In my column in The Star this week I wrote about a nationwide effort to increase Latino voter turnout this fall, and the role of Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of SEIU International, in that effort.
Like many of his generation of Latino political and union activists, Medina's first involvement in that arena came at the side of Cesar Chavez. Medina was raised in Delano, the starting point of the 1965 grape strike that thrust Chavez and the plight of farm workers into national prominence. He worked with Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union in Delano, in Oxnard, and in farming communities across California.
Given Medina's background, I was curious about an SEIU press release about the Latino voter outreach effort that mentioned the need for organizers to move beyond invoking Chavez' legacy in mobilizing Latino voters. I asked Medina what was meant by that.
"César was an important historical figure," he told me. "But there's a huge new generation of Latinos in this country who've never heard of him. We need to talk to them about the challenges of today. We need to tell them that this election coming up is about you, it's about your families, it's about your future.
"While many younger Latinos respect and honor Cesar's legacy, it's not going to motivate them to go out to the polls."
It's also true that while Latino immigrants still dominate the workforce in U.S. agricultural fields, an increasing percentage of them live in urban areas and work in other industries, such as food service, hotels, construction and landscaping. The symbol of the farmworker, hard-working and dignified, remains a powerful image, but Medina is likely correct in assessing that it is time for organizers to broaden their political messages to Latino immigrant voters.
Still, the power of Chavez and the UFW continues to be a political organizing tool. This spring in Ventura County's 26th Congressional District, perhaps the most effective outreach to Spanish-speaking voters by Democratic candidate Julia Brownley was an automated telephone call on her behalf from Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the UFW with Chavez.