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The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America: Stories from the Birthplace of Industrial Agriculture

The San Joaquin Valley’s vast fields of cotton and other crops have formed a backdrop to human suffering and struggle for generations. Chinese labor camps of the late 1800s, Depression-era families fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, César Chávez and the farmworkers movement of the 1960s and beyond, and today’s environmental justice advocates have all called this region both workplace and home. Although the Valley produces great material wealth in the form of food and commodity crops, many of the people who live there are among the poorest in the nation.The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

Nonetheless, over the decades their efforts have been part of successful campaigns to improve the political and environmental context in which they live and work. The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) organized farmworkers, who had been excluded by law from the legal protections afforded to most other classes of workers since 1935. The UFW’s grape boycotts raised the profile of farmworkers nationally and helped educate the public about the health risks posed by pesticide use to both consumers and farmworkers (Pulido 1996 and Shaw 2008). Beginning in 1969, new union contracts both increased wages and improved working conditions in ways that benefited both workers and the environment. For example, by 1970 union contracts with 150 table grape growers banned the use of DDT, parathion, aldrin and other pesticides. In addition, UFW members filed lawsuits that improved public access to pesticide spraying records and participated aggressively in public hearings that helped strengthen the regulation of pesticides in both California and the nation (ibid). In 1975 their efforts helped legalize collective bargaining for farmworkers through the passage of the CA Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) (Wells and Villarejo 2007).

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Photo by Zachary Singer

However, just as the labor movement lost numbers and power nationally over time, so too did the UFW. As their power waned, the UFW lost contracts, and with them, the ability to minimize pesticide use on unionized farms. While some of their accomplishments live on in the form of improved legal protections for farmworkers, these same protections are only as good as the enforcement of them, which is vulnerable to the political priorities of those in power in the state capitol. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board formed by the ALRA has been alternately staffed by political appointees supportive of and hostile to farmworker rights, according to the governor’s pleasure (Wells and Villarejo 2007, Ganz 2009, Garcia 2010, Bardacke 2011, and Pawel 2014).

But the legacy of the UFW and the broader farmworkers’ movement it instigated can also be felt in the work of contemporary environmental justice activism, which grew out of a recognition that hazardous waste landfills and polluting industries are disproportionately located in low income communities and communities of color. This phase of environmental justice activism began in the 1980s and 1990s, and activists later incorporated pesticides into their work as well. Environmental justice activist Sarah Sharpe, who worked as a UFW organizer from 2000-2002, describes this history as follows: “Some of the things I consider the most important part of our environmental justice history are from before people called it environmental justice. I always teach people that César Chávez was one of the first environmental justice leaders. A lot of the pesticides work that he did, around awareness, around pesticides, with the grape boycotts and everything else, is what I consider one of the first victories for the environmental justice movement. Some of the really, really bad pesticides that were being used in the seventies and eighties – getting them off the market was a major victory. We’re still doing that, but I think that was really meaningful because of the health impacts it had” (S. Sharpe, personal communication, Nov. 1, 2013).

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Photo by Zachary Singer

But while the UFW emphasized farmworker exposure to pesticides on the job during its heyday, contemporary environmental justice activists focus on the risks posed to low-income communities by the pesticides that drift off the fields where they are applied, or that make their way into the drinking water supply of nearby communities. They also work to reduce air pollution, regulate mega-daries and hazardous waste landfills, and protect against a host of other environmental pollutants that disproportionately impact farmworkers, low-income communities and communities of color. Their experiences underscore that threats to the environment come not only from polluting industries, consumerism and insufficient environmental policies, but also from social structures that privilege some groups of people over others. When society is organized in such a way that its most powerful are insulated from many of the immediate environmental costs and hazards of modern life, there is less incentive to make the changes needed to reduce environmental degradation.

San Joaquin Valley environmental justice activism is by no means exclusively made up of current or former members of the UFW, or even of farmworkers. It counts among its supporters a diverse group of activists from different race, class, and work backgrounds. But the farmworkers’ movement played an important role in the region that formed a foundation for contemporary environmental justice organizing there. It gives activists pride in their history and a sense of possibility about what they can still accomplish. Read on to learn more about their experiences in their own words.


Lupe Martinez

Lupe Martinez was involved with the UFW from the 1960s through 2006. Over the years his roles with the union included volunteer, organizer, contract administrator, negotiator, Regional Director, National Organizing Director, and Vice President of the Executive Board. He is now the Associate Director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, where he first worked from 1991-1993.

When I go back and look at my trajectory as a farm worker, I was pretty much doing all of the shoveling, hoeing, all of that work. But by the time I was about six, my dad already had me in machinery, learning how to drive the tractors. By nine, I was already driving the tractors. I dropped out of school in order to help with the family financially, after my dad got killed in a tractor accident. You start off from the bottom with labor contractors, and so on, get into a farmer’s crew.

I wanted to get into heavy machinery and that kind of work, instead of continuing to throw and swamp grapes and pick oranges, and all of the other stuff I used to do. I knew it would give me more stability. I started to get into the spraying with a lot of pesticides. We were doing the ponds, making sure we killed all of the algae, spraying all of that. Then pretty soon we were doing all of the almonds; we were doing grapes and we were spraying all this other stuff. At that time they were telling us what we were spraying was “medicine.”

I know a lot of folks don’t realize it, but this is what they used to tell us. “You’re going to apply medicines to the grapes.” I said, “Okay.” But then, we realized early on that people were getting sick, and there were no Ag. Commissioners coming out, or Cal OSHA, or anybody else regulating what we were doing. Maybe there were regulations, but out in the fields, I used to stick my hands in the chemicals and in the pesticides to measure them. “Okay, so this is a pound; so this is a pound.” That kind of stuff, you know? There were no masks; there wasn’t any of that stuff.

But then, little by little, I started to open up my eyes. Felipe Franco was born without any arms or legs here in Delano. That kicked me in the behind to say, “Is that because we’re responsible, because of the pesticides we apply?” His mother blamed it on Captan, which was the kind of sulfur dust that we were putting out there. So it opened my eyes. And, my wife was also working in the same fields. I thought, “What are we doing? What are we putting on the plants? How does it do this?”

The mentality of my boss was “We’re going to put gibberellic acid on the grapes so they can plump up five, six, seven times bigger than what Mother Nature provides.” We can do that. You do it at a specific time so that it absorbs the gibberellic acid, so that it plumps up and you have huge grapes. This is why we have cosmetic grapes. It started to hit me, “Wait a minute! Who’s eating these grapes? Who are we providing them to?” The consumer has no idea what’s really happening out there in the fields.

I think those were the beginning stages. I didn’t know it was environmental justice, but it started to get me moving. Then of course, the UFW came by. Once the UFW came by, my first real big fight was the McFarland cancer cluster, trying to figure out why that was happening. Why were these children having these cancers in that radius, in the vicinity of that neighborhood? That was in the ’80s, the real early ’80s. I went and I did a whole campaign in McFarland so that we could expose it, and that’s how it got exposed.

When do you really realize that you’re doing environmental justice work? I think it was already happening. The same goes for César. He was already an environmentalist, but not really defined as that. But it was all encompassing. It really started to move me into the whole thing with pesticides, and chemicals, and what we were doing out there, towards organizing, as labor is concerned. With farmworkers, the biggest problem is pesticides and chemicals. Then I really started to understand about environmental justice when I hooked up with Luke Cole, and what he was doing in Kettleman City with the incinerator that Chem Waste wanted to build. I really got into the chemicals, and understanding how Kettleman City compared to the McFarland cancer cluster. I started to put those pieces together, and then Luke gets the call about [the hazardous waste landfill in Buttonwillow] which at that time was run by Laidlaw, who wanted to expand the toxic waste site there. And so, we got really involved with that. We got the community moving, but not only the community! I started to see it also with some of the growers who were against that facility. They were also scared. They were already using pesticides, and doing all of this other stuff, but they were more scared of what was being done at the dump site. So I think that’s when it started to really hit me how our communities are beaten up.

When there’s no political power, they always hook us with, “We’re going to bring jobs.” And everybody needs a job. It’s interesting how things have changed to date, in comparison to what it was in the ’60s and the ’70s, 80’s. Things started to flare up, because it wasn’t only just McFarland through the UFW, but there had been other cases before that that had taken place. By the ’80s, it was starting to move. That’s when I started learning about other places—Alabama, and some of the other places where environmental injustice has happened. You start putting it all together, and then you start seeing that this is national. It’s not just Delano, it’s not just McFarland. You have McFarland, Fowler, Rosamond, then down south. All these places! And so you start seeing, by the ’80s, the explosion of all these things. By the ’90s, it really started to heat up with other groups – the Center on Race Poverty and the Environment, California Rural Legal Assistance, all of these other groups really pushing around environmental justice. I think the definition of environmental justice didn’t happen until the late ’80s, but fighting for environmental justice was already happening long before.

The biggest challenge now is how do we unite all of the communities that are suffering from the same thing? Sometimes we’re too busy with our own issue, and we don’t see what other communities are facing. I think our challenge is to come together. The communities are so poor that travel and communication is hard. The biggest challenge is getting over all of those things, and uniting all of those communities to come together. Kettleman City is suffering, or Buttonwillow is suffering, or Westmoreland and down south—they’re all connected. We’re all suffering from the same thing. Either we have a dump site, or bad water, bad air. We’re all having the same issues, and we all face the same problems.

Mary Lou Mares

Mary Lou Mares lives in Kettleman City, where she and her husband were founding members of El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water).Her daughter, Maricela Mares Alatorre, and her grandson, Miguel Alatorre, continue her work through El Pueblo and through staff and board positions, respectively, at Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

I was totally one of those people that thought that people with education and people in high authority knew what they were doing and you just let them do what they have to do. But there was a turning point. My husband had been a couple of years working with César Chávez on union stuff, and I kept telling him, “You are going to get hurt, don’t get into it. It’s not even your fight.” He was asked to ’cause he was very vocal; he’s the one that’s always been vocal, and they asked him to help put in the union into this ranch where he was working. He was working for a number of years just watering the roads, keeping the dust down. At that ranch, yearly, they would plant tomatoes. They would bring in a lot of people to work the tomatoes and they were treated badly: no water, no good pay and all that stuff. He started getting involved and I was working with that same ranch yearly. You sit on a machine and you drop the plants and I — I’m working there because there were two phases of that same company. We would do the planting and then the picking would go on from the first plant, because we would plant twice a year. One evening we were working nighttime in August, July, something like that. It was very hot, so they plant at night so that plants get a chance to, you know, grab ahold before the sun hits. My sisters and I were going into our job. They always have a guard at the front, and my husband was going in with a union worker and he was ahead of us. He was going to go this way and we were going to go the other way, and all of a sudden, this big old truck comes by and tries to run him off the road, and I said, “What! What are they doing? How dare they do that?” I was so angry and then a man stopped us and says, “You go to your jobs. Get to your jobs.” I was so sick with worry of what was happening on my husband’s side of the ranch. And after that, I said, “Well, do you need a volunteer for this or that?” and I got into it.

At the same time, one day we came home and there was this flyer on the door. It had a skull and bones on it, and it said do you know they are trying to incinerate, something is going to go into the air. So, I went to that meeting. And, the more we heard, the more angry we got. How dare they, the supervisors of our county, just assume that we would go for this project of them placing a [hazardous waste] incinerator four miles from our town! It was a lot of people, a lot of people that came together to fight for something that’s in common with all of us, our air. You know, we all breathe the same air. What goes around comes around, and it’s everybody’s air. That’s how I got into it.

My friend Espi always pushed me up to the front of the room: “You can do it, come on, you can do it.” I remember at first, I thought I was going to have a heart attack or a stroke, I was so embarrassed. I could feel the color going up in my face as soon as I started talking and then, it got easier and easier. That’s how I got into it, with a lot of education from people like Bradley Angel, and meeting other groups that had been fighting other stuff around California. You get educated. You think about why are you just quiet and not doing nothing about it, and that’s how I got into it.

Enrique Martinez

Enrique Martinez, formerly Ana Martinez, worked as an organizer for the UFW from 2003-2006. She now works as a community organizer in the San Joaquin Valley for Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

My parents crossed the border to get to the United States, and I just never thought about how hard it was for them until working with the UFW. I met a lady who had barely crossed the border after four days walking, and her feet were pretty blistered. It was sad. You hear a lot of stories about people who died crossing the border, and it’s only stories until you really meet the people and you realize, gosh, my parents must have gone through this.

To be honest with you, at the beginning I had no idea who César Chávez was. One time a friend of mine told me, “Hey, you want to go to this march?” I’m like, “No.” I was like any ignorant person. I was kind of embarrassed. I said, “No, I don’t want to be holding no little flag or be out there. What for?” But I got started by an invitation by a friend, and as soon as I saw what they were actually fighting for, that was what made it really interesting. To know how people get discriminated against and get mistreated and abused.

I thought it was embarrassing, but at the end it was something to be really proud of. Once you get to know what you’re fighting for, which is for all those people out there who have been struggling, who have been discriminated against, who have been abused – you realize, we’re human beings, we don’t deserve to be treated like that.

A lot of people, they heard about the UFW and think “Oh no, they just come in, take away money from the companies and just shut ’em down and the workers are left with no job.” But basically it’s the other way around, you know? You look to help the workers to have respect and have better wages, to not be so abused. They have representation, which is the most important thing because a lot of workers don’t have that. As well as the communities. A lot of folks in the communities don’t have representation.

We’re fighting to better our future.  I didn’t know what organizing was about until Lupe, my ex-boss, told me, “Once you learn how to organize it’s a tool that nobody can ever take away from you. No matter where you’re at, who you’re working for, it’s something that you’re always going to be.”

I know a lady who worked for the UFW. Her name’s Josephina. She was side-by-side with César Chávez. She was an inspiration. I tell you, she gave me some courage and the will to be out there all the time. This lady, she was about 60 or 70 years old and you would see her every day at the union saying, “Hey, what are we doing now? What are we doing now?” And it’s like, “Well, we’re going to the fields.” “I’ll go with you.” “OK.” She was a volunteer. And it’s so amazing to see that her spirit is still alive, you know? Sometimes it feels like you’re not really going to make much of a difference. But this lady, she’s older and still participating, helping us out, and she’s an inspiration. There’s a lot of those folks out there who sometimes don’t get involved any more, who are just waiting for a phone call, so anybody can invite them to get involved.


This essay, and the oral histories and photographs that accompany it, is a companion piece to the Voices from the Valley  project, which uses photography, oral history, teaching tools, the news media and more to paint a vivid picture of San Joaquin Valley environmental justice activism.


Cite this Page

Tracy Perkins, “The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America: Stories from the Birthplace of Industrial Agriculture,” Tales of Hope and Caution in Environmental Justice, accessed [time_date], ​

Works Cited

  • Bardacke, Frank. Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. New York: Verso, 2011.
  • Ganz, Marshall. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Garcia, Matt. From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010
  • Pawel, Miriam. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014
  • Pulido, Laura.  Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996.
  • Shaw, Randy.  Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Wells, Miriam J. and Don Villarejo. State Structures and Social Movement Strategies: The Shaping of Farm Labor Protections in California. Politics Society, Vol. 32 No. 3, September 2004 291-326.

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