Inspired by Cesar Chavez

  • DREAMING A FUTURE: Maria Gonzales Mabbutt

    Stephen Lyons photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

Maria Gonzales Mabbutt nurses her four-month-old daughter Marisa in her Canyon County home while she tells her story. She is 43 and grew up as many Hispanics in her generation did: migrating.

From the Rio Grande Valley town of Elsa, Texas, Mabbutt worked alongside her family, picking bell peppers, cotton, cucumbers; weeding cotton and soybeans and harvesting tomatoes in places as far away as Pontiac, Ill. She became her family's interpreter at the age of 12, when she successfully guided them through a car breakdown near St. Louis and on to their final destination at a farm in Illinois. When the farmer came out to meet the family, he demanded to know who was this Maria he'd been talking with on the phone. He was shocked to meet a child.

"That was my first job as interpreter," Mabbutt says, laughing. She has dedicated her life to farm worker advocacy and is now teaching pesticide safety to Idaho farm workers, a program in its second year of an EPA grant through Idaho Legal Aid. Mabbutt is the project director of the Farm Worker Empowerment Project, which in its first year reached 500 workers. Two hundred were trained in pesticide safety and 150 joined a farm workers' coalition called the United Farm Workers of Idaho. The national UFW has no real presence in Idaho, but Mabbutt says she's inspired by the legacy of United Farm Workers' founder Cesar Chavez, whom she first met in 1986.

"What I most remember about (meeting him) was I was so awestruck that I was speechless. I always believed it was his aura. Not so much what he said, but who he was. You could tell his strength and his dedication."

Three weeks before he died, Mabbutt had a chance to stop and say hello to him each morning as they passed on the beach at a national farm workers' conference in San Diego. "And he'd always ask me how I was and I always felt what an honor - that Cesar Chavez was talking to me!'

After Chavez died, Mabbutt, then in the midst of a difficult time professionally, had a dream that helped her see her life differently.

"I dreamed we were at this national farm workers' conference, and this was two years after he died, and I was speaking, and he was sitting in the audience. I finished speaking and it turned into a dance floor and all the chairs were turned around and the music started playing. Cesar Chavez comes up to me and he asks me to dance. "Can I have the honor of dancing with you?" And so we're dancing and I could really feel his strength again. But as I got stronger I felt his body grow weaker to the point that his hand rested on my left shoulder and he was holding on to me. At that point two guys, they seemed liked bodyguards, came and pulled him away. Then he smiled at me. I woke up and I was crying. I thought, what does this mean?

"Given what I was going through at the time, I felt that he gave me his strength. I remember telling the staff where I worked at the Department of Labor when he died that it was sad, but now we have a farm worker advocate angel."

She begins to cry and looks down at baby Marisa, stroking her hair, rocking back and forth, back and forth.

High Country News Classifieds