As the school year comes to a close, I will be writing about some of my favorite projects of the late school year. As Catholics commemorate 2021 as the year of St. Joseph the Worker, I’ve been fascinated to come alongside my students as they meet Jesus in the topic of workers rights. In this Religion and Social Studies unit, students explored the ways that migrant farm workers used Catholic Faith to shape the religious symbolism and protest tactics of the United Farm Workers Movement (1962-1977).
Pre-empting Thinking: Stations of the Cross
In order to encourage my students to reflect on Catholic Social Teaching on the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers, I selected a version of Stations of the Cross that were developed from the homilies of St. Oscar Romero. This version of the Stations directly encourages a Matthew 24:40, Franciscan approach to meeting Jesus in poor. I intentionally selected stations that relate to Jesus’ interactions with women to highlight the emotional drama of allowing himself to gently die. I also incorporated art from various styles and cultures to help students access and generalize the tension in these scenes.
These two stations show Jesus’ willing self-giving (Station 8) as well as his need to make himself dependent on others (Station 6). Students considered the necessity of allowing Christ to live through us, and the sorrow the women felt in allowing their beloved friend, son, and leader to die. Combined, these two stations show a kind of mutual surrender that develops as we continue to pursue Christ.
After praying and examining the religious art, students were challenged to make a connection with the characters of one of the stations.
Starting with the Bible: Lectio Divina
After students returned Easter and Spring break, we continued to explore the theme of workers rights through scripture and art. As a Protestant Christian, I am passionate about using the bible as a primary source to inspire reflection and analysis of just about any subject. In order to apply a biblical worldview to the United Farm Workers movement as a chapter in history, it was important to me that students understand biblical teachings on justice and the treatment of the poor.
Students first examined several passages, pulling out key phrases. I intentionally chose short but complex sections of scripture so that we could discuss them in depth. Students were most intrigued by the phrase “to take advantage”. We discussed the importance of economics of mutuality and how we are to economically provide for those who are hungry (including animals).
Students completed a template in order to understand how God might be calling them to respond. This student focused on the need to be careful within her own life not to take advantage of people.
This student focused on how humans are responsible not just to consume the environment by cutting down trees, but ensure that animals have what they need to survive. He also objected to the idea of people working “super hard and getting nothing for pay” (the working poor). He believed ultimately that these issues were caused by greed.
This student focused on the power dynamic between the poor and the wealthy. She focused on the meaning of true poverty (being “without God”), and prayed that God would make the weak strong. In each of these work samples, I did very little to guide the discussion in advance. I am always amazed by what the Holy Spirit reveals to my students when we start with the word of God.
Adding Complexity: Generating Questions using Art
Once students had caught hold of the emotional tensions within the biblical text, we examined Jean Francois Millet’s “The Gleaners” painting. Various students noticed fine grain details (including the village behind the horses (misspelled as “houses,” lol). The students asked questions about whether the women in the front of the painting were slaves, why they were picking up the hay with their hands, and why they were working so far apart from the men.
Students then deduced what was similar from the Lectio Divina verses to the Gleaners painting. I used a modified 321 Bridge routine to encourage them to look closely. Again, many students assumed that the women farm workers were slaves.
Using Primary Sources
Next, students interrogated a speech by Cesar Chavez on Mexican-Americans and the Church, available at their reading level through NewsELA.
I chose this speech specifically because 1) Cesar focuses on the role of religious institutions to help the poor 2) because he ecumenically celebrates the contributions of Protestants in supporting the migrant workers and 3) it discusses his fasting methods.
Students discussed the meaning of solidarity in plain language and talked about why it’s important for Christians of all kinds to unite in support of human rights (in spite of historical divisions between Catholics and Protestants).
Secondly, students also examined details that they noticed within this of the National Farm Workers Association. Several students were quick to point out the use of the Virgen of Guadelupe on the banner as a symbol of Chicano/Mexican culture (check out this article here). Especially for my students who have close ties to Mexico, this conversation took on another level of meaning. Students also noticed the presence of the United States and Mexican flags, and we talked about what the use of these symbols could mean.
Finally, students discussed links they had found between Cesar’s speech and the NFWA image.
Assessment through Writing: Understanding How Faith affects Protest Tactics
Ultimately, students considered the many things that they had learned to explore the specific ways that Cesar Chavez and other migrant farm workers protested. Through marches, prayer vigils, hunger fasts, nonviolence, imagery of the Virgen of Guadelupe, and other methods, students acknowledged that the United Farm Workers Movement’s (UFWM) protest strategies were infused with Mexican culture and Catholicism.
Watercolor Protest Art
To my joy, I found that students were very focused on the protest art of the Delano Grape Strike, and other similar boycotts related to the UFWM. One of my favorite ways of relaxing with students this school year has been a “Pick your own Watercolor Topic” block at the end of the day, where students are challenged to paint the most important idea from their favorite thing we discussed that day. This student chose to paint a version of protest art banning lettuce, grapes, and wine, the 3 most boycotted products of the UFWM.
Explaining the Conflict in Legos
Students also were able to express the most important tensions of the UFWM through Legos! In a similar end of the day option, students were challenged to explain the main conflict of something they had encountered that day. In this video, one of my students explains the conflict between the wealthy landowners in California and the migrant farmers within the UFWM.
In this project, I was very proud to start our exploration not just in philosophy, but in theology that is firmly rooted in the biblical text. I felt that this project built on the work we did in developing biblical antiracism to directly discuss how faithful people can ground their protest tactics within Christianity (or more specifically, Catholicism). This project had the effect of giving my students a concrete example of how Jesus calls us to engage with the world to pursue justice that has been formed by an understanding of his character. While there are elements of this project that fail to resonate with me as a Protestant, I’m very happy that in the primarily low-income Latinx community in which I teach, we made room to honor certain students’ Mexican culture, enter into the struggles of the working poor, and celebrate Jesus’.