DOWNERS GROVE – A new Hollywood film is reintroducing the story of Cesar Chavez to Americans this spring, but Downers Grove resident Olgha Sandman knows it first hand.
Sandman first met Chavez in 1970 when he attended a national convention in Atlanta for what was then called the Migrant Ministry.
“He was very soft spoken,” Sandman recalls. “He was humble, too. He never talked about ‘I’ and ‘I did’ and ‘I will.’ He talked about ‘we.’ ”
Following the Atlanta convention, the leaders of the Migrant Ministry decided to devote its entire effort to Chavez and his quest to organize for better conditions and higher pay.
The new organization was called the Farm Workers Ministry, and Sandman has remained on the board for all of its 44 years.
Sandman left home in Mexico for Chicago in the early 1950s to attend the Baptist Missionary Training School. While a student, she worked summers for Migrant Ministry posts in central Illinois, providing services for seasonal workers who’d arrive en masse during planting season and live in substandard camps run by growing and canning companies.
“You learn to love the people, and you begin to appreciate that the food that comes to your table would not come to our table unless you had people in the fields, bending over and bending over, day in and day out, sun up to sun down,” she said. “And that’s how you and I eat.”
Sandman also directed the Illinois Farm Workers Ministry for 18 years, first in Peoria and then in Downers Grove, where she had an office across the street from the post office.
In her Oak Trace apartment, Sandman’s collection of newspapers, buttons, shirts and other materials document her tireless contributions to various Chavez-led causes like boycotts against grape growers and other industries where Chavez sought workers rights and organization.
“He used to say ‘when you work for justice, you can’t afford being a sprinter, you’ve got to be a long-distance runner,’” she said. “And that has stuck with me to the bottom of my mind and my heart. You can’t say, ‘Well, this year, I’m gong to work for the farm workers and support them, and next year I’m going to work (against) Vietnam, and the next year I’m going to work for peace.’
“You can embrace many causes that are similar. But in my case and with thousands of people, we stuck with the farm workers.”
Sandman and her husband, Robert, hosted Chavez in their home several times in the ’70s, when he would swing through the midwest for speaking engagements or do other work on the behalf of the National Farm Workers Association, the union he co-founded.
The controversial leader’s last visit to the Sandman home was in 1981, about a year after the couple had moved to the village from Peoria after several years in Dayton, Ohio.
“I remember the first time he stayed in our house, I remember the people that come with him would close all the curtains because there were attempts on his life,” Sandman said.
But Chavez’s early death at age 66 in 1993 would not come from external forces. He went to bed with a book one night and never woke up. Sandman and others speculate that Chavez’ use of fasting as a nonviolent protest – sometimes as long as 25 days – weakened his body and eventually contributed to his early death.
Last month, Sandman attended an early screening of the film, which focuses on Chavez’s work in the ’60s to win a contract for migrant grape workers in California and then saw it again on opening night March 28 at the Yorktown Theatre. Chavez’s birthday would have been March 31.
Sandman said she liked the film and thought it gave an accurate portrayal of Chavez and his efforts and is happy it will introduce his story to younger people.
“I was very, very pleased,” she said. “Because people like me, I have a lot of history and I lived it, but some of the new generation doesn’t know it.”