Revisiting Labor Reform 

Claudio Beagarie's photographs in Nampa

The Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho's current exhibit, a collection of 26 black-and-white photographs taken by photo-journalist and labor reform activist Claudio Beagarie, documents the 1960s Chicano struggle led by Cesar Chavez to receive fair wages and decent housing for farm workers in California. The photographs are powerful, intimate images—barefoot children standing in front of sheet metal shacks in a farm workers' camp, Chicanos in chinos and sweater vests marching alongside Mariachis and thousands of protesters from every ethnic background at the California State Capitol. The photos are in opposition to images of the '60s that most often come to mind—angry, unshaven youth protesting atrocities abroad and rejecting traditional social mores. Instead, Beagarie portrays the struggles of working-class Americans to correct atrocities occurring at home. "It was not a 'Let's-go-out-and-have-some-fun' movement or anything like that, it was about our families' needs," Beagarie said in a recent interview. "We were there to collectively demonstrate that we wanted better wages and we wanted better living conditions."

Beagarie, an eloquent storyteller and humble historian, explained the unique leadership of Cesar Chavez. "I think he was the first truly successful farm labor organizer and encouraged others to participate alongside him. Chavez had somehow arrived at a formula that worked, a method, a cultural understanding of the situation that basically made it workable." Influenced by the teachings of Ghandi and inspired by the energy of the Civil Rights Movement, Chavez set about to organize workers to strike and the rest of the populace to boycott certain produce. Chavez was adamant that the protestors work through nonviolent means and supported boycotts through his own extended fasting. Other organizations and unions engaged in labor reform movements supported the farm workers in their activism and in their homes.

The photographs are a powerful reminder of a time in which people were willing to take dramatic action to correct injustices in society. Beagarie, who now lives in Nampa, explained that he did not take the photographs with the idea that they would later tell the story of the movement to the next generation, but that he was trying to create images that would support and promote the movement. He focused on "Impact, facial expressions that indicated feelings of solidarity, feelings of challenging the establishment, just anything that had force. I was so caught up in the mechanics of shooting and getting, to my satisfaction, the best pictures that I could, that as far as their historical use, 40 years from then—the idea of the year 2000 was so distant—back then I was not thinking of that so much. I was just thinking of the immediate needs. We had some goals to reach."

The photographs serve an historical purpose, a tribute to those who participated in, struggled through and sacrificed for the movement. However, they also serve to incite the next generation of social reformers, because despite the success of the movement, Beagarie feels there is still much to be done in labor reform. "The next mode of struggle won't be any easier on the people involved. On the other hand, if the farm workers hadn't done it, well, we wouldn't be where we are right now. Maybe with 40 years of experience behind us now, we'll be ready to take the next step and the next step, I think, is not the minimum wage, it's the living wage. That means that farm workers would have to be making $13-14 an hour, as well as everybody else. I don't think that the bosses are going to come right out and say, 'Here's your money!' No, I think we're going to have to put up quite a fight to get to that point."

To honor the memory of the movement and help spark the next movement, Beagarie is interested in conducting tours through the exhibit. "I'd like to explain the relevance to what's happening today and discuss questions like 'How did this get us to where we are today?' and 'Where do we go from here?' The exhibit doesn't serve much of a purpose, it just sits there, unless people come in and look at it and offer their views, whether they agree with Cesar Chavez's methods or not. I'd also like to know what kind of impact the exhibit has on people."

Interested groups (six people or more) should contact the Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa at 442-0823 to schedule a tour. The exhibit ends August 31, 2004. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment.

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