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Celebrating Cesar Chavez: Primary Sources on Farm Workers’ Living and Working Conditions

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This is a guest post by Arline Troncoza, who is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

Group of children posing under sign at a farm workers’ community, 1941

In 1962 in Delano, California, Cesar Chavez, along with other labor organizers, created a  farm workers’ union unlike any other in the history of the United States. Although many deemed it an impossible task to organize such a union because of failed attempts in the past, Chavez established the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, and its success created a historical movement that would bring awareness to the farm workers’ struggle and help bring social justice to the oppressed.

Hearing about individuals, such as Chavez, who have dedicated their lives to attain equality and freedom for all may sometimes be hard for students to comprehend. Studying primary sources  that document the events that inspired such leaders allows students to travel back in time to see and better understand.

Before beginning my research I knew that the strikes and protests led by Cesar Chavez began because of unlivable wages, horrible living conditions and dangerous working conditions, but seeing photographs of these conditions brought the historic context to life for me. The images of the living conditions of migrant farm workers not only provoked a lot of thoughts and questions, but they also provoked emotions in response to the injustice that these workers had to endure.

Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California, 1937.

Unsanitary privy in potato pickers' camp near Shafter, California, 1937
Unsanitary privy in potato pickers’ camp near Shafter, California, 1937

Teachers could ask their students to study and think about the photograph of a field worker’s home:

  • What do you notice first?
  • What do you wonder about?
  • What do you make of the little girl peering out?
  • What do you think her facial expression is saying?
  • What do you think it was it like living in these makeshift homes without running water, or having to endure the scorching heat and cold winters in these conditions?

Many farm workers had no access to a restroom on the farm; at times there was one restroom serving hundreds of workers and their families. Using this photo you could ask:

  • What is this structure made of?
  • Who was this made for?
  • Would this be acceptable today? Why not?

When students observe, reflect, and ask questions about primary sources, it opens the door for them to peer into the experience of the individuals who took part in a historical event. It also allows them to practice  critical thinking skills and frequently piques curiosity, motivating them to explore and want to research more.









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