Members of Harvard's Chicano students organization, Raza, today begin a two-day fast in support of the United Farm Workers' (UFW) boycott of California grapes treated with pesticides.
The protest, designed to draw attention to the rising incidence of cancer in areas of heavy pesticide use, is part of a nationwide relay effort, in which celebrities, politicians and students take turns fasting. UFW President Caesar Chavez began the fast this summer with a 36-day hunger strike before passing the protest effort to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Raza's two-day fast will begin an Ivy League phase of the fast-relay, during which Chicano student organizations at these schools will pass the fast to one another until it ends at Yale before Thanksgiving day.
"A lot of us have someone in our background who picked crops," said Raza member and fast participant Rudy Ruiz '89."That's what Mexican-Americans did in thiscountry. We understand the hardship of peoplesuffering now."
Fast organizer and Raza member Hilda M.Alexander '90 grew up in a "migrant familylifestyle" and picked grapes in California'sImperial Valley from the time she was 10 throughhigh school. "[The growers] didn't care about theworkers...just as long as they had a socialsecurity card," she said.
Fast participant Carlos Perez '91, a residentof Los Angeles and a Raza member, said that he was"unfamiliar" with the day-to-day lives of migrantworkers but that he was drawn to the fast becauseof his heritage.
"There is a strong cultural identity amongChicanos. The common cultural heritage allows meto put myself in the plight of the migrantworkers," Perez said. "Its important for groups tounite and to help each other."
Assistant Dean for Minority Affairs HildaHernandez-Gravelle praised the coordinated actionof the Chicano students' organization from the IvyLeague, MIT, Wellesley and Smith.
"We can learn from each other and support eachother," she said. "Its important to buildcoalitions."
Under the leadership of Chavez, Californiafield workers have been pressing large vineyardcompanies for better working conditions,recognition of their union and collectivebargaining for 20 years.
Pesticides became the focus of controversy inthe early 1980s when high incidences of cancerappeared in some regions. The town of McFarland inNorthern California has reported 13 cases ofcancer in the last eight years, four times thenormal level for a town of 2000 people, accordingto epidemiologists.
"Its a very volatile issue," said Raul Perez'89, who lives one hour away from McFarland inFresno.
He said the issue is not "black and white,"noting that the state of California opposes theUFW grape boycott