Under cover of an oak tree on a tobacco farm deep in the heart of rural North Carolina, Leticia Zavala challenges the taller, older male migrant farm workers with talk of a boycott and legalización.
“We will not get anything without fighting for it,” declares the intense 5-foot-1 organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). Pen and notebook in hand, Zavala hacks swiftly through the fear and doubt that envelop many migrants. She speaks from a place, an experience, that most organizers in this country don’t know: Her earliest childhood and adolescent memories are of migrating each year with her family between Mexico and Florida. “We have five buses and each of you has to decide for yourselves if you want to go to Washington with us,” she says. After some deliberation most of the workers, many of whom have just finished the seven-day trek from Nayarit, Mexico, opt to get on another bus and join the May 1 marcha and boycott. They trust her, as do the more than 500 other migrant workers from across the state who heed the call from one of the new leaders of the movimiento that is upon us.
Asked why she thinks FLOC was so successful in mobilizing farm workers (the union made history after a stunning 2004 victory that secured representation and a contract for more than 10,000 H-2A “guest” workers who labor on strawberry, tobacco, yam, cucumber and other farms), Zavala talks about “the importance of networks” and the need to respond to the globalization of labor through the creation of a “migrating union.” She and other FLOC organizers have followed migrant workers to Mexico, where the organization has an office–and then have followed them back over several months. She also points to the vision, strategies and tactics shared by her mentor, FLOC founder Baldemar Velásquez, who passed on to her the advice that Martin Luther King Jr. gave him during the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967: “When you impact the rich man’s ability to make money, anything is negotiable.”
But when you ask her what is most important in the twenty-first-century matrix of successful organizing, the bespectacled, bright-eyed Zavala will bring you back to basics: “One of the biggest successes of the union is that it takes away loneliness.”
The 26-year-old Zavala’s vision, experience and learning are a telling reflection of how the leaders of the movimiento merge traditional labor and civil rights strategies and tactics with more global, networked–and personalized–organizing to meet the challenges of the quintessentially global issue of immigration. While it’s important to situate the immigrant struggle within the context of the ongoing freedom struggles of African-Americans, women (like Zavala, an extraordinary number of movimiento leaders are mujeres) and others who have fought for social justice in the United States, labeling and framing it as a “new civil rights movement” risks erasing its roots in Latin American struggles and history.