Easter and its aftermath are a good lesson in how to rise from what appears to be a dead end. Jesus and the early disciples are an incredible reminder that you can experience a situation of utter despair and turn it into something transformative. After the Easter of 1972, farm workers were challenged to put that lesson into practice.
The Arizona governor had just signed a bill that virtually eliminated the ability of farm workers to unionize and protest. They traveled to the bedside of Cesar Chavez, who had begun a fast. The farm workers feared that nothing, including his fast, could save them.
However, much like Mary Magdalene announcing the resurrection to the disciples, a woman at Chavez's bedside uttered the now-famous words of hope: "Sí se puede."
The woman was Dolores Huerta, a founder of the United Farm Workers. Her words became the well-known rallying cry for farm worker justice.
It helps to know a little Spanish to truly understand why the phrase is so powerful. Usually, "sí se puede" is translated into English as "yes we can." But in Spanish, there is an additional nuance.
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In Spanish, the word "puede" comes from "poder," which serves as both a verb and a noun. The noun means "power." "Puede" is power in action. The famous farm worker phrase subtly speaks to situations of injustice and says, "We have the power to rise."
That spring, the growers and government may have had power. But in Dolores Huerta's three words, the farm workers knew they had power, too.
This spring, another farm worker uprising is putting the Easter model of transformation into practice. Thousands of farm workers in Mexico who pick produce for U.S. consumers went on strike in March. They protested low wages (approximately $8 to $12 per day) and demanded that growers abide by government labor laws.
These farm workers pick produce intended for appetites in the United States. In fact, Mexican farms supply half of all the tomatoes we eat in the United States.
While the striking workers are based in one Mexican state, the Los Angeles Times recently documented farm worker abuse across the country in a four-part investigative series. A reporter and photojournalist spent 18 months exploring the lives of farm workers in 30 different labor camps at some of Mexico's largest agribusinesses that serve restaurant and grocery chains in the United States, including Olive Garden and Whole Foods.
The reporters discovered deplorable conditions, including withheld wages, beatings, and malnutrition. While the conditions are illegal according to Mexican law, they appear rampant in labor camps.
While some workers have felt they must return to the fields to support their families, labor leaders continue negotiations with hope for a comprehensive resolution on wages. Meanwhile, the United Farm Workers has circulated a petition for allies in the United States to sign.
My prayers and my signature on the petition are aligned with the farm workers. And my gratitude is with Dolores Huerta, who gave all of us a way to remember that the power of the Holy Spirit remains among us. Her beloved phrase reminds me of what the early Christians tried to teach us long ago about rising up after an experience of injustice. Three words say it all: Yes we can.
[Nicole Sotelo is the author of Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace, published by Paulist Press, and coordinates WomenHealing.com. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.]
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