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Marcos Muñoz, a top United Farm Workers organizer with Cesar Chavez, dead at 80

He never learned to read more than a few words but ended up speaking at Harvard.

Marcos Muñoz (left) worked with Cesar Chavez, a founder of the United Farm Workers, for better conditions for laborers.
Marcos Muñoz (left) worked with Cesar Chavez, a founder of the United Farm Workers, for better conditions for laborers.
Provided

After working five months for a Texas rancher who promised him $3 a day, 13-year-old Marcos Muñoz asked to finally collect his pay because he missed his mother and wanted to go see her in Mexico.

She was a single mother of six who made 75 cents a day cleaning houses. With only a first-grade education, Young Marcos had decided to help his family by swimming across the border to find work.

At night, he’d sleep in a barn with the livestock he tended. He wasn’t even sure where he was. To evade the Border Patrol, his employer transported him to the ranch in the locked trunk of his car.

When he asked for his money, the rancher promised he’d get it in the morning, and he went to sleep happy at the prospect of seeing his family again in Ciudad Acuña in the state of Coahuila, Mexico.

But the next thing he knew, immigration agents were “putting the handcuffs on my hands to ... take me back to Mexico,” he recalled in an oral history.

The agents told him they’d gotten a call to pick him up. But they let him ask his employer for his money.

“I went and knocked on the door and knocked and knocked,” he said in the interview. “The boss never answered.

“The boss did that in order not to pay me. ... This man destroyed my dreams.”

After being deported, Mr. Muñoz recrossed the border and entered the migrant stream, picking crops in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California, Idaho, Nebraska and Michigan. But he never forgot how he’d been exploited and cheated.

That helped fuel his eventual union work. Though he never learned to read more than a few words, he became a top organizer for Cesar Chavez, the legendary co-founder of what became the United Farm Workers. And Mr. Muñoz wound up speaking about the farmworkers’ struggle at Harvard University, Boston College, Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Marcos Muñoz, who lived in Little Village, is seen here working a bullhorn as a picket captain for the United Farm Workers.
Marcos Muñoz, who lived in Little Village, is seen here working a bullhorn as a picket captain for the United Farm Workers.
Cortesía de Mark Jonathan Harris

Mr. Muñoz died Saturday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The Little Village resident, who was 80, had lung cancer, according to Andrea O’Malley Muñoz, his wife.

He met Chavez while picking grapes in the San Joaquin Valley in California in the mid-1960s. Workers routinely labored in baking heat with little access to clean drinking water or portable toilets. Often, they risked exposure to pesticides.

“I didn’t know what a union was,” Mr. Muñoz told his wife. “I knew these people had experienced what I experienced, the exploitation. I thought these people were angry like I was angry.”

But Chavez counseled non-violence. “He would say, ‘If you’re angry, put your hands in your pockets and pinch your legs,’ ” Mr. Muñoz later recalled.

He was there with Chavez the first time the labor leader was arrested, while organizing in 1966 in Borrego Springs, California, according to Chavez’s son Paul Chavez.

Marcos Muñoz (left) with (from left) grandson Anthony Thompson, daughter Maria and Paul Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
Marcos Muñoz (left) with (from left) grandson Anthony Thompson, daughter Maria and Paul Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
Cortesía

“Marcos is a legend in the farmworker movement,” said Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation in Keene, California.

He said his father sensed a certain tenacity in Mr. Muñoz and, as a result, “The biggest and toughest tasks seemed to go to Marcos.”

He worked on boycotts of grapes and lettuce and labor actions directed at Chiquita Brands, Minute Maid and Napa wines.

Andrea O’Malley Muñoz said her husband would say, “The greatest poverty in your life is not the lack of money. It’s the lack of knowing what you are capable of. And that’s what Cesar gave me. He gave me the understanding I am good for something.”

In 1966, he marched 250 miles with Chavez in support of legislation to protect farmworkers. The march started in Delano, California, with 100 people.

“When they got to Sacramento, there were 10,000,” his wife said. “That’s what really launched the farmworkers on a national perspective.”

Chavez and other labor leaders started organizing national boycotts of table grapes. He tapped Mr. Muñoz to be boycott director in Boston, where he encouraged stores not to stock them and consumers not to buy them. He helped organize a symbolic, Boston Tea Party-like dump of grapes into Boston Harbor.

“Two years after he reached Boston, the sale of grapes was down 90%,” according to his wife, who said their courtship took place on picket lines.

Marcos Muñoz and Andrea O’Malley Muñoz.
Marcos Muñoz and Andrea O’Malley Muñoz.
Cortesía

A former nun, she met him after she left the Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Boston and got involved in protests against the Vietnam war and for farmworkers’ rights.

In 1973, Chavez sent Mr. Muñoz to Chicago to be Midwest coordinator of a renewed grape boycott.

“In Chicago,” Mr. Muñoz would say, “if you have a strong back and two good arms, you could find decent work.”

He organized block clubs, was a steelworker at Danly Machine Corp. and later worked as a supplies manager at the old Cook County Hospital.

U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Illinois, remembers him as a savvy political mentor when he ran for alderman.

“I showed up to one of his alley cleanups with a camera, as I had been advised by my campaign teams,” Garcia said. “That’s where the tough love began when Marcos told me to put the camera away, grab a broom and start sweeping the alley and get to know the people there.

“At the next Mexican Independence Day Parade on 26th Street, he made me pull a cart with a garbage can and a broom down the street as I swept and shook hands with people,” Garcia said. “The point he was making is that you had to look for real ways to connect with people and meet them where they are.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Muñoz is survived by their daughter Maria, his brother Hector, grandson Anthony Thompson and great-grandson Zion.

A wake is set for 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at Martinez Funeral Home, 2534 S. Pulaski Rd. A funeral service is planned at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Agnes of Bohemia Church, 2651 S. Central Park Ave. Garcia and Paul Chavez will attend and offer eulogies, according to his wife.

“He went to school [only] two days in the second grade,” she said. “He didn’t read or write. But he spoke at Harvard, and he spoke at MIT.”