* * *
On Monday, Jan. 14, 1974, Pablo Arellanos, 54, started picking
up farm workers at 2 a.m. for Jesus Ayala, a labor contractor. By
3 a.m. or 3:30 a.m., Pablo had a busload of people and began his
135-mile trip to High and Mighty Farms lettuce fields near Blythe.
Then, after a full day working in the fields himself, Pablo drove
the workers back to Mexico at night and cleaned the bus before trying
to get some sleep for the next day.
Early Tuesday, he again picked up a crew of farm workers and headed
north. On approaching Blythe shortly before sunrise, the bus missed
a turn and careened off the road into a drainage ditch. On impact,
seats and farm workers were thrown to the front of the bus, crushing
Pablo to death and trapping many others who soon drowned in the
For three days, we visited the families of the dead workers and
sought more information about the causes of the accident.
Among the dead, we discovered, were men, women and children. In
one family, a father and his three teenage children were killed.
Amid the grief there was great bitterness. The workers were--and
still are--bitter because they've been through this kind of tragedy
too many times before. The workers learned long ago that growers
and labor contractors have too little regard for the value of any
individual worker's life.
The trucks and buses are old and unsafe. The fields are carelessly
sprayed with poisons. The laws that do exist are not enforced. How
long will it be before we take seriously the importance of the workers
who harvest the food we eat?
On Saturday, Jan. 19, 2,000 farm workers crowded into the Calexico
National Guard Armory for a funeral mass celebrated in Spanish.
Afterward, at the request of the farm workers' families, on behalf
of their union, I made the following remarks:
"We are united here in the name of God to pay final tribute to
our brothers and sisters who lost their lives in a tragic bus accident.
We are here also to show our love and solidarity for the families
who have lost so much in the deaths of their loved ones.
"We are united in our sorrow but also in our anger. This tragedy
happened because of the greed of the big growers who do not care
about the safety of the workers and expose them to grave dangers
when they transport them in wheeled coffins to the fields.
"There have been so many accidents--in the fields, on trucks, under
machines, in buses--so many accidents involving farm workers.
"People ask if they are deliberate. They are deliberate in the
sense that they are the direct result of a farm labor system that
treats workers like agricultural implements and not as human beings.
These accidents happen because employers and labor contractors treat
us as if we were not important human beings.
"But brothers and sisters, the men and women we honor here today
are important human beings. They are important because they are
from us. We cherish them. We love them. We will miss them.
"They are important because of the love they gave to their husbands,
their children, their wives, their parents--all those who were close
to them and who needed them.
"They are important because of the work they do. They are not implements
to be used and discarded. They are human beings who sweat and sacrifice
to bring food to the tables of millions and millions of people throughout
"They are important because God made them, gave them life, and
cares for them in life and in death.
"Now that they are gone, how can we keep showing how important
they are to us? How can we give meaning to their lives and their
"These terrible accidents must be stopped! It is our obligation--our
duty to the memory of those who have died--to see to it that workers
are not continually transported in these wheeled coffins, these
carriages of death and sorrow. The burden of protecting the lives
of farm workers is squarely on our shoulders.
"Let the whole world know that the pain that today fills our hearts
with mourning also unifies our spirits and strengthens our determination
to defend the rights of every worker.
"Let the labor contractors and the growers know that we will never
stop working and struggling until there is an end to the inhuman
treatment of all farm workers."
Cesar Chavez, who founded the United Farm Workers of America,
AFL-CIO, in 1962, died April 23, 1993.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights