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The complicated legacy of César Chávez

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Illustration by Raul Alonzo
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Texas Standard

On Oct. 9, 2012, under the soft light of the Southern California sun, President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of thousands.

He had arrived in Keene, Calif., earlier that day to dedicate the César E. Chávez National Monument, located at the former headquarters of the United Farm Workers, nicknamed La Paz – “the peace.”

The monument spans only two acres but is home to both a museum and the gravesite of Chávez and his wife, Helen. It’s one of countless monuments, schools, parks and streets either named or renamed to solidify his place in American history.

Obama’s speech focused on things everybody knows about Chávez: He was an organizer, he fought tirelessly for farmworkers, and he refused to compromise on his principles.

Though he passed away in 1993, Chávez is still perhaps the most famous labor organizer in American history. His organization of farmworkers, his hunger strikes, and his grape boycotts have made him one of the few Latino icons of the civil rights era.

A Los Angeles Times poll from 1983 revealed that he was the Latino that Latinos in California admired most – above both actor Ricardo Montalbán and baseball player Fernando Valenzuela. It’s that status that’s made him an integral part of Hispanic heritage in America.

Chávez’s contributions to farmworkers and the history of labor are historic – but like all historical figures, he’s complicated.

Inspired by an ‘original sin’

Born in 1927, Chávez was raised in Yuma, Ariz. Like most minorities, he didn’t grow up with much, but he was raised around family, and they usually had enough to eat from working their land. When Chávez was 11, his family lost their farm during the Depression, packed their bags and became migrant farmworkers – constantly relocating around California for seasonal work.

It was then that Chávez got a firsthand look at how backbreaking the work was. In the first half of the 20th century, farmworkers were among the most excluded and ignored people in America. They were the brown, uneducated Spanish speakers that spent their lives toiling under the sun.

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Marion S. Trikosko
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U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection (Library of Congress)
Labor organizer César Chávez speaks during a 1979 interview.

They were regularly cheated out of their meager wages, worked to the bone, and under conditions that would be difficult to even fathom today.

Rebecca Flores, a lifelong organizer who lives on the southside of San Antonio, spent three decades with the United Farm Workers and grew up seeing the same things Chávez saw.

“When I was working, when we were picking cotton in South Texas, I was 10 years old. My sisters I think were 14, 14, 13 and 12, something like that,” she said. “And so we were all, you know, young, little kids working in the fields, holding down a job to add to the income that my family so desperately needed.

“There has never been any control or the enforcement of child labor in agriculture – never, as far as I have seen, as far as I have known.”

Born in the 1940s in South Texas, she’s always been acutely aware of the ways in which farmworkers have been overlooked. The best example she has of this oversight is the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

“When Franklin Roosevelt passed all of his labor legislation in the 30s – fair labor standards, the minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, all of it – he excluded two occupations from coverage, and that was farm work and it was domestic workers,” Flores said.

The way Flores talks about this – the decision to exclude farmworkers from perhaps the biggest labor victory in American history – almost sounds like she’s describing the concept of original sin.

“Farm workers, domestic workers still suffer the consequences that occurred quite almost 100 years ago,” she said. “And so we’ve never had a foothold onto better wages, better working conditions, better protection, protective legislation.”

And it was this treatment that pulled Chávez into the world of organizing in the 1950s.

Before founding the United Farm Workers, Chávez spent the first portion of his career with the Community Service Organization, a group that advocated issues affecting Hispanics.

He had a 10-year apprenticeship where he learned how to do community organizing, said Miriam Pawel, author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, a biography documenting his life.

In her book, she recounts a story that perfectly captures his work ethic. It starts in the winter of 1956, when he was living in San Jose and working for the CSO:

He had a last-minute idea to use the holiday season to earn some money for the organization by getting Christmas trees in Oregon and selling them in California – and so overnight, Chávez drove nearly 600 miles from San Jose to Eugene, Ore.

When he arrived, he found out the trees had all been sold, so he made the next logical decision: He drove another hundred miles to Portland to get in contact with dealers there.

After purchasing 900 trees, he ran into another issue: how to transport hundreds of trees from Portland to San Jose. In an era before cell service or the internet, Chávez decided to hang out at a truck stop until he found somebody willing and able to take the trees back to California.

“He goes up there, and it’s just sort of one pitfall after another of finding out that the trees that he thought were going to be at a certain price weren’t at that price. And then driving across the state to try to find dry trees that were cheaper and then figuring out how to get the trees back to San Jose,” Pawel said. “And you can just see kind of how the gears work in his head of, ‘OK, here’s the next obstacle. How do we get past that? And then what do we do?’ “

In the end, Chávez only ended up selling about half of them, and the entire scheme put the organization in the hole almost $300, an abject failure by any metric. What makes the story so typical of Chávez were not the abysmal results – it was how little he was deterred by them.

“One of Chávez’s great strengths as an organizer was just this relentlessness,” Pawel said. “I mean, if you talk to people today who are good labor organizers, often it’s just a matter of going back over and over again and just never giving up.”

Chávez’s tactics were recognizable to anybody familiar with the civil rights era — he swore by non-violence, drew strength from his faith, and focused a lot on personal sacrifice.

He was also incredibly charismatic. Flores got to know Chávez personally in the ’70s and spent time organizing with him in Texas.

“We used to drive together from town to town. And it was generally in the middle of the night because we’d have to go from one event to another event the next morning,” she said. “He would tell me jokes. He was funny; he was something else.”

A ‘remarkably rapid rise’

In 1962, Chávez started what would become the United Farm Workers. Over the next few years, the UFW’s red and black flag, its eagle and the slogan “si se puede” would become infamous.

The organization’s most noteworthy challenge came in 1965, when 2,000 Filipino farmworkers went on strike for better wages in Delano, Calif. After about a week, Chávez and the UFW joined what would become one of the biggest labor battles of the ’60s.

By 1968, a few years into the Delano grape strike, tensions were running high and morale was low. Growers were getting impatient. Strikers had been assaulted and arrested. Chávez went on what would become a 25-day fast in which he lost more than 30 pounds.

It was at this moment that the UFW scored a much-needed moral victory: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy traveled across the country to California to meet with Chávez and end his hunger strike. The moment was photographed and is still considered to be one of the most pivotal moments in United Farmworker history, according to Pawel.

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Korean Resource Center
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(CC BY-ND 2.0)
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy traveled to California to meet with Chávez and end his hunger strike in 1968.

“The photo of Bobby Kennedy next to Cesar Chávez breaking the fast in Delano after 25 days in 1968 [is] probably still one of the most iconic images of the movement anywhere and of Chávez,” she said. “And that puts him on the national stage.”

In 1956, Chávez was scurrying around California trying to sell Christmas trees. In 1968, he was rubbing elbows with America’s political aristocracy.

In 1965, “when the strike happens, I mean, nobody knows who Cesar Chávez is outside of the small world of farmworkers and organizing in the valley,” Pawel said. “And in 1969, he’s on the cover of Time magazine. So, I mean, it is a really remarkably rapid rise.”

The grape boycott of the 1960s put the United Farm Workers on the map. And when growers finally came to the negotiation table after five years, the victory became a landmark in American labor history.

A hawk on immigration

Nearly three decades after his death in 1993, Chávez’s legacy has been solidified – but it’s also been simplified.

And in this simplification, one really interesting aspect of his life is usually overlooked: On the issue of immigration, Cesar Chávez was a hawk – a hawk with convictions and rhetoric so strong that they would put him far outside of the political mainstream today.

In the mid-70s, Chávez launched what he called the Illegals Campaign, an effort to raise awareness about illegal immigration and report undocumented workers to federal authorities.

”The idea was – much like we’ve heard today – ‘Well, the Border Patrol isn’t doing a good job at keeping people from crossing illegally. So we’re going to have to go out and do it ourselves,’ “ Pawel said.

The most intense aspects of this informal effort, however, did not take place in the form of secret phone calls to the government; they took place right along the border. In an effort led by César’s cousin Manuel Chávez, reports began to emerge of Mexican immigrants being threatened, beaten and robbed as they tried to cross over into the United States.

At one point, the patrol operation was so large, it employed 300 people and cost the UFW $80,000 a week.

To Chávez, the civil rights era leader who swore nonviolence, any influx of foreign labor represented a threat to the farmworkers’ movement. The people who crossed the border illegally were in search of a better life. But they were also scabs, willing to do the jobs that American farmworkers were organizing to improve.

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Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
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KUT News
A sign for West Cesar Chavez Street in Austin.

“All of a sudden yesterday morning, they brought in 220 wetbacks – these are the illegals from Mexico,” Chávez said in an interview with KQED in the ‘70s. “There’s no way to defend against that kind of strikebreaking.”

It only took a handful of anecdotes for Chávez to start sounding almost conspiratorial.

“Immigrants for him in general were a tricky issue. And then that gets compounded by the legal issue,” Pawel said. “And I think part of this is kind of, you know, wanting a villain. ‘Why are we not winning the strike in the lemons? Well, it’s because of those damn legal immigrants who are coming across.’ I mean, sort of they become a really good scapegoat.”

But if Cesar Chávez could sound conspiratorial and paranoid, it wasn’t unfounded. When he first started, farmworkers actually were being conspired against.

“The growers control the courts, the police, the mayors and even the Catholic Church, which later on becomes, you know, a key and important supporter of the workers early on. They’re not supporting the farmworkers,” Pawel said.

If there is any contradiction between Chávez’s persona and some of his actions, it isn’t difficult for Flores to resolve.

“The people who are against you are working against you 24/7,” she said. “I’m telling you that right now, that there is no end to their money and their power.”

At every step in their fight, the farmworkers were outmatched. If that complicates the historical record decades later, it’s not something she’s going to dwell on.

“I firmly believe that it’s these armchair revolutionaries that sit around and think about all that kind of stuff. But if they had been in the field at that time, I wonder what their response would have been,” she said. “If they had pulled a strike and all the farmworkers had left the fields in Giumarra in California, and all of a sudden this busload of scabs were trooped in – they were really pawns of the growers, for God’s sake.

It’s really easy for us, you know, 50 years later to sit around here and talk about that and say, ‘Well, you know, César was wrong.’ You know what? You weren’t there.”

Assessing a complicated legacy

César Chávez was a man of many contradictions.

He was a Mexican American with radical views on immigration. He swore by nonviolence but subsidized an illegal border patrol operation. And for all of the praise he’s earned as a union leader, he wasn’t a particularly effective administrator – shortly after the massive and flashy victories in the ’60s, the United Farm Workers began to lose contracts and support in the fields.

In recent years, these contradictions have raised questions about how to think of Chávez’s legacy. Pawel has an answer.

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Warren K. Leffler
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U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection (Library of Congress)
César Chávez speaks at the Democratic Convention in New York City on July 14, 1976.

“All of those people who learned how to organize – and we saw the power of the different things that he did and his charisma and his ability to use theatrics and all of that – they went on to do things for other labor unions, for environmental groups, as teachers in lots of different spheres where they use those skills,” she said. “And many of them have already educated another generation of people to do that. So I think to me, that’s the most powerful part of his legacy: the ways in which all of that was passed on and continues to be passed on.”

When Chávez began his advocacy, nobody cared about farmworkers. By the time he passed away in the early ’90s, farmworkers had become impossible to ignore.

“If you talk to farmworkers today, you know, they want their children to get out of the fields and get an education and so on. That wasn’t true then,” Pawel said. “The line that older farmworkers from that period will say to you is there were only two options: You could be the worker, or you could become a foreman … so you could be oppressed, or you could be the oppressor.

“When Chávez comes along, this idea that there’s a third way, that you could be a farmworker and have a degree of dignity and control over your life and have the right to certain basic things – how exciting that was to people.”

These days, Chávez’s name isn’t easily recognizable in the fields of California, Texas or anywhere really – what has remained, though, is the notoriety they have and the hope that something better is always possible.

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