to remember Chávez? Briefly, can you say two things? They need to know that in this country, so marvelous, so full of bounty, so full of wealth, intelligent people, humane people, who believe in God and who believe in the freedom of man, a country that fought for the liberty of man, an occasion happened long ago … seems as if it were only yesterday. There was a large group of country people, which worked in the fields; work that was very difficult and very hard. I believe that the children should know this story; the children, and the young adults, the adults, and seniors. We have to understand that whole families worked, in this story; the conditions, under which these people worked. There were young women who would have personal needs. There were no toilets and the families would use a sweater or a blanket to shield them. The young children did this amongst their labors. In this story, there was no water to drink. When they ran out of water, parched from the heat, they drank from the canals ... water that was used for other things. There was much thirst. There was much sickness. Women had troubles in their pregnancy, from the chemicals that were used.
It is necessary that the students know that this story was real. In this country, so powerful, so full of beauty, so large, there are also many injustices. We need a Chávez, many Chávezes, so that we can continue doing good for others.