For ages, life for the U.S.’s migrant farm workers was terrible. Many were in the U.S. illegally, invited en masse by growers to pick the vast sea of crops to feed Americans and many others around the world.
But whether legally or illegally in the U.S., they were brutally exploited, until Cesar Chavez and others organized what evolved into the United Farm Workers (UFW) union starting in 1962, and against seemingly impossible odds, they began to unionize the workers.
Seemingly impossible because growers, a powerful and tight knit group, would call in the U.S. immigration service to deport troublemakers and they would blackball legal residents.
This is where charismatic Jessica Govea Thorbourne came in. She worked closely with Cesar Chavez, and with great compassion, she became the voice of an angel to thousands of families as she listened to them and guided them, for she understood their problems first hand.
Born to a family of migrant farm workers in Porterville, Calif. in 1946, Jessica was just four years old when her mother made a tiny sack for her and she spent that summer in the blistering heat bagging cotton and crawling on her knees to collect the prunes shaken off the trees.
This was the beginning of many years Jessica spent in the hot summers in the fields, harvesting produce, when she wasn’t attending Bakersfield, CA public schools.
The fields in California and nationwide often had no outhouses and no clean drinking water. “The only thing to drink was dirty water, laced with pesticides,” Jessica later said. Farm workers were paid little and had no health insurance, their children often had to skip school to work in the fields and they and their families lived in dilapidated housing.
Many suffered from skin rashes, nausea and dizzy spells as did Jessica. Some attributed those problems to the heat or to exhaustion. But because most of the fields were heavily sprayed with powerful pesticides such as DDT, Jessica believed that was the cause.
After graduating from Bakersfield High School, Jessica became a union activist, determined to improve working and living conditions and to protect workers from pesticides. She pressured the UFW to get the medical research showing the dangers in pesticides and to use that research in contract provisions to limit farmworker exposure.
But most growers didn’t take the UFW seriously.
Jessica and another UFW organizer, Marshall Ganz dramatically helped to change that in 1968, as they virtually invented the farm produce boycott by appealing to Americans not to buy produce from farms in which the workers had been exploited.
Jessica was a captivating public speaker who could influence the thinking of large numbers of consumers and with her beautiful voice, she sang at rallies as well.
And because Canadians were some of the biggest importers of California produce, she and Marshall went to Toronto and to Montreal to appeal for the support of Canadians.
In Toronto, from her years of experience in the fields; Jessica passionately told the horror stories of farm labor and reached the hearts of the people.
But in Montreal, there was a problem. This was at the height of the French separatist movement and as 22 year old Jessica began to speak; 200-300 people in the crowd loudly booed her because she spoke in English rather than French.
Jessica fell silent and when the crowd quieted down 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” The crowd did listen to her and they too were moved by what she had to say.
Through television, radio, rallies and newspaper coverage, Jessica and Marshall 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 farm worker working and living conditions.
Jessica made history but if you had not 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 then she moved to the East Coast and taught labor relations at two prominent universities, Rutgers and Cornell.
But in 1993, tragedy struck. Jessica was diagnosed with breast cancer; a condition she attributed to toxic chemicals she was exposed to while working in the fields.
Jessica received a bone marrow transplant and because her immune system was so depleted, they put her in a hospital isolation room. But soon, patients and staff heard her beautiful singing voice echo through the halls as she sang, “We Shall Overcome.”
For nearly 12 years, Jessica did overcome, as she got back into her life, and she helped other cancer patients overcome as well.
When Jessica died at the age of 58, on January 23rd, 2005 it was without bitterness. She spent her final days helping to uplift the spirits of other cancer patients, her voice of hope and of song touching their hearts.