MAYBE IT is recent High Court Justice Devindra Rampersad’s ruling that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act are unconstitutional or maybe it’s the media reports about Venezuelans pouring into this country that have me thinking today about lettuce, grapes and the late, great Mexican-American civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, who died on this day in 1993.
I have never forgotten Chavez’s messages of justice and unity, which united immigrants and others living on the periphery of society into a powerful voice for justice. Anyone living in the San Francisco Bay area in the US in the 60s and 70s, knew the face of prejudice; we all knew the importance of coming together to fight injustice in a nonviolent way.
When I was a graduate student in anthropology in the 70s, I can remember mouthwatering mounds of juicy grapes and pyramids of leafy lettuce that went untouched in grocery stores because Chavez told us to boycott produce from companies that discriminated against people. We wouldn’t even walk near that produce because we had all rallied around Chavez.
Chavez had been fighting for unionisation, better wages and better working conditions for migrant Mexican farmers, who did jobs no Americans wanted to do. The grape strike actually dated back to September 8, 1965, when Filipino American grape workers, who were members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, walked out on strike against Delano-area table and wine grape growers protesting years of poor pay and horrible conditions.
The Filipinos asked Chavez, who led the National Farm Workers Association to join their strike. Chavez agreed because he knew he was supporting a common cause, and he knew there was power in numbers.
Unions, students, Latinos, other minorities – including gay activists in San Francisco – and civil rights groups, followed Chavez in protest, and if you felt you couldn’t march in the streets, all you had to do was avoid the produce aisle in the grocery store.
Chavez led a 300-mile march to the California state capital of Sacramento. There was no one in the US who hadn’t heard of Chavez and the plight of minority farm workers. Their boycotts of table grapes spread across the US.
I have never forgotten the lessons I learned from those boycotts. This is how I can look at Jason Jones, the LGBT activist who took the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to court to fight the “buggery law,” which dates from colonial British rule, and remember the activism of Chavez.
It is never easy to stand up against injustice. It’s not easy to go to court and fight government or powerful companies, but these cases affect all of us. Injustice anywhere affects everyone.
Justice Rampersad’s ruling is not just about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual rights. It’s about autonomy and individual rights that are dear to all of us. It’s about fighting discrimination that knows no boundaries. I think about those days when I stood in a grocery store and decided not to buy grapes and lettuce because I wanted to stand for something in this world: equality.
There are children in Trinidad and Tobago who secretly struggle with their idenity. They dream of the freedom to express themselves freely and not have to hide their sexual orientation. They watched Jones on the courthouse steps and felt a surge of happiness on that day a High Court judge struck down an unfair, anachronistic, colonial law. Those children will never forget that feeling of freedom. They will think about heroes – willing to stand up for our rights – and they will realise the importance of fairness.
This all seems especially important to me as I think about refugees pouring in from Venezuela. The media will highlight those refugees who are caught smuggling guns or committing crime – just as the media in the US highlights those Mexican refugees in the US – and people will develop a general prejudice towards a people struggling for basic human rights.
There will be many good people from Venezuela who will come to Trinidad and Tobago for a new chance in life. They will do work no one in this country wants to do. I wonder how we will treat those people now that we have some practice accepting the oppressed. Clearly, we need a plan to deal with them.
We have a long way to go to fight the many injustices that we face in this country, but Justice Rampersad’s ruling feels like a good, solid beginning. And good beginnings are always important.