Before César Cruz co-founded Homies Empowerment, a community organization serving youth and other residents in East Oakland, he was a Mexican immigrant growing up in Compton, struggling to find his place and purpose in the U.S.
After being exposed to Chicano Studies courses in college, he learned about the long history of activism and political resistance by Latinos in the U.S., including César Chávez—the complicated co-founder of the United Farm Workers, whose activism continues to inspire many—and it changed the course of his life.
Cruz, who has been in Oakland now for 30 years, went on to help organize collective actions himself, including a 26-day hunger strike with other East Bay teachers at the state capitol in Sacramento—with guidance from Dolores Huerta—to demand that school budgets in West Contra Costa be restored.
To mark César Chávez Day in 2021, we interviewed Cruz about his political awakening, the personal connection he cultivated with the Chávez family, and how he’s drawn on the UFW’s political tactics as a “playbook” for his own community organizing in Oakland and the East Bay. Here is Cruz’s story in his own words.
Being born in Jalisco, Mexico, and coming to the United States at age nine, then migrating to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1991 at age 17, I grew up undocumented. My mother was deported on three different occasions. My father was gone, and we were struggling. Meanwhile, I was growing up in a school that never taught me my history. Quite the opposite. I lived in Compton and went to L.A. Unified School District. It was a majority Latino school, with no Latino education, and I didn’t miss it because I didn’t know what I was missing. This was before the Dreamer movement. I didn’t grow up knowing the history of the United Farm Workers. I didn’t know what the word Chicano meant.
I also didn’t know something was happening to me called “subtractive schooling,” a term coined by Angela Valenzuela. It’s this idea that the more time Latinos spend in U.S. schools, the more things get subtracted from them—in the form of their heroes, their history, their culture, their pride, their roots, and their language. It’s hard to talk about because I wasn’t proud of being Mexican; I wasn’t proud of being Raza. I was being acclimated to be, for all intents and purposes, white. I was getting a white education with white textbooks, white television, and white teachers. I didn’t have heroes that looked like me growing up, at all. I was acclimating to a language from England called English, and I was still trying to keep a language in Spanish, that’s from Spain. I didn’t know what Nahuatl was, or Tzotzil, or Quechua, or anything else.
It wasn’t until I was fortunate enough to be the first in my family to graduate middle school, then high school, and then head off to college, that I took my first-ever Mexican American Studies class—it was called Chicano Studies—and I was deeply curious as to who these Chicanos were. Right away, I began to hear about Reies Lopez Tijerina, about the United Farm Workers, and I was so mesmerized.
Because this is what I was learning: that farmworkers who didn’t have an opportunity to study, to complete high school, to complete college, came together with Filipinos who were called Manongs, like Larry Itliong and Philip Veracruz, and with organizers like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta and Helen Chávez. It was the history of David versus Goliath, and David sure did know how to organize, and Goliath was a $5 billion agribusiness industry in California.
Never in our wildest imaginations would we have thought that Filipinos and Latinos could organize, and actually go on strikes without a paycheck for five years, and win.
As I began to hear all of this for the first time, I began to change. I got goosebumps, and it wasn’t the same as the first time I met my wife, as amazing as that was! This was a different kind of feeling, like, “I’m actually not scum. I’m not the scum of the earth, and I’m not just trash. We’re not just illegal aliens.” We’re not everything negative in society, like I was told. I came from organizers and activists; I came from people that have been victorious; I came from people that have known how to make a dollar out of 15 cents. And that was inspiring, and I wanted to know more and I wanted to learn more.
So I started to become a student of my history at about 18 years old and journey to Delano, California, to figure out how I could get involved. And sadly, the first time that I went over there was when César Chávez passed away. This was back in the early ‘90s, and I remember people carrying his body for miles upon miles in this pine box. Now that I’m almost 50, it’s history that gets me through this pandemic. It’s my history that teaches me about what needs to be done.
Later, I found out that the Chávez family and the United Farm Workers had opened up a place where you can learn more about César Chávez, in La Paz, near Tehachapi, not too far from Bakersfield. I began to journey there and kept going every year. I wanted to learn more, and every time I went, I felt a peace, like a magic sense of possibility, because all I had ever learned is that we don’t come from much. I hadn’t learned Mesoamerican history. I didn’t know what Chichen Itza was, or Tikal, or Machu Picchu. I didn’t know that we were astronomers and archaeologists and the inventors of civilizations, and mathematics, and the concept of zero. I had no idea the richness that we come from because it had never been taught to me.
So when I became an educator, in 1994, I wanted to bring my students. This was our pilgrimage. It wasn’t to Jerusalem, it wasn’t to Mecca—it was to La Paz. I kept going every year and, eventually, I built a relationship with César and Helen Chávez’s grandkids, Bernadette and Anthony. They saw that we wanted to put in work on the land, take care of this history, and have it be living history. And before you know it, Bernadette says “I want you to meet my grandma.”
Helen took a liking to our organization in East Oakland, Homies Empowerment, which distributes basics like food and home supplies to people in the neighborhood for free, and to our students, and the young people from Oakland. She kept saying, “Why don’t you stay for the weekend and we’ll tell you some stories?” Just imagine—this is our Malcolm X, our Harriet Tubman, saying, “I want to teach you.”
The first thing that she taught us is how she and the UFW started a bank. The people who’d been labeled as David were so smart that they organized their own economy to take care of each other during their strike. They put their money together, their resources together, and they won their first government contract after a five-year struggle. There were boycotts, there was international work, but it involves organizing, politicizing, standing up, marches, 350-mile pilgrimages. I just became a student of all of it.
But I didn’t want to study it just as a teacher—it became something practical in our lives. I didn’t know that years later, in 2004, we would do a hunger strike of our own in Oakland, California, that would last 26 days, and Dolores Huerta would help us to be victorious.
I was a school teacher at the time, at Downer Elementary in Richmond, California. The school district was in such dire straits that their solution was to get rid of everything that wasn’t core, which meant, if it’s not math and English, it has to go. Imagine a school without art, music, a library, sports. All of our kids were outraged. I was teaching third graders at the time, and they asked me, “Hey Mr. C., what can we do? Who has the power to do something?” So we talked about Sacramento, and how the politicians were getting ready to make this decision. And the kids, who’d been learning about the history of the United Farm Workers, were like, “Well, how long would it take for us to march there?” We found out it would take about eight days—the whole spring break.
So, we marched the whole way—50 kids, families, and some educators. And when we got to Sacramento, we were in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Governor Schwarzenegger didn’t have the time to see us. We realized we’d have to do something a little bit more intense, because we couldn’t come back to our community, with everything that matters in school being eliminated. So we went on a hunger strike. It started with nine educators, and by the very end, there were three of us left. We started the hunger strike in downtown Oakland for the first 10 days, and then we finished the last 16 days at the state capitol in Sacramento. Starting on the 20th day, Dolores Huerta came to visit and counsel us. She happened to be good friends with Maria Shriver, the governor’s wife. She called Maria and said, “You’ve got to meet these hunger strikers.” On the 25th day, we met with Governor Schwarzenegger and on the 26th day, we signed a historic agreement to repurpose the entire debt for West Contra Costa Unified School District. Within a few years, we became the first school district in the state that was completely debt-free.
So a lot of the tactics that the United Farm Workers taught us sort of became a playbook for how to do things in a nonviolent way, and we achieved some major results. For us, it was a game-changer. And ever since then, I realized there’s great power in organizing, and unity, and speaking out, and fasting, and standing up for your rights, and connecting it all to a spiritual struggle.
To say that I connected with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers is an understatement. It became the roots of a withering tree. It’s like Marcus Garvey said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” And that’s what I was for a time. But the United Farm Workers gave me fire, and organizing, and victories.
I learned there was even more: There was Jovita Ivár, and Lolita Lebrón. There was Haydée Santamaría, and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons. There was the Lemon Grove Incident, and the Zapatistas. I realized I’d come from thousands of years of history, and something happened to me: it changed my identity. I no longer saw myself as an immigrant! I interviewed my grandma and discovered that her grandma had never even crossed the border, because this was Mexico. The border crossed us. For the first time in my life, I stopped being your wetback, and I stopped being your illegal alien. I stopped being your beaner, and I stopped being your border-crosser. I started coming to my ancestral homelands, based on history, roots, power, organizing, knowledge. And the rest is history.
Now you can’t stop me, because you can’t stop us. We carry a 21-foot ladder for all of life’s 20-foot borders. That’s what I learned from people like César Chávez and Helen Chávez, may both rest in peace. And from Dolores Huerta, who’s alive and well, who I know, and who’s an amazing organizer. I carry that in my DNA. It’s intergenerational wisdom and it’s been passed down to me, a source of strength. When everybody else feels like we’re in a pandemic, and saying, “What are we going to do about food? And how are we going to feed the people?” Well, we’re feeding 2,000 people every week in East Oakland.
But it’s not because of us. It’s because of the legacy and the direction that our ancestors have left us. This is all connected to what I’m destined to do on this earth.