DELANO, Calif. -- United Farm Workers Union leader Cesar Chavez has lost 15 pounds in the first eight days of an indefinite fast to protest 'the scourge' of pesticides that he says is causing cancer in children of farmworkers.
The labor leader's son, Paul Chavez, said he does not know how long his 61-year-old father intends to continue the water-only fast that he began at midnight July 17.
The younger Chavez said his father plans to spend most of the fast in seclusion at the union's 40 Acres facility in Delano, although he attended mass Monday night with other farmworkers.
'Basically, it's a real personal thing to him,' Paul Chavez said. 'During the fast he will refrain from any press work whatsoever.'
Dolores Huerta, a UFW officer and spokeswoman who has known Chavez since the 1960s when he came to national attention in battles to organize farmworkers, said he has dropped from 169 pounds to 154 pounds.
She said Chavez 'feels pretty good, but he is suffering from some cramping and some bad effects from all the water he has been drinking. He attended mass Monday night the same as everyone else, although some people helped him a little.'
Cesar Chavez -- considered a master at gaining media attention for his union -- did not attend the Delano news conference where his son announced the fast Monday.
The younger Chavez read a message from his father, who said 'a powerful urge has been raging in me for several months.' The statement said he decided to go ahead with the fast despite warnings from doctors following a 24-day fast in 1972 that another could destroy his health or kill him.
'Together we will confront and resist with all of our strength the scourge of poisons that threaten our people and our land and our food,' Chavez said in the statement.
The statement also referred to children in the Kern County farm town of McFarland who have been stricken by an unexplained cluster of cancers.
The UFW believes a combination of pesticides and farm chemicals in the town's water, air and soil are breaking down the youngsters' immune systems and causing the rare cancers. But a county and state probe failed to pinpoint a cause for the cancer.
'Do we feel their pain deeply enough?' the Chavez statement asked about the McFarland families. 'I know I don't and I'm ashamed.'
The UFW has launched a national campaign to ban the use of five pesticides it considers most dangerous to farmworkers. Farmworkers in America have a much higher incidence than normal of cancer, miscarriage, low birth weight babies and birth defects, according to Paul Chavez.
Chavez has fasted twice before to draw attention to farmworkers' problems. He ended a 25-day fast on March 14, 1968, with Sen. Robert Kennedy at his side in a non-violent protest that gained world attention. He launched a 24-day fast in 1972 to protest violence over an Arizona farm labor law opposed by the union.
Huerta's son, Dr. Fidel Huerta, is monitoring Chavez's health during the fast.