Honoring Cesar Chavez
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No one seemed to care... But Cesar cared
On the cover:
A Mexican American, Cesar Chavez (Born in Arizona on March 31, 1927, and died in Arizona on April 23, 1993) became the best known Latino American civil rights activist, and was strongly promoted by the American labor movement, which was eager to enroll Hispanic members. His public-relations approach to unionism and aggressive but nonviolent tactics made the farm workers' struggle a moral cause with nationwide support.
A National Monument for a Civil Rights hero
On October 8, 2012, President Obama dedicated the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, California, and while many people revere Cesar Chavez and the work that he did, those of us from California (like me) who were born and raised in the Central Valley (like me), and are Mexican-American (like me) have a special affinity and reverence for Chavez. We grew up seeing the familiar black Aztec eagle on the red UFW flag branded HUELGA everywhere. If we didn't have relatives who had worked in the fields throughout the Central Valley in terrible conditions, we had friends who had relatives there. Even while he was alive, we saw Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as something close to saints. For Mexican-Americans, especially where I am from, Cesar Chavez was our Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And that's not an exaggeration.
In my hometown of Sacramento, Cesar Chavez wasn't just the name of a street or a park, although we did name a plaza after him across the street from City Hall and where, incidentally, workers downtown can visit during lunchtime on Wednesdays for one of the best farmer's markets in town. Sacramento was the target of many of Chavez's protests and marches. His influence in the city, and especially around it, where miles and miles of the agriculture that feeds the nation is grown, picked, and processed is indelible.
In 1993, Joe Serna, one of Cesar Chavez's top aides and a man who had worked on behalf of the UFW for decades, was elected Mayor of Sacramento. When Chavez died a few months later, Serna led a march from Sacramento in honor of the departed civil rights activist and Sacramento became the first city in the United States to honor Cesar Chavez with a holiday. Under Serna's leadership, Sacramento prospered and I was lucky enough to meet and work alongside Mayor Serna on behalf of Gray Davis's campaign for Governor of California in 1998. Tragically, Mayor Serna died in office of cancer the next year, but the steps he took to honor Chavez in Sacramento were carried out by his successor.
At the dedication of the National Monument today, President Obama said, "No one seemed to care about the invisible farm workers who picked the nation's food -- bent down in the beating sun, living in poverty, cheated by growers, abandoned in old age, unable to demand even the most basic rights. But Cesar cared. And in his own peaceful, eloquent way, he made other people care, too. A march that started in Delano with a handful of activists -- that march ended 300 miles away in Sacramento with a crowd of 10,000 strong. A boycott of table grapes that began in California eventually drew 17 million supporters across the country, forcing growers to agree to some of the first farm worker contracts in history. Where there had once been despair, Cesar gave workers a reason to hope. 'What [the growers] don't know,' he said, 'is that it's not bananas or grapes or lettuce. It's people.'"
After the President dedicated the National Monument in Cesar Chavez's honor, CNN contributor Ruben Navarrette, who admittedly had problems with Chavez while he was alive as well as UFW leader Dolores Huerta, wrote an opinion piece suggesting that Obama was "using" Chavez's memory for political purposes, in order to drive Latinos out in support of his election. Furthermore, Navarrette writes that Cesar Chavez "was never a leader for all Latinos", but more of an icon for Mexican-Americans.
Well, Navarrette can't have it both ways. Obama can't be using Chavez in order to win over Latinos if Chavez isn't a Latino hero. Navarrette's personal issues with the UFW, Chavez, and Dolores Huerta have no need to impose on a significant day for Mexican-Americans and the millions of people who Chavez, Huerta, and the UFW helped through the years.
As for the suggestion that the President declared a National Monument in honor of Chavez for political purposes just shows that it is Navarrette who is thinking politics first and attempting to stir controversy because of whatever vendetta he has against Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers. Quite frankly, it is downright ignorant considering Obama's history of links to the Chavez legacy and UFW model of organizing. President Obama obviously has a deep affinity and respect for Chavez and Chavez's accomplishments on behalf of his people. This is not surprising considering Obama's reverence for Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi.
Barack Obama didn't look at the polls this week and say, "Let's do something for the Latinos." Cesar Chavez is someone whom Obama -- a community organizer at heart -- has admired for a long time. In fact, he structured his first Presidential campaign with UFW tactics. I attended the first Camp Obama training session that the Obama campaign held outside of Chicago. This grueling "retreat" took place on a weekend in San Francisco where we spent 13 hours per day training in a very special type of community organizing and grass roots campaigning -- the United Farm Workers way. Our main teacher was Marshall Ganz, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government who just happened to have spent nearly two decades -- the busiest two decades -- on the staff of the UFW where he didn't simply work with Cesar Chavez but actively helped organize the union and plan their biggest activities.
If that's not a big enough link to suggest that Cesar Chavez and the UFW have long been on Barack Obama's radar, how about that famous catchphrase? "Yes, we can!" In the 2008 campaign, will.i.am even made a catchy song featuring the phrase. Well, again, "Yes, we can!" is the rough translation of the UFW's famous "S?, se puede!". That wasn't a coincidence.
Today, on this special day where the President of the United States rightfully honored Cesar Chavez, the person playing petty politics is CNN's Ruben Navarrette, whose vague past "confrontation" with Chavez and "run-ins" with Dolores Huerta of the UFW led him to chip away at Obama's dedication however he could, but people who understand the importance and sanctity of civil rights don't play political games with them. Unfortunately, I have bad news for Mr. Navarrette -- Cesar Chavez is a National Monument now, as he should be, and you can't tear him down.
Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Navarrette. If you're wondering whether we're able to overlook your blatant personal and political biases in order to see the President's dedication for the fitting tribute that it is and continue to admire Cesar Chavez for what he accomplished in the area of civil rights -- not simply for Mexican-Americans or Latinos -- but all Americans?
"?S?, se puede!"
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.