On September 21, 1983, Rene Lopez, a worker at Sikkema Dairy near Fresno, was shot to death at point blank range by company goons hired to harass the strikers who were attempting to bring in the UFW to represent them.
A few weeks earlier, Rene’s co‐workers had asked the 21 year old native of Nuevo Leon, to be their spokesperson, since he was bilingual, having graduated from Caruthers High School in Fresno County. Rene, reported by his high school classmates as a gentle person who didn’t get into fights, respectfully told the dairy owner that below minimum wage for 60‐hour workweeks was unacceptable and he requested a modest increase.
Fred Sikkema’s cruel response was that he intended to fire some of the workers and force the remaining workers to do firee’s job as well as their own…for the same pay. Dismayed, Rene and a committee approached the UFW to ask how to proceed. Roberto Escutia in the UFW’s Horticulture Division was assigned to help.
He advised the workers to file for a Union representation election, so that retaliation the company would take against them, for concerted activity, could be proven to be unfair labor practices for supporting the UFW.
Since the company threatened to fire some of the workers, they decided to strike while at the same time petitioning the ALRB to conduct an election for Union representation.
Sikkema’s response to the strike was to hire goons, including Dietmar Ahsmann, his brother in law, and Donato Estrada, a Mexican known to be involved with drugs.
On the day of the election, minutes after Rene had cast his ballot for the UFW, Ahsmann and Estrada drove by on their way to meet with Sikkema in one of the dairy buildings. Five minutes later they drove back in the car to where the strikers were gathered and they motioned to Rene to come over to the car.
Quietly Rene walked over to the passenger side of the car being driven by Ahsmann. When he was within three feet of the car, Estrada pulled a gun and shot Rene “a quema‐ropa,” at point blank range, in the face.
Estrada then began to aim his gun at the other strikers and one of those strikers told me he heard Rene’s last words after being shot, “No los mates!” (“Don’t kill them!”). Even mortally wounded, Rene was still advocating for his fellow workers.
Ahsmann was acquitted for his part and Estrada was sentenced to 7 years in prison. The DA, however, refused to charge Fred Sikkema for his role in hiring and directing the killers.
Dolores Lopez, Rene’s mother tells us that Rene was very proud of his association with the Union. When he was still in his mid‐teens in high school, he had traveled to Stockton to support a big UFW tomato strike, as well as to learn more about the UFW. During the first days of the election campaign, Dolores says that her young son came in with a big smile, saying proudly but with sincerity, “Today I am a man. Today I signed a UFW authorization card to become a member of the United Farm Workers.”
Hundreds of workers and supporters joined the Lopez family in Fresno. There were flower baskets and funeral wreaths bearing names of UFW committees from throughout California, from Delano, Coachella, Napa, Salinas and Calexico from vegetable, citrus, grape, poultry and other workers.
There was one small wreath that said “Querido Novio.” (“Beloved Sweetheart”). They were supposed to have been married the weekend he was murdered.
STATEMENT BY CESAR E. CHAVEZ
On behalf of all of us here, we extend our deepest sympathies to Rene’s family – his mother Dolores, his father Francisco, his brother Efren, his sister Lupe, his sister Rebecca, his sister Yolanda, his brother Juan Francisco and his sisters lliana (and grace), and grandparents Fernando and Tomasa Lopez and Ignacio and Virginia Robles.
Thanks be to God, Rene’s mother, father, brothers and sisters, whom he loved so much, were able to be with him at this bedside during his final hours. Rene left them a beautiful heritage of courage and faith…a heritage that…please God, will sustain them, come what may, until they meet him again in paradise.
Rene Lopez’s good deeds are known to all of you and especially, to the members of his family…good deeds, above all of charity and kindness and human compassion. These good deeds go with him and live after him…and for that reason, his funeral this morning is an occasion not for gloom, much less for despair, but rather an opportunity to celebrate, in a spirit of Christian joy, Rene’s life and the goodness and mercy of God.
The Book of Wisdom tells us: “Length of days is not what makes age honorable, nor number of years the true measure of life. Understanding, this is a man’s grey hairs. The virtuous man, though he died before his time, will fine rest”.
All who knew Rene Lopez as a personal friend or more immediately as a member of the family, can vouch for the fact that he had understanding. By this I mean that he had the gift of faith, the gift of knowing what is truly important in his life.
It was not possible for Rene to shut his eyes to situations of distress and of poverty, which cry out to God, or to keep silent in the face of injustice. He was that kind of a man.
Rene was young, but he had already felt the call to social justice. His mother, Dolores, said that he came home one day with the stub of his Union authorization card, showed it to her, and said, “Here is my first Union card, now I am important, now I am a man.”
But Rene’s first Union card was also his last…He will never enjoy the blessings of youth…He will never fulfill all the promise others saw in him…He will never pass on his great love to his own sons and daughters.
Rene has been taken away from us in the prime of his life…, before he could share the full measure of his talents and goodness with the world about him.
Rene is gone because he dared to hope and because he dared to live out his hopes.
Rarely do men and women choose to die in the midst of their quest for freedom. They wish to be truly free and to live more fully in this life.
But death comes to all of us and we do not get to choose the time or the circumstances of our dying. The hardest thing of all is to die rightly. Rene Lopez died rightly; he is a martyr for justice.
Rene is at peace with God. He has given all that he can give.
But how many more Farm Workers must fall? How many more tears must be shed? How many more martyrs must there be before we can be free? When will the day come when the joy becomes great and the grief becomes small?
The answer, my brothers and sisters, is in our hands. The answer is in our hands.
We who live must now walk an extra mile because Rene has lived and died for his and our dreams. We who keep on struggling for justice for Farm Workers must carry in our hearts his sacrifice.
We must try to live as he lived…We must keep alive his hopes…and fulfill, with our own sacrifices, his dreams. We must take Rene into our hearts and promise that we will never forget his sacrifice.
Rene’s father, Francisco, looking down on his fallen son, said these words: “When he was born, I received him with a kiss, and now I give him back to God with a kiss.”
“Happy are those who died in the lord: let them rest from their labor for their good deeds go with them.”