How One Girl Helped Build A Latinx Civil Rights Movement

By Mireya Loza, December 16, 2020

As a little girl, Jessica Govea had become accustomed to rising early and making her way to the fields with her family. During the cotton season, you could find her family dragging sacks of cotton along the long rows of fields in Kern County, California. Her father had travelled a long way from Mexico. He first worked in the United States as a contracted guest worker through the Bracero Program and then later as a migrant farmworker.

Jessica GoveaPortrait of Jessica Govea. Courtesy of the Govea family

When her family settled in Bakersfield, California, their home became an important place for organizing. Cesar Chavez, who was at that time a leader in the Community Service Organization (CSO), visited her parents a lot and wanted the Goveas to join one of the most important Latinx civil rights organization of the period. The CSO organized voter drives, sponsored citizenship classes, and lobbied for fair employment. Govea’s parents became important organizers in the Bakersfield chapter, and her mother was eventually elected CSO chapter president.

Govea followed her parents’ lead, often passing out flyers and urging residents to vote. In high school, she became president of the Junior CSO. As a young organizer, Govea not only worked to make adults aware of their rights. but also worked on behalf of children in her community. After her best friend was struck by a car and died, she organized a petition drive, with other 11- and 12-year-old kids, to build a park in her neighborhood. She knew that children in her community needed a safe place to play. She saw a problem and did something about it. She became politicized during her girlhood and was on the front lines of change.

Jessica Govea13-year-old Jessica Govea. Courtesy of the Govea family

By the time she graduated high school, Govea knew without a doubt that social justice was her calling, and at the age of 19 she joined Cesar Chavez and the organization that would eventually become the United Farm Workers (UFW). A few years earlier, frustrated that the CSO did not want to support his vision to organize farmworkers, Chavez left the CSO and set his eyes on building a new labor union. Govea became a full-time organizer in the UFW, rising through the ranks so quickly that she was asked to lead the organizing efforts in Montreal, Canada. This was a daunting task, both because California growers had been able to break many efforts to organize unions and because Govea had to make sure Canadians supported American farmworkers.

UFW ButtonThis is the type of button supporters of the UFW wore in 1977.UFW PosterSi Se Puede, Boycott Lettuce and Grapes, 1977. Through consumer boycotts, the UFW was able to place pressure on growers and get them to listen to the demands of farmworkers.

Govea’s first job was to make Canadians aware of the UFW’s international grape boycott and stop grapes from going into local consumers’ shopping carts.

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