Mario Bustamante


MARIO BUSTAMANTE  |  Organizer

Mario Bustamante organizing at his kitchen table.

Mario Bustamante had left his home in Mexico City as a teenager to find his father, Salvador, in California. Mario followed his father into the lettuce fields, and then a few years later, into the United Farm Workers. Mario recalls the first time he heard Cesar Chavez speak, a few days before a major strike shut down the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley:

My father brought my brother Chava and I to the first meeting in Salinas in 1970. Really, my father was the one who organized us. Because after we left the meeting, we went to a café, to have some coffee and talk about what we had heard, and make a decision about what to do. My father worked at D’Arrigo, and he had decided to fight, to join with the D’Arrigo workers and fight for a union contract. When my father asked us, ‘What have you decided?’ my brother and I decided that we, too, would join the strike at Merrill farms, where we worked. United, we would we could try to win a contract. 
 
Yo con mi papa y mi hermano Chava, cuando fuimos a la premier junta en Salinas el 1970, mi papa, en realidad, el es el que nos organizó a nosotros. Porque salir nos de esa junta, nos vemos a un café, a tomar café y a comentar a lo que hemos escuchado y a tomar una decisión de que vamos hacer. Y cuando mi papa nos dijo, ‘que habían decidido?’ el trabajó en la D’Arrigo. Que había decidido, pelear, y unir a los trabajadores de D’Arrigo para salir a pelear por un contracto. Y yo y mi hermano decidimos que también iríamos la misma en la compañía Merrill.
Unirnos, y tratar de ganar un contracto.

Salvador Bustamante, second from left

When union organizer Marshall Ganz arrived in Salinas that week, Salvador Bustamante was the worker who first showed Ganz around. He worked security for Chavez and became a familiar sight around the union hall and events, known for his trademark style, elegant dress and hats.

The union was very important for my father, because he felt that with the union, we could stop many of the abuses committed by the growers. My father had been a farmworker since the Bracero program.  After the Bracero program ended there were even greater abuses of farm workers because there were no contracts.  My father understood that growers had too much power and we had to fight. 
 
La importancia de la unión era mucho por mi papa porque el sentía que con la unión se podía acabar muchos abusos de parte de los rancheros. Porque el había trabajado desde estaban braceros. Después que terminaron los contractos de braceros había abusos de campesinos mas grande que antes. El sabia que había demasiado poder en los rancheros y había que pelear.

Salvador Bustamante, in hat, with Cesar Chavez during the Caminata.

Mario began to hang around the union office and become more active in the UFW. And he learned the value of “house meetings,” where organizers met with small groups of workers to talk about what the union meant, what they could accomplish working together. He invited friends and family to his own home to hear a union organizer speak.

After we went out on strike, we kept participating in a lot of union activities. Going to visit people in their homes, going to visit people in the fields. So it was like a continuing apprenticeship. And I learned that people are much more comfortable talking about things in their homes, rather than at work. 
 
Lo que pasa es que había pasado un tiempo de que habíamos salida en huelga, habíamos seguido participando en muchos cosas con las oficinas de la unión. Yendo a visitar gente a las casas, yendo a visitar gente a los campos. Entonces, era una aprendizaje de continúe y ya sabia uno que muchas de las personas en casas hablan mas fácil que en el trabajo.

It was during the election campaigns in the Salinas Valley that Mario became fully engaged and understood the power of the union.

That summer, for me, made a big impression -- to see all the power. And to see many things become real – no longer just dreams. When we watched voting start at different companies, we saw, the law is here! And we had the opportunity to organize ourselves. We had the right to organize. And I think we had a great thing, because no state other than California had such a law. 
 
Ese verano, para mi, fue algo muy impresionante, ver todo el poder que podría ver. Y que muchas cosas podrían ser reales. No no mas sueños. Cuando vimos empezaron a ver votaciones en diferentes compañías, vimos que la ley allí esta. Y que hay la oportunidad de organizarnos. Tenemos el derecho de organizarnos. Y creo que tuvimos una grande cosa con eso porque ningún otra estado lo tiene, mas que California.

During Chavez’s caminata through the Salinas Valley in the summer of 1975, Mario was there every day, recruiting workers to come out of the fields and join the march. From a handful of workers at the southern end of the valley, the march swelled to thousands by the time it reached Salinas on August 3.

Thousands marched into Salinas with Chavez for the final rally on Aug. 3, 1975

We learned something very important from that march. A critical lesson. That it was important for people to see the power of the workers. So when we met Cesar, coming into the valley with just a few people marching, we decided we had to have the force of a hurricane by the time he reached Salinas. Because we felt that Salinas was where the people were most organized. And we had to have a lot of people, marching with Cesar, in order to show the entire state that farmworkers wanted this new law. 
 
Era, ya sabemos que algo muy importante de esa marcha. Era una decisiva, se puede decir, se tenia que notar la fuerza de los campesinos y entonces cuando nosotros encontramos a Cesar en el camino, viniendo con tan poco gente, decidimos que tenemos entrar como un ciclón a Salinas. Porque sentíamos que es donde estaba la gente mas organizada. Y debíamos de llegar mucha gente, caminando con Cesar. Para ensenarle a todo el estado que los campesinos querían una ley.

In many ways, the lasting legacy of Mario’s time in the union was its influence on his children, who grew up in an environment where si se puede was more than a slogan. Isaura was eight in the photograph below. Today, she works in a migrant education program in Nebraska, helping families adjust to their new communities.

I think for them, the importance was possibly that they also felt they had the right, or the duty, to be people who helped others. This was the benefit. Maybe they aren’t wealthy, but … this was the great and lasting success. That one could fight for justice. And I think that each person wants to be able to work to change their own life. 
 
Yo pienso que la importancia para ellos fue posiblemente sentir también el derecho, el deber, de ser personas, que ayudan a los de mas. Ese es el ganancia. Posiblemente no son ricos, pero como Isaura, que estaba allí, trabajo con niños migrantes. Y eso fue algo porque era la mas gran éxito fue algo que ella entro duro. Ver. Que se pelear por justicia. Y yo pienso que cada persona quiera tocada cambiar su vida.

"I learned that people are much more comfortable talking about things in their homes, rather than at work." Here Mario's daughter Isaura, (center) at eight watches her father in action in 1975. She now works in a migrant education program in Nebraska.


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