From fields to the frontlines: Chava Bustamante inspires next generation
Chava Bustmante retired as executive director of Latinos Unidos para una Nueva America on Feb. 1, 2021. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Salvador “Chava” Bustamante was first arrested for civil disobedience in 1979 at the age of 28.

The labor organizer, who recently stepped down as executive director of Latinos United for a New America (LUNA), was striking with the United Farm Workers in Salinas. He was sentenced to three months in Monterey County Jail for the strike, and upon release he took a long walk back home and started thinking about his future.

“I was released the morning after Thanksgiving in 1979, at 5:36 in the morning,” Bustamante, 69, told San José Spotlight. “All of a sudden, a question came to my mind about what I needed to do with my life… I decided that I needed to become an organizer.”

Thus began the career of a man who inspires others to fight for the rights and freedom of workers, immigrants and the community at large. Bustamante said his work is about helping others realize the power of collective action.

“If there’s a situation that affects you, you have the power in yourself to change that situation, individually,” Bustamante said. “But it’s even more powerful when you organize and get yourself with other people and all of you fight together against that injustice.”

A history of disobedience

Bustamante came to the United States from Mexico in 1968 and worked in the fields for the next 12 years. He came into contact with the United Farm Workers union in Salinas, and participated in his first strike that year. He formally joined the union in 1975.

Bustamante moved to San Jose in 1983 when his wife got a job with the Service Employees International Union. At the end of 1986, he started working on a contract campaign with the union and worked on the Justice for Janitors campaign for 18 years.

One of his earliest memories of the power of unions, Bustamante said, was when he worked in the fields picking lettuce.

“It could be raining, it could be the wind blowing 30 to 35 miles per hour, and you have to work,” Bustamante said. “I remember going to these fields one morning, maybe 4:35 in the morning, the fog was so heavy that it felt like it was raining.”

The lettuce workers and their union decided to negotiate a contract that would give them the right to refuse work if conditions affected their health and safety. However, the workers were only allowed to refuse work individually, rather than collectively. But that didn’t stop them from taking action one morning.

“The foreman came to the bus, it was about 35 of us, and he said, ‘Bustamante, you guys gonna work or not?’” Bustamante recalled. He refused, and one by one, each of the other workers refused as well. The workers spoke individually, yet worked collectively to enforce their rights.

Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz first met Bustamante when she was in high school. She recalled seeing him protest on behalf of janitors, food service workers and security workers outside of a tech campus a few years ago. He protested in support of their move to form a union and was eventually arrested, an image that Armendariz said stands out in her mind.

“It was really stark… to see this modest man, this former farmworker, this man who was always in solidarity with janitors, be in a prone position on the ground, in the sun, in front of some of our world’s most powerful corporations,” Armendariz said. “Every time he got arrested, every time he stood up, every time he was on the front lines of a protest, he was risking his freedom and sacrificing time with his own family.”

Chava Bustamante, center, speaks to Javier Gonzalez, Google’s government affairs and public policy manager, outside of Google’s campus in Mountain View. Image courtesy of Silicon Valley Rising.

Commitment to justice

Bustamante’s colleagues say his willingness to be jailed for the causes he cares about demonstrates the depth of his commitment. Bustamante said he’s been arrested for civil disobedience about a dozen times.

“Chava has taught a lot of people about organizing, and the dedication that it takes, the type of actions that people at times have to take, and also the different ways of doing the work,” said Victor Vasquez, director of organizing and policy at SOMOS Mayfair. “There are times to collaborate with our systems, and there are times to challenge them and push them forward.”

Maria Noel Fernandez, director of Silicon Valley Rising, has known Bustamante since she was a child. She said she admires his drive to push for greater goals.

“When we talk about turnout, he’s always like, ‘How do we make it 500 from the 200 that’s expected?’” Fernandez said. “And not just that, but how we’re going to get there… it’s not just this lofty idea, it’s about how to make it real, how to make it happen.”

Not backing down

Maritza Maldonado, executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe, said Bustamante has a ferocity in him that makes him a powerful ally. She recalled when she and Bustamante protested outside the federal Homeland Security field office in Morgan Hill a few years ago. The owner of the strip mall where the office is located arrived and started screaming at protesters. Bustamante stood toe to toe with the man, not willing to back down.

“It got a little scary, he literally got in his face. But he didn’t back down,” Maldonado said. “There’s a humble side of Chava, but also, when he sees an injustice, he’s relentless in his pursuit of justice.”

Chava Bustamante, left, spoke with the owner of a strip mall while protesting outside the Homeland Security office in Morgan Hill. Image courtesy of Maritza Maldonado.

Community first

Bustamante is also keenly aware of the need to listen to community members.

Mayra Pelagio, the new executive director of LUNA, said she started working with the organization as a part of a fellowship a few years ago. She trained with Bustamante at a small mobile home park in Gilroy, where they walked door-to-door and talked to neighbors. Pelagio recalled that Bustamante would start each visit by complimenting the plants on the resident’s porch before eventually shifting the discussion to neighborhood safety.

“The way that he interacts with people, he’s very genuine, and I didn’t really understand why until he started teaching me how to organize,” Pelagio said. “People were really open, especially to him.”

After the canvassing, LUNA brought chairs from the office, watermelon and ice water to an open space at the park. Pelagio said the sight of Bustamante cutting the watermelon for the park residents was endearing.

“It was a very great first experience for me to learn this is really what it means to build community, to build trust,” Pelagio said. “For all of our events, he makes sure to be there… he’s intentional to let the community know that he’s still there.”

A legacy that lives on

Bustamante, who stepped down as executive director of LUNA on Feb. 1, said he plans to remain involved for some time. As treasurer, he will ensure LUNA remains financially stable and help ongoing campaigns, such as the fight to preserve vendors’ livelihoods at the San Jose Flea Market. Bustamante went on a hunger strike to fight for the vendors.

The longtime leader said he’s leaving the role after 7 years because he wants to pass the baton — and LUNA is finally in a position to hire an executive director. Bustamante was doing the job without pay.

Chava Bustamante stands in front of the barn at Emma Prusch Farm in San Jose, where he says the first LUNA meeting was held in April 2014. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

“There are some people who really do not deserve to be representing that district,” Bustamante said, referring to San Jose City Council District 4. “You need to make sure that they become only one-term representatives.”

He also plans to remain active in the Papeles Para Todos campaign for undocumented immigrant rights.

Bustamante said for anyone to make a change, they have to believe in themselves and believe that a better world is possible.

“We have other responsibilities with other people and with society,” Bustamante said. “It’s up to us to make it better.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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