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Partners in the fight for justice

Maria Smith | Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Melody Gonzalez and Tony Rivas could not have realized before meeting this semester how much they would have in common.Since meeting through mutual friends, the two have bonded over more than both living near Los Angeles or a common love for playing guitar and listening to Rage Against the Machine. The two share a cultural heritage and passion for social activism that has led them to become some of the University’s most dedicated social activists.Anyone who claims Notre Dame students don’t care about social causes or much else outside the Notre Dame bubble has obviously never met these students. Whether or not students or administrators agree with their political stances, their dedication to the causes they believe in is undeniable.Gonzalez and Rivas both work with the Progressive Student Alliance. Both participated in the spring break Migrant Experiences seminar in Immokalee, Fla. through the Center for Social Concerns. Both traveled to Kentucky in February to participate in a protest march against Taco Bell and other companies considered by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers and other labor organizations to take advantage of abusive labor practices.Most importantly, Gonzalez and Rivas are both children of fathers who worked as migrant farm laborers in their teenage years after moving to the United States from Mexico. Gonzalez’ father never had the chance to graduate from high school before dropping out to help support his family. He worked picking cucumbers, raspberries and other crops in the 1970s before obtaining work at the fiberglass factory where he still worked in the early 1980s. Rivas’ father picked crops every day after school and for a year after high school graduation before finding work in a factory.The two students’ family backgrounds have given them an especially strong affinity for organizations like the CIW that campaign for labor rights in farming communities. Any student who participates in the Migrant Experiences seminar is bound to come away with a new compassion for the plight of migrant laborers who, according to the CIW, have to pick two tons of tomatoes in order to earn $50 in a day. But a week in the Florida fields can’t compare with a student whose parents have told them firsthand what working in them firsthand was like.”A lot of the passion I have for immigrants and workers comes from my parents,” Gonzalez said at a talk Monday night where both students described their parents’ and their own experiences. The talk was held in honor of Cesar Chavez day, a holiday celebrated in California and other Southwestern states in recognition of Cesar Chavez’ groundbreaking work establishing the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. The talk also featured a lecture by IUSB Head of Labor Studies Paul Mischler and part of the film “Fight in the Fields,” which depicts the fight for labor unions through original footage.Cesar Chavez day also marked the start of the Student Week of Action. The week is a national call to students supported by Jobs for Justice, Amnesty International and other organization in honor of the work of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.At Latin Expressions on Friday, the campus had a chance to see how much the friendship, and the causes the Rivas and Gonzalez fight for, have meant to both. Gonzalez, auditioned for the show reading a poem entitled “People of the Sun.” She has used poetry to express ideas about her heritage, personal experiences and political views since the age of 11 following her younger sister’s death. Gonzalez auditioned by herself, but for the performance she asked Rivas to accompany her on guitar. Rivas composed an original melody with help from a friend in Chicago to play while Gonzalez read.The poem was an appropriate one for the two friends to perform together. “People of the Sun” describes the exploitation of certain classes that can come under capitalism.”People of the sun/There are those who have more than they need /But always convince themselves of not having enough/While we barely have enough para sobrevivir (to survive),” Gonzalez writes.When she wrote the poem Gonzalez originally dedicated it to her father and to the CIW. At the Friday performance she also dedicated it to Rivas, who has decided on a new way to protest for his cause.Rivas began a week long hunger strike Friday night as a call to the students and administration of the University to examine several issues on which the freshman feels the University and its members could take a more compassionate Catholic stance. Rivas has not eaten since Friday night, and does not plan to eat until a PSA protest at Taco Bell Friday night, where the group hopes to have live music and real Mexican food. Rivas was inspired by stories of a 30-day hunger strike started by members of the CIW.”If they can go for 30 days, I can go at least seven to raise awareness at a university which can have so much power and influence,” Rivas said.Rivas mentioned the issue of campus workers’ right to organize and the gay-straight alliance, but emphasized that he wanted to raise promote awareness of migrant workers’ rights at the University. Rivas was especially concerned about the University’s connection with companies that have been denounced by the CIW and other labor organizations. The athletic department at Notre Dame has a small level sponsorship agreement with Taco Bell which allows the company to advertise in publications and announcements. Matt Gallo, a Board of Trustees member, is the director of a company called Gallo of Sonoma Winery, which also has been accused of unfair labor practices by the UFW.University spokesman Matthew Storin sited the Univeristy’s Migrant Labor seminar as evidence that Notre Dame is not insensible to the issues for which Rivas campaigns.”The problem is not unknown to the University as a whole,” Storin said. “If he learned about the problem as a student here at ND that should count as University awareness on some level.”Although Rivas learned much of what he knows about the issues surrounding migrant labor on a University seminar, he still feels the University could do more good on some issues.”Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. did so much good, and they were only one guy,” Rivas said. “If one guy can do so much, why can’t the University do more worldwide?”Rivas hopes for a reaction from the University’s officials, but has not spoken with the administration directly.”This is a show of concern for the issues. I want to leave discussion with the administration to people more knowledgeable,” Rivas said. “If I don’t hear from them at all, if I don’t feel like they’re doing anything, I may keep going.”Whatever happens as a result of Rivas’ effort, he can count on his friends to support him as he has supported them.”I could see this fire inside of Tony [when I met him],” Gonzalez said. “He gives me a lot of energy. He inspires me to do the stuff I’m already involved with.”