César Chávez: Farmworker advocate, health champion

UPDATE: A related article, Disease Cluster Mystery, ran in the April 13, 2011 edition of Vida en el Valle. A related video, Cancer Village, can be seen here.

César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers, was a community health champion more than 20 years ago.

In July and August of 1988, Chávez embarked on a 36-day unconditional, water-only fast to bring attention to the unsafe use of pesticides in the fields, and their dangerous health impacts on farmworkers, as well as consumers.

After the fast, in a March 1989 speech at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., Chávez highlighted the risks of pesticides by telling the moving story of the Rodríguez family of McFarland: The wife, Elia, worked in the table grape vineyards around Delano until she was eight-months pregnant. Her son, Johnnie, had cancer and died when he was five years old.

At that time, McFarland suffered from a childhood cancer rate three to four times higher than normal, according to a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Clusters Alliance.

In his speech, Chávez said:

Farmworkers and their families are exposed to pesticides from the crops they work. The soil the crops are grown in. Drift from sprays applied to adjoining fields, and often the very field where they are working.

Pregnant women labor in the fields to help support their families. Toxic exposure begins at a very young age – often in the womb.

The fields that surround their homes are heavily and repeatedly sprayed. Pesticides pollute irrigation water and groundwater.

Children are still a big part of the labor force. Or they are taken to the fields by their parents because there is no childcare.

In the speech, he challenged whether there can be an “acceptable” level of exposure to pesticides.

There is no acceptable level of exposure to any chemical that causes cancer. There can be no toleration of any toxic that causes miscarriages, still births and deformed babies.

Then why do we allow workers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?

Risk is associated with any level of exposure. And any level of exposure is too much.

Isn’t that the protection you would ask for your family and your children? Isn’t that the standard of protection you would demand for yourself?

Then why do we allow farmworkers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?


  • Learn more about César Chávez in this week’s edition of Vida. Read more about disease clusters in an upcoming edition of Vida.
  • For more information about pesticides in the San Joaquín Valley, check out this video by non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice:

Top photo from www.tucsoncitizen.com


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