Over Labor Day weekend of 2001 we went out to Los Angeles, where the country‘s fastest growing labor union had joined forces with the Catholic Diocese to hold a special Mass for immigrant workers as part of a broader organizing effort. A major campaign was already underway-- SEIU was the vanguard of a new workers‘ rights movement, and put more resources into organizing immigrants than any union had in a generation. Eliseo was the brains and the energy behind it.
It‘s hard not to use superlatives when describing Eliseo and his work. He has an organizer‘s no-nonsense focus on results and accountability, but there's no denying that he is a visionary leader. In Eliseo's hands, any setback or victory in the immigration debate became an organizing opportunity to move one step closer to full civic participation and self-determination for workers and for Latinos.
Eliseo moved from Zacatecas, Mexico to California as a kid to join his father, who was a farmworker in Delano‘s grape fields. Soon enough Eliseo also started working as a picker, and when he was still a teenager he participated in the historic United Farm Workers' strike. He spent the next 13 years working alongside Cesar Chavez, rising through the ranks to serve as the United Farm Workers' National Vice President.
Eliseo joined SEIU in 1986 and has been a Vice President there since 1996. For most of the years we were shooting he was based in Los Angeles with his deputy, Ben Monterroso. Watching them work and seeing the full scope of their political power and organization was a remarkable experience, and provided a great contrast to the politics of Washington.