Sep 22, 2021

Beyond Organizing: The Art of United Action

by: Sepideah Mohsenian-Rahman

Gustavo Aguirre moved to the United States when he was 19 years old, and within the month was marching with Chicanx, Idigenous, and Phillipinx farm workers in Los Angeles . It could be seen as the start of three-decades long history with community organizing outlined in his book Beyond Organizing published earlier this year, but it wouldn’t fully capture his lineage. He came from a family of community caretakers, a family that helped bring the first schools and electricity to his hometown of 360 people, and that later rose into union leadership representing farm workers throughout California.

I sat down with Gustavo to learn about how he has come to know what he knows, to speak about the power of the people, and explore the organic role of creativity and arts in movement building. I’ve come to know Gustavo through the Mural Art Institute’s work with the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, where he is the Director of Organizing. CRPE is based in Kern County, the bread bowl of the United States, much of the food we consume even in Philadelphia originates from the region. On such a massive scale, the illusion of agricultural abundance is only possible through corporate extraction and oppressive conditions for workers. 

Photo via Amadeus magazine, "¡Viva La Huelga!: Artwork of the United Farm Workers," March 31, 2017.

Through the Arts and Environment Capacity Building Initiative, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment is working with Michelle Glass a Public Practice (Public Art & Social Practice) artist, retired gerontologist and activist Dr. Rosanna Esparza, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network, Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, and Arts Council of Kern to build upon decades of community organizing in Kern County and throughout California. This incredible team in Kern County is engaging with community members to come up with a participatory public art project that illustrates 2,500 ft setbacks that they’ve heavily campaigned for from the over 100,000 oil-wells scattered throughout the state. Sacrifice zones related to oil-drilling and fracking impact predominantly low-income and hispanic residents of the state. Through this project, the partners hope to “give rise to the importance of understanding embodied experiences, nuances of power, and exploitation within communities.”

With over thirty years of community organizing under his belt, the Kern County cohort digging deep into Gustavo’s experience with organizing as a blueprint for what is possible.  As a farmworker in the 80’s shifting with his family from the Coachella Valley picking citrus, to Oxnard picking strawberries, it was natural for Gustavo to become involved in community organizing too. He started at a farm where workers were represented by a union, in between harvest seasons he would volunteer his time helping organizers in different parts of the state. He knew early on that harsh conditions for himself and his community would change if existing power structures were challenged, and he knew that there was much to learn in community.

Sun Mad by Ester Hernandez, 1982 (SAAM, gift of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto)

Early in his time organizing, he recalled being in a room with Cesar Chavez, and a group of corporate lawyers for berry growers. As the lawyers became more and more animated and agitated – utilizing intimidation tactics – Gustavo recalls a break in which Chavez turned to their group and leaned on the strategies of nonviolent organizing – which he defined as “people in action” and “a hell of a lot of organization” to not be shaken, and to focus on the goals of the negotiation. Eventually, Gustavo was offered a full-time position with the United Farm Workers as a Regional Director. Hesitant to take the role initially due to his English proficiency at the time, the UFW insisted that the English would come but his ability to cultivate trust and prioritize the wellbeing of workers could not be duplicated or taught. In fact, Dolores Huerta offered to translate for him at his first executive meeting. Check out this mural of Huerta by Yreina D. Ceravantez for SPARC-LA.

To steward and uplift the humanity of the workers in this way requires a high level of creativity, patience, and courage. Community driven work is inherently creative practice, and the culture of liberation as practiced by agricultural workers has been well documented. For example, Gustavo recalled  the comics that they would use to illustrate to the farmers the power dynamics between employers and workers, and how powerful imagery could be movement building. Not only are comics a quick and deliberate mode of communication, but also accounts for the diversity of communities the communication needs to reach. One-third of agricultural workers in California represent Indigenous communities of Central America who maintained and continue to speak their native pre-hispanic languages. At picket lines, tactics are equally as strike art itself as Gustavo recalls creative non-violent means of disrupting video footage by growers used to punish or fire workers.  “We would follow the camera around with our protest signs. Wherever it would go, we would go”. 

Boycott Driscoll's by Yvette Amarilis (acrylic painting).

Moving through the role of cultural production and power in organizing, Gustavo signed off the conversation with the following thoughts  when I asked him about the role of creative practice in community organizing. “How can we communicate people’s power? How can we communicate to people that when they are united, when they are engaged, they are able to generate change? That’s what we do in organizing – we make people believe in their power.” 

To learn more about the Mural Arts Institute’s work in Kern County, follow our partners engaging with participatory public art and creative practice through the Arts and Environmental Justice Capacity Building Initiative. We are working closely with retired gerontologist and activist Dr. Rosanna Esparza, Public Practice Artist Michelle Glass, Professor Laurie Palmer, Professor Julie Maldonado,  Graduate Student Vivian Underhill, Arts Council of Kern, Central California Environmental Justice Network, Center on Race, Poverty, and 9the Environment, and the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. Sign up for quarterly MAI Newsletters to receive quarterly updates on their work. 

Last updated: Sep 23, 2021

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