How one girl helped build a Latinx civil rights movement
As a little girl, Jessica Govea had become accustomed to rising early and making her way to the fields with her family. During the cotton season, you could find her family dragging sacks of cotton along the long rows of fields in Kern County, California. Her father had travelled a long way from Mexico. He first worked in the United States as a contracted guest worker through the Bracero Program and then later as a migrant farmworker.
When her family settled in Bakersfield, California, their home became an important place for organizing. Cesar Chavez, who was at that time a leader in the Community Service Organization (CSO), visited her parents a lot and wanted the Goveas to join one of the most important Latinx civil rights organization of the period. The CSO organized voter drives, sponsored citizenship classes, and lobbied for fair employment. Govea’s parents became important organizers in the Bakersfield chapter, and her mother was eventually elected CSO chapter president.
Govea followed her parents' lead, often passing out flyers and urging residents to vote. In high school, she became president of the Junior CSO. As a young organizer, Govea not only worked to make adults aware of their rights. but also worked on behalf of children in her community. After her best friend was struck by a car and died, she organized a petition drive, with other 11- and 12-year-old kids, to build a park in her neighborhood. She knew that children in her community needed a safe place to play. She saw a problem and did something about it. She became politicized during her girlhood and was on the front lines of change.
By the time she graduated high school, Govea knew without a doubt that social justice was her calling, and at the age of 19 she joined Cesar Chavez and the organization that would eventually become the United Farm Workers (UFW). A few years earlier, frustrated that the CSO did not want to support his vision to organize farmworkers, Chavez left the CSO and set his eyes on building a new labor union. Govea became a full-time organizer in the UFW, rising through the ranks so quickly that she was asked to lead the organizing efforts in Montreal, Canada. This was a daunting task, both because California growers had been able to break many efforts to organize unions and because Govea had to make sure Canadians supported American farmworkers.
Govea’s first job was to make Canadians aware of the UFW’s international grape boycott and stop grapes from going into local consumers’ shopping carts. Together with organizers across the globe, they convinced growers to listen to the demands of the UFW. More importantly, the UFW brought national attention to the plight of farmworkers. Govea was elected to the board of the union in 1977.
When she left the union four years later, Govea continued her activism and eventually found her way to college classrooms teaching a generation of students the lessons she learned in labor organizing. Her own experience taught her that young people could change the world around them. She knew this because she brought the lessons she learned as a young girl on her quest to build a more just world. She once explained, “Being a CSO kid helped me grow up with hope and with a belief in myself and my worth.” Organizing and changing the world gave Jessica Govea a sense of purpose and hope.
Mireya Loza is a curator in the Division of Work and Industry and an associate professor at Georgetown University.
You can learn more about Jessica Govea in this video, "From Girlhood to Inspiring a Movement | Mireya Loza Talks Jessica Govea," part of the Latinas Talk Latinas video series. A collaboration between our museum and the Smithsonian Latino Center, the series explores the stories of 10 Latinas as told by curators, scientists, and educators across the Smithsonian. Educators and caregivers can introduce Govea's story in their classrooms with the help of this educational resource on the Smithsonian's Learning Lab.