We want to thank the muralist, Danielle Dygart, for her beautiful work. We also want to thank New College of Florida for all its cooperation and support. We are also grateful to the Nan Freeman Memorial planning committee—that we participated in over the last few years—for creating this beautiful memorial.
It was at about 9 a.m. in California on Tuesday, January 25, 1972, when Cesar Chavez first learned about the death of Nan Freeman. He was stunned. No one had ever been killed as a result of union activism during a United Farm Workers strike. Yet Nan was the first of five UFW martyrs. After Nan, a young Jewish woman from Massachusetts, four men—a Muslim and three Catholics—were killed during strikes…Nagi Daifallah, Juan De La Cruz, Rufino Contreras and Rene Lopez.
Little was known at first about Nan. When details arrived…about her young age—only 18—what brought her to that picket line, and what she was doing there—Cesar was deeply saddened. He had daughters about the same age.
Later that year, Cesar came to pay respects to the Freemans—Nan’s parents Milton and Selma—at their home in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Also there were Pam Albright, Nan’s friend and fellow New College student, as well as Andrea and Marcos Munoz, who led the Boston Boycott.
Every year, on the anniversary of Nan’s passing, Cesar organized memorial observances at La Paz, our headquarters at the Tehachapi Mountain town of Keene, near Bakersfield. On the 15th anniversary of Nans death, the Freemans planted a tree for their daughter in a park at the “Forty Acres,” our historical property near Delano.
Liz remembers how the family would receive a nice note from Cesar each year. She last saw him when he spoke at Harvard shortly before his passing. They chatted afterwards. “All we talked about was education,” Liz recalls. “He was so excited about teaching a class at a college in California.” Getting ready for the students “was more important to him than all the famous people he met.”
Now, on the Sunday of every UFW constitutional convention, hundreds of farm worker delegates and guests gather for memorial services honoring Nan and the other four martyrs. Nan’s sister Liz and Nan’s friend Pam have been with us on those occasions.
In 2013, we joined members of the Freeman family and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis for a ceremony at the Department of Labor’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. There, Secretary Solis inducted Nan Freeman and the other four martyrs into the department’s prestigious Labor Hall of Honor. Nan’s father, Milton Freeman—elderly and in a wheelchair—witnessed the honors for his daughter. He passed away in 2016.
Cesar once said, “We don’t know how God chooses martyrs. We do know they give us the most precious gift they possess—their very lives.”
Because martyrs make that ultimate sacrifice, in Cesar’s words “they are very special human beings—special to their families and friends, but perhaps even more so to the people for whom they laid down their lives.”
Countless women and men in the farm worker movement over the decades worked longer and harder than they ever thought possible—and made great sacrifices. But as Cesar observed, “no matter how much we work or accomplish or sacrifice, we can never equal the contributions” that people like Nan Freeman make to La Causa, the cause.
That is why we must remember the sacrifices Nan and the other martyrs made for us.
That is why dedication of this moving memorial to Nan—on the campus where she was active and from where she traveled to that fateful picket line near Belle Glade—is so important…and so fitting.
When Cesar learned about Nan’s death, he described her—not as a young girl who suffered a tragic accident, but rather as “a sister” who died while fulfilling the commandments by showing her love for her neighbor and for the cause of justice.
There is a passage from the Book of Isaiah. It is part of the Books of the Prophets—where we find the social justice teachings and commandments that are at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The prophets envisioned a society based on justice where those in power did not exploit the vulnerable, but rather protected them from oppression.
This passage describes how Isaiah begins his work. In it, Isaiah records…
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ And [Isaiah] said, ‘Here am I. Send me.”
Here, God is asking for volunteers to spread His message: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah answers His call: “Here am I. Send me.”
Five decades ago, striking sugar workers also sent out a call asking for volunteers who would come to stand with them in their struggle against abuse and oppression. “Who will be sent?” they asked. “Who will be there for us?”
Nan Freeman was only 18 years old. She had her whole life in front of her. She could have done or become anything, as her sister, Liz, recalls.
But Nan stepped forward.
She answered the workers’ call.
She picketed with them in the middle of the night on a l-o-n-e-l-y stretch of U.S. Highway 27, twenty miles south of Belle Glade.
“Here am I,” she said. “Send me.”
She did indeed fulfill the commandments, as Cesar affirmed.
May Nan’s memory continue to be a blessing. May she not be forgotten.
Thank you. And ¡Viva La Causa! !Viva Nan Freeman!