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updated: 8/4/2014 7:57 AM

'Cesar Chavez' more than a movie to West suburban resident

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  • Olgha Sandman, a friend and associate of migrant worker, labor leader and civil rights advocate Cesar Chavez, has a portrait of him hanging in her Downers Grove apartment.

       Olgha Sandman, a friend and associate of migrant worker, labor leader and civil rights advocate Cesar Chavez, has a portrait of him hanging in her Downers Grove apartment.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Olgha Sandman shows a quilt made of T-shirts she has relating to the migrant labor movement.

       Olgha Sandman shows a quilt made of T-shirts she has relating to the migrant labor movement.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Olgha Sandman with her husband, the Rev. Dr. J. Robert Sandman, right, and migrant worker advocate Cesar Chavez, left, in a photo from 1972.

      Olgha Sandman with her husband, the Rev. Dr. J. Robert Sandman, right, and migrant worker advocate Cesar Chavez, left, in a photo from 1972.
    Photo courtesy of Olgha Sandman

  • Olgha Sandman looks through letters written to her by migrant worker advocate Cesar Chavez.

       Olgha Sandman looks through letters written to her by migrant worker advocate Cesar Chavez.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Video: 'Cesar Chavez' trailer

 
 

With the movie "Cesar Chavez" arriving at select theaters today, 87-year-old Olgha Sandman is looking forward to seeing it for a second time.

Sandman, a 43-year board member of the National Farm Worker Ministry, was a friend and associate of Chavez in his fight to improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers around the country.

Now a resident of Oak Trace retirement community in Downers Grove, Sandman was invited to a private preview of the movie on March 14 in Chicago and said it accurately portrays Chavez and his work.

"It's a beautiful film," she said. "It is well-done."

Still active in migrant ministry, Sandman supported Chavez's work in boycotts, marches and advocacy. As portrayed in the film, Chavez supporters were beaten, arrested and sometimes even killed, Sandman said.

A Catholic who insisted on nonviolent tactics, Chavez was vilified as a Communist and troublemaker and received death threats. His struggle was similar to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sandman said.

"He was totally consumed and dedicated to la Causa," she said.

Ministry to advocacy

Sandman became involved in the plight of migrant farm workers before meeting Chavez. A Mexican immigrant, she came to Chicago to earn a college degree in religious education and missionary training.

As a student, she was introduced to what was then Migrant Ministry and spent two summers working with migrant workers in small towns in Illinois.

"Conditions were pretty bad," she said, and the communities that depended on the migrants' labor were not exactly welcoming.

A local newspaper in one of the towns warned residents to lock their doors and not to keep their toys in the yard at the beginning of the migrant season.

"(It) was very unfair," Sandman said. "They were vital to the economy of that town, that area."

Founded in 1920, Migrant Ministry worked with local churches to provide day care, translation, recreation and transportation to migrant workers.

Sandman returned to Mexico after graduating college, but came back to the United States two and a half years later to marry J. Robert Sandman, a seminary student she had met in Migrant Ministry. He had committed himself to working with the ministry for five years, so Sandman again became involved.

After her husband accepted a United Church of Christ position in Ohio, the couple continued to support Migrant Ministry. But when the board of Migrant Ministry met in Atlanta in 1970 for the group's 50th anniversary, sentiment was building that the ministry needed to change.

Chavez, who had begun his organizing work in California, came and asked the group to stand beside him. What field workers needed more than donations of food and clothing were higher wages so they could support their families, he said.

"It made sense to me," Sandman said. "I asked more questions than anybody else. I couldn't get enough of what he was talking about."

Migrant Ministry disbanded and a new group, National Farm Worker Ministry, formed to support Chavez's efforts to win fairer working conditions. When the new ministry had its first board meeting in 1971, Sandman joined the board and has served as president and interim director of the ministry, now based in Raleigh, N.C.

Susan Alan, the ministry's assistant director, said Sandman has shared her wisdom, compassion and perseverance over the years.

"Olgha embodies one of her favorite Chavez's quotes, 'When you work for justice, you can't afford to be a sprinter,'" Alan said. "Olgha has been a vital part of National Farm Worker Ministry."

Marcos Muņoz of Chicago, a former migrant worker who became an organizer for Chavez, said people like Sandman helped give hope to the workers.

"They (the Sandmans) contributed a great deal," he said. "She was a great leader."

Muņoz said Chavez was able to win support among churches and the general public by his insistence on nonviolence. A young man angry about how he had been cheated by a grower as a migrant worker, Muņoz came to understand Chavez's approach even when it went against human nature.

He recalled one time when he had been slapped and spit upon in a picket line, he got in a car to run over his taunter. Chavez called him to the proverbial wood shed.

"Chavez blasted the hell out of me," Muņoz said. "He was strong on those things."

Long term mission

Sandman remembers being hesitant the first time she went to a grocery store in Ohio to ask customers to support the grape boycott organized by the United Farm Workers (first known as the National Farm Workers Association), co-founded by Chavez and Dolores Huerto. She hoped her neighbors would not see her.

"After a while you really get stronger and more clear in your vision and commitment," she said. "I would say nine out of 10 people were supportive."

During the 1970s, United Farm Workers membership grew as Chavez pushed not just for better wages for farm workers but safer working conditions that reduced the workers' exposure to pesticides.

Sandman and her husband remained in touch with Chavez and she has saved letters he wrote to them. He was a guest in their home when they lived in Dayton, Ohio, and later Peoria and Downers Grove.

After retiring, the Sandmans spent a year doing volunteer ministry among refugees in Istanbul, Turkey, and then moved to a townhouse in Oak Brook for 20 years. Sandman remained on the National Farm Workers Ministry board.

Chavez's vision of a national union of farm workers never materialized, but he served as an example and inspiration for organizers in other parts of the country, Sandman said. One of them, the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers representing primarily tomato pickers, has successfully negotiated with fast food and grocery chains on the behalf of workers.

Sandman recently participated in one of their marches in Columbus, Ohio, walking the entire two miles.

"I have a passion of working with farm workers for more than 40 years," she said.

Those familiar with the farm workers movement know Sandman. Last year, she was invited by the White House to join President Barack Obama in California to make Chavez's burial place a national monument. She said she and other supporters would like to see Chavez's birthday, March 31, turned into a national day of service.

Much progress had been made on the behalf of farm workers, but more remains to be done, Sandman said. She hopes the movie "Cesar Chavez" helps to renew the efforts.

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