Jennifer Robin Terry

This year’s Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Article Prize was awarded to Jennifer Robin Terry for her article, “Niños por la causa: Child Activists and the United Farm Workers Movement, 1965–1975,” published in Pacific Historical Review. Drawing on a wide variety of sources—including oral histories and children’s correspondence with Cesar Chavez—Terry details children’s unprecedented level of labor rights activism in the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) first decade and argues that children were central to the UFW’s social justice appeal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We asked Terry to tell us more about her research into the centrality of children to la causa.

Children do not typically come to mind when we think about the United Farm Workers (UFW). How did you come to the topic?

Good point. When we think about the UFW we often think of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong, and Jessica Govea—adults who took the (then) radical stance that farm workers should be able to use their collective voice to negotiate for better labor conditions. I came to the topic of UFW child activism through my project on child farm labor. In tracing the history of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s child labor provision (which largely exempts agriculture), I naturally wondered about the UFW’s position on the issue.  

Did you learn anything in your research that was surprising to you?

Absolutely! When I began this leg of my research in 2016, I dug into the UFW collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. As anyone who does the history of childhood will tell you, children’s voices are notoriously difficult to find in archives. So, I was basically just looking for references to child labor within adult-generated content—things that would indicate the UFW’s position and possibly, their actions on the issue of child farm labor and legislative reform. Well, I found that, but I also stumbled upon a priceless collection of children’s artwork, letters, and handmade greeting cards addressed to Cesar Chavez. Duplicates of his responses were also included in the files. In addition to the documents, archivist Deborah Rice provided me with folders of photographs of children engaged in field labor and UFW work (several of which appear in the article). It was truly a Eureka! visit that inspired this article.

These were sources that other scholars had never looked at before. What was that like and what do these sources tell us that’s new? 

It was amazing! It was honestly what made the trip worthwhile for me because so much of what children produce typically never makes its way into archival collections. But the artwork, letters, and greeting cards vividly expressed children’s support for la causa, as well as their desire to connect with (and in some cases, adoration for) Chavez. I was also impressed that Chavez responded to these children in kind and generous ways. As I wrote in the article, his responses demonstrated an affinity for children, but also showed that he made a concerted effort to cultivate children’s support. For him, no one was too young to understand and support la causa. He recognized the important role that children—both farmworkers and non-farmworkers—could play in the administration and publicity so necessary for la causa’s progress. And the photographs—well, one couldn’t ask for better proof that children were present and active than to actually see them participate at union meetings and boycotts.

You mentioned both farmworker children and children who were not farmworkers. Can you tell us a little about each? 

The farmworker children in this article are those whose families earned their living by tending and harvesting crops in the California Central Valley. The children regularly worked long hours for low pay alongside their parents, often missing school to do so. When their parents went on strike in 1965, so did the children. My article details huelga (strike) kids’ experiences and activism. But there were also non-farmworker children (from elementary- to high school-age) from across the country who corresponded with Chavez and supported la causa in notable ways. In some cases, their parents had introduced them to the issue, but in others, it was the children who influenced their parents to support the boycotts.

How does your research change how we think about the United Farm Worker’s history?

My research reveals the presence of children where they have typically been overlooked. In doing so it reifies Chavez’s claim that la causa was more than a labor movement; children’s presence and participation reinforced the social justice message. The article also complicates our understanding of the ways that Chavez mobilized supporters (justice had no age limit) and shows that la causa worked as a gateway for children into political awareness. La causa was a uniquely formative political experience for child participants, and they were central to its social justice appeal. To me, a UFW history without children is simply incomplete.

We invite you to read Jennifer Robin Terry’s award-winning article, “Niños por la causa: Child Activists and the United Farm Workers Movement, 1965–1975,” for free online for a limited time.

Print copies of Pacific Historical Review (PHR) issue 92.2, in which this article appears, as well as other individual issues of PHR, can be purchased on the journal’s site. For ongoing access to PHR, please ask your librarian to subscribe and/or purchase an individual subscription.

We publish PHR in partnership with the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.