One of the best ways to attain success is to act on a cause you believe in. Jessica Govea Thorbourne did and her work touches your life today.
Govea Thorbourne was born in Porterville, Calif. in 1946, to migrant farm workers. When she was just four years old, her mother made a tiny sack for her and she spent her first summer in the blistering heat bagging cotton and crawling on her knees to collect the prunes shaken off the trees.
The fields often had no outhouses and no clean drinking water. “The only thing to drink was dirty water, laced with pesticides,” she later said. Farm workers were paid little and had no health insurance. Many suffered from skin rashes, nausea and dizzy spells as did Govea Thorbourne. Some attributed those problems to working in the heat or to exhaustion. But because most of the fields were heavily sprayed with powerful pesticides such as DDT, she came to believe that was the cause.
Her father, Juan Govea was a leader in the Bakersfield Mexican American Community and as Cesar Chavez and Fred Ross, Sr. organized what became the United Farm Workers union (UFW), Govea Thorbourne assisted him in recruiting members. After graduating from Bakersfield High School, she became a union activist, determined to improve working conditions and to protect workers from pesticides. She pressed the union to get the medical research and use it in contracts with growers.
But growers didn’t take the UFW seriously. She and Marshall Ganz dramatically changed that in 1968, as they virtually invented the farm product boycott. They went to Toronto and from her years of experience in the fields; Govea Thorbourne passionately told the horror stories of farm labor.
In Montreal, they had a problem. It was at the height of the French separatist movement and as 19 year old Govea Thorbourne began to speak; a crowd of 200-300 people loudly booed her because she spoke in English rather than French. She fell silent and when the crowd became quite she said, “My first language is Spanish. Yours is French. But we have a common language (English). Please listen to me. Let’s talk about our common humanity” And the crowd listened to her and was moved by what she had to say.
Through television, radio, rallies and newspaper coverage, Govea Thorbourne and Ganz convinced millions of Canadians not to buy California table grapes. She and others then took this message across the U.S. and millions more joined the boycott. Feeling pressure from consumers, growers negotiated pacts with the UFW that vastly improved working conditions for farm workers.
Govea Thorbourne made history but if you haven’t heard of her, it’s because as Jerry Cohen, the UFW’s chief legal counsel (1967 to 1981) said, “Jessica never took credit for this. She just did it.” She later served on the UFW Board of Directors and in the last twenty years, she lived on the East Coast and taught labor relations at Rutgers and at Cornell.
In 1993 Govea Thorbourne was diagnosed with breast cancer; a condition she attributed to toxic chemicals she was exposed to while working in the fields. She received a bone marrow transplant and because her immune system was so depleted, they put her in an isolation room. But soon, patients and staff heard her beautiful singing voice echo through the halls as she sang, “We Shall Overcome.”
For 12 years, she did overcome and lived an active and productive life. When she died at 58, it was without bitterness, and she spent her final days good naturedly helping other cancer patients.
How did Govea Thorbourne touch your life? Partly from her work, when you eat a U.S. grown fruit or a vegetable, you know it wasn’t treated with DDT, which was banned over 30 years ago. But also, in creating the grape boycott, she showed that even if something has never been done before and the odds against it are long, you can attain it if you put your heart into it.
In the next KazanToday, A high school teacher convinced Albert Einstein he’d “never amount to anything,” and he quit school. We’ll see what got Einstein to turn his life around.
Note From The Author
Thank you to Jerry Cohen for sharing many wonderful stories of Jessica Govea Thorbourne.