|IntroductionHow I Became Staff Photographer for Cesar Chavez|
and the United Farm Workers
by Cathy Murphy
In 1974, I was a student at Brooks Institute of Photography and a photographer for the Santa Barbara News and Review. I photographed entertainers, city council meetings and striking farm workers on picket lines near Oxnard.
During the summer of 1975, Cesar Chavez and a group of supporters began a march from San Ysidro, California, called The Thousand Mile March. Every day the group walked 20-25 miles so Chavez could inform farm workers along the way that recent legislation supported by Governor Jerry Brown and passed by the California legislature, granted farm workers the right to hold elections in the fields.
When I first saw Chavez I wondered how such a small man could have the courage to challenge California’s powerful agribusiness. Walking in front of Chavez were his two large German Shepard dogs, Boycott and Huelga. Behind and beside him were security guards. I jumped into the line, behind the dogs and directly in front of Chavez. I raised my camera and Chavez’ dark, piercing eyes looked directly into the lens. As I took the photograph, I knew immediately I was looking at a very powerful person.
Within minutes Chavez summoned me. He wanted to know who I was. I explained my assignment and told him I supported the farm workers and the grape boycott. I offered to send photographs to the UFW photographer. Fate often seemed to step in during my time with Chavez. The day before in Los Angeles, the UFW photographer had quit.
Chavez asked to see my photographs of the strikers that ran in the Santa Barbara newspaper. After viewing the photos, he offered me the job of Staff Photographer. Like all UFW volunteers, I would receive $5 per week for wages and housing at the UFW headquarters at La Paz in Keene, California. Chavez’ charisma had drawn me in and I couldn’t refuse. I knew this was an historic journey and I was honored to be part of it.
I continued documenting the history of the farm workers as they toiled in the hot fields from dawn until dusk. Children worked beside their parents, some only in their stocking feet. I photographed strikes, stoop laborers with short-handled hoes and workers being sprayed with pesticides from unannounced low-flying crop dusters.
A grant from the Woody Guthrie Foundation made it possible for me to travel with a crew of lettuce workers from Salinas to Calexico to Mesa, Arizona. Inter-Harvest Inc. gave me permission to photograph in their fields and the workers welcomed me and my cameras into their labor camps. I printed hundreds of photographs that culminated in the photo documentary “From the California Fields” produced in the UFW print shop. The documentary traveled to 12 major U.S. cities and was on display at the 1976 Democratic Convention.
My friendship with Chavez and his family grew. I returned to La Paz many times. From March to September of 2005, photographs of The Thousand Mile March, Chavez family portraits and some of my personal favorites of farm workers and their children in the fields were exhibited at the National Cesar E. Chavez Foundation Center in La Paz.
My photo documentary, “Witness, Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers,” opened in September, 2005 at the University of Arizona in Tucson. In 2006 and 2007, “Marching Through History with Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers” was exhibited at Pasadena City College, in California, Stony Brook University, on Long Island, the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center and Columbia University, in New York City.
My first photograph of Cesar Chavez, taken on that historic day in 1975, was selected in December of 2006 as the image to represent Chavez, and be etched into the California Hall of Fame in Sacramento. This photo was also printed on thousands of posters sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Volunteers honoring Chavez’ birthday, March 31st, with a day of service and learning throughout California schools.
I continue to teach photography at Cochise College and to document the Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon, Mexico. To view more of my images or to schedule an exhibit of “ Marching Through History with Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers” please view my web site at: cathymurphyphotography.net.