It was with genuine sadness that we learned of the passing on Dec. 18, 2017 of Esther Uranday, one of the pioneering women who helped build the United Farm Workers since its earliest days. Esther also became the longest tenured union staff person.
Esther and her late husband, Manuel Uranday, were already members of the National Farm Workers Association when they came to the union’s first office on 1st Ave. and So. Albany St. in Delano on Sept. 8, 1965 to inform César Chávez that Filipino vineyard workers belonging to the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee had struck Delano-area table and wine grape growers. Both Esther and Manuel walked out of the same vineyards when the NFWA joined the Filipinos’ strike on Sept. 20, 1965. The UFW was formed in 1966 when the Filipino and Latino unions merged.
The farm worker movement became Esther’s career and her passion. She took great satisfaction from helping farm workers make a better life for themselves and continued assisting them and building the UFW for the rest of her life.
Like the other strikers, Esther and her family endured all the sacrifices and suffering of the five-year-long grape strike and boycott. She was one of 44 strikers—among them 12 women, including César’s wife, Helen Chávez—arrested by Kern County sheriff’s deputies at a vineyard near Delano for saying the word “¡Huelga!” on the picket line. During three days in the Kern County Jail, Esther, Helen and the other women kept up their spirits by joking and laughing so much that jailers told them to be quiet.
Day after day and month after month both Manuel and Esther arose early to be on pre-dawn picket lines, standing at the edge of struck vineyards pleading with strikebreakers to join the walkouts. Esther would carry her infant daughter, Julianna, in her arms. Then she went to work all day at the union office. Manuel Uranday also worked in the strike and joined César’s security detail, accompanying him wherever he went, including a three-month nationwide tour promoting the grape boycott in 1969, which was joined by Esther, Helen, Diana Lyons and Esther Olivas.
The boycott produced breakthrough union table grape contracts in 1970, firmly establishing the UFW as the nation’s first enduring farm worker union. Esther spent the rest of her life with the movement, working in the union hiring hall and membership department, assisting union members and keeping records; with the UFW’s Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan, helping farm workers and their families receive health benefits; as administrator of the Rodrigo Terronez Medical Clinic at the Forty Acres outside Delano; and at the National Chávez Center at La Paz in Keene, working closely with César Chávez and other union operations. After César’s passing in 1993, UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez asked Esther to be his executive assistant, a post she held for a number of years. She only retired from the union four years ago.
A native Californian, Esther Uranday was born on April 26, 1937 to farm worker parents Emilio and Josephina Tarango. She grew up in Earlimart, a small farm town just north of Delano. As the eldest of 14 children, Esther began working in a variety of crops in middle school to help support her family. She left school for the fields in the eighth grade.
After meeting and marrying Manuel Uranday in 1953, they both continued working in agriculture, mostly in table grapes, while raising three children.
Once the grape strike began in 1965, Esther was always gone, her children recall. They were raised much of the time by their grandmother. Like all the strikers, Esther and Manuel were “paid” $5 a week plus food and clothing donated by supporters. Their children had to make due with give-me-down clothes—and much hardship. When Delano growers gathered at the farm worker movement’s Forty Acres near Delano to sign their first union contracts on July 29, 1970, César Chávez said 95 percent of the grape strikers lost their homes, cars and most of their worldly possessions, but in doing so they found themselves. High on that list of strikers were Esther and Manuel Uranday.
After the second grape boycott was kicked off in 1973, many Uranday family members volunteered to organize the boycott, mostly in Detroit. There, Esther, who went back and forth from Delano, met boycott organizer Arturo Rodríguez.
Esther cherished a close, lifelong friendship with Helen Chavez that began with the ‘65 strike and lasted until Helen’s passing in 2016. Manuel Uranday died in 1998.
Esther Uranday is survived by three children, Tony, David and Julianna Uranday-Osorno (a fourth child, Stevie, died from illness at eight months); eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. She leaves behind a legacy of strength and fierce determination for her family and the larger family of the farm worker movement.
Jocelyn Sherman, United Farm Workers ufw.org.
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