FROM UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE FOR RELEASE: WEEK OF MARCH 24, 2001 COLUMN OF THE AMERICAS by Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez REMEMBERING CHAVEZ MEANS HONORING FARM WORKERS
Though he passed on to the spirit world in 1993, the heart of farm-labor organizer Cesar Chavez still beats gently across the continent's rich and verdant valleys. Countless streets, schools and community centers nationwide now bear his name. He, along with his wife, Helen, and Dolores Huerta, founded the United Farm Worker's union in 1962 and later joined Filipino farm workers in their historic grape strike in 1965.
Third-grade student Lucy Garcia, of Cesar Chavez Science Magnet school in Bakersfield -- where California is now observing his birthday as a legal holiday -- knows of him in this way: "He wanted to make a law that said that when you do something for people, you should get paid." Yes. That's what he fought for.
Chavez has often been compared to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps he should also be compared with the late Emma Tenayuca, a labor giant from San Antonio.
One way of honoring Chavez's memory is by remembering the man, not the myth. He was a peaceful warrior, but a human being, not a saint. What he should be remembered most for is reconnecting consumers worldwide to the earth and to the workers who put food on our table, and for his philosophy of selflessness and peace. Chavez said: "I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. ... To be human means to suffer for others. God help us to be human." It wasn't just the union's leadership that was selfless but all those involved with "La Causa."
Teachers should explain to students that being human means having faults like everyone else. Because of the UFW's work ("organizing the unorganizable"), the union was always under siege. But not all of the union's conflicts were external. At one point, some of the actions of the UFW caused a division within the Chicano political movement, regarding the business practice of using undocumented workers as strike breakers. The UFW denounced this practice. Leaders of the Chicano movement interpreted this as inadvertently aiding the anti-immigrant movement.
Those were difficult times, but peace came as the result of mediation efforts by another recently deceased human-rights leader, Bert Corona. The union was resilient as Chavez and Huerta emerged and proved to be the most enduring human-rights champions of the post-1960s era. Today, the UFW (now joined by virtually all U.S. unions) continues to organize migrant and immigrant workers alike, regardless of race, nationality or citizenship.
Picketing and "The Boycott" are synonymous with Chavez, Huerta and the union. Every picket was an honoring. It taught many of us to see dignity in all work and all workers. Yet the UFW wasn't concerned only with labor; it was talking about environmental racism long before the term was coined. The struggle against pesticide poisoning, or "poisoned grapes" as young Lucy describes them, was No. 1 on the UFW agenda.
Chavez was an astute intellectual with the mind of a general. He died prematurely. Yet if he could, he would have traded in all of his posthumous honors if the American public would today honor farm workers as full human beings -- by paying them livable wages and guaranteeing them the security, full benefits and protections afforded all other workers.
One way to honor his memory is to read one of the many books that have since been published: "Remembering Cesar: The Legacy of Cesar Chavez," Ann McCreggor (Quill Driver Books 1-800-497-4909), "Fields of Courage," Susan Drake (Many Names Press), and "Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez," Rudy Anaya (Cinco Puntos Press). Another way is to learn about the continued UFW organizing struggles in the Southwest and of the other great farm-labor organizing struggles for dignity taking place in the Northwest, Midwest and Southeast, on the East Coast and in Canada.
One enigma that hasn't been given much attention: his last words. Before retiring for the night, he had read a book on Native Americans. He said something to the effect that "we have to start working with our relatives, the American Indians." Perhaps unknown to most people, the campesinos (most with roots in Mexico and Central America) are indigenous. They, like Chavez, are the color of the earth. No doubt, one day, he will also be honored as a great indigenous leader throughout the continent.
* To learn more about the UFW, visit: http://www.ufw.org * To learn more about the PCUN -- the farmworkers union of the Northwest, visit: http://www.pcun.org
COPYRIGHT 2001 UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE
* Gonzales is the author of the forthcoming "The Mud People: Anonymous Heroes of Mexico" and co-author of "Gonzales/Rodriguez: Uncut & Uncensored" (ISBN: 0-918520-22-3 -- Ethnic Studies Library Publications Unit, UC Berkeley. Rodriguez is the author of Justice: A Question of Race (Cloth- ISBN 0-927534-69-X paper ISBN 0-927534-68-1 -- Bilingual Review Press). We can be reached at PO BOX 100726, San Antonio, TX 78201-8726, or by phone at 210-734-3050 or XColumn@aol.com Our "Column of the Americas" is archived under "Opinion" at www.uexpress.com
* Also, the Aztlanahuac project's new e-address is: Aztlanahuac@aol.com... The other contact info for Aztlanahuac is the same as above.