Jessica Govea, the Afro-Latina Activist and Educator Who Fought for Equality

BY: 
Rachel
 | May 20, 2022

Credit: Nuestro Stories

It is never too late to follow our dreams.

This is the case of an Afro-Latina who made history in the United States thanks to her continuous fight for farm workers’ rights.

As we work towards immortalizing our Latino heritage in the U.S., we must talk about Jessica Govea Thorbourne. She was known for her work as a labor activist, which led her efforts to achieve equality, education, and economic opportunity for Latino workers in the U.S.

Born to Make a Change

Jessica Govea was born in 1947, in Porterville, California. Her father was a Mexican immigrant and her mother was a Porterville native. They both work in the fields. From a very young age, Jessica joined them in the fields.  

Her parents instilled the importance of education within her.. Since her family had economic stability, Jessica was able to study and graduate from high school in 1964. Afterwards, she attended Bakersfield Community College.

Govea recalled being at home and watching Cesar Chavez several times when he was the leader of the Community Service Organization (CSO), the organization that promoted the civic participation of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans.

Chavez’s presence encouraged her family to join the Community Service Organization. 

Read more: The Battle To Return Moctezuma’s Headdress to Mexico

Growing up watching her family try to fight for a change with the most important Latino organization at the time had an immense impact on the young Jessica. This propelled her into activism at an early age. 

While in high school, she began working with Chavez, handing out flyers and promoting voting among Latino residents. Shortly after, she became a junior officer for CSO.

Govea’s Work with the United Farm Workers Union

Due to a lack of vision to support farmworker organizing, Chavez left the CSO. In a historic move, he then founded the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) alongside Dolores Huerta. Govea joined them after graduating from high school. She was quickly promoted to national organizing director.

The United Farm Workers Union valued Govea’s performance and assigned her to bring her organizing efforts to Canada. First, she went to Toronto, which was California growers’ biggest grape market.

Govea organized campaigns, gave speeches, and picketed. And thanks to her passionate appeal, she attracted the attention of local activists and the press. 

Due to the success she had in Toronto, the leaders at United Farm Workers Union asked her to open a new Canadian frontier, the province of Quebec. The natural-born activist accepted and, at 21, she became the director of the boycott in Montreal. Her rapid rise as director positioned her as an important Chicana activist.

In 1977, Govea was elected to the board. She worked there for four years before parting ways. Her focus then turned to education, leading her to become a labor educator at Rutgers University and Cornell University.

At the age of 58, this inspirational Afro-Latina leader died of breast cancer in West Orange, New Jersey. Prior to her death, she claimed that pesticides caused her cancer.

Jessica Govea is a clear example that it is never too early to start activism; her legacy will live on for generations. 

Who would have thought that the work of a young Chicana would help change the lives of thousands of people in the United States?

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