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Rufino Contreras still inspires movement 40 years after lettuce striker was slain; UFW, Cesar Chavez family, local officials join Contreras family

Forty years after he was shot to death in a struck Imperial Valley lettuce field during a bitter farm labor strike, Rufino Contreras will be honored on Saturday where he is buried in Calexico for helping inspire the farm worker movement for which he gave his life. The event begins with a procession from the Mountain View Cemetery entrance to his gravesite.

At the commemoration will be Rosa Contreras, Rufino’s widow, and her two children Julio Cesar and Nancy; United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero; Paul F. Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s son and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation; Imperial County Supervisor Luis Plancarte, Imperial County Sheriff Raymond Loera, Deacon Marcos Lopez; and Eric Reyes, chair of the Rufino Contreras Anniversary Committee, which is organizing the event. A reception will follow at Yum Yum Chinese Restaurant in Calexico.

Rufino Contreras, 27, a dedicated UFW member, was absent for several days from the picket line at the fields of his employer, Mario Saikhon, while tending to his wife, Rosa, who had been burned in an accident at their Mexicali home. Rufino proudly showed his friends papers indicating Rosa’s medical expenses were fully covered by the union health plan. He returned to the picket line on Feb. 10, 1979 between Calexico and Holtville, entering a struck field to speak with strikebreakers when three grower agents opened fire. Rufino fell facedown in the mud. He died later in the hospital. No one was ever tried for the killing.

Thousands of strikers marched in a candlelight vigil through the Calexico streets. Thousands more—including then-Gov. Jerry Brown and Cesar Chavez—attended a funeral mass at El Hoyo, a shape up area on the Mexican border fence. In his eulogy, Chavez said, “True wealth is not measured in money or status or power. It is measured in the legacy we leave behind for those we love and those we inspire. In that sense, Rufino is not dead. Wherever farm workers organize, stand up for their rights and strike for justice, Rufino Contreras is with them.”

Who: UFW President Teresa Romero, Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul Chavez, Rosa Contreras and members of her family, Imperial County Supervisor Luis Plancarte and Sheriff Raymond Loera.

What: Marking 40th anniversary of lettuce striker Rufino Contreras’ death.

When:1:30-2:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019; reception to follow.

Where: Mountain View Cemetery, 895 Scaroni Rd., Calexico 92231; reception at Yum Yum Chinese Restaurant, 528 Imperial Ave., Calexico 92231.