March 26, 2004

The Legacy of César E. Chávez

By Raymond R. Beltrán

In honoring César Estrada Chávez for La Causa that he brought nationwide attention to, it is difficult to sum up his accomplishments. It would be like placing numerical value on the idea of humanity.

Mural in front of King/Chavez Academy, by Mario Torero.

At death, César Chávez was sixty-six years old and still battling growers in courtrooms for the use of pesticides in the grape fields, but it’s only once a year that we stop and recognize the accomplishments made by this farm worker, revolutionary hero who’s survived by his legacy of migrant worker’s rights, the image of the black eagle and countless corridos. A U.S. Postal Stamp and a holiday in his honor have encompassed him into the mainstream canon of social justice with names like Mahatma Gandhi and of course, his African American contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although, in honoring this man’s accomplishments only once a year, we should ask if the face of César Chávez has become too prominent of a symbol that’s led to the feeling of disconnection for the common people he fought so hard for?

Outside of the agricultural fields, here in the urban neighborhoods, activists, artists and educators hold strong to the man that has influenced their lives. The following statements are testimonies of the legacy César left us all, and not only a legacy of hope, but of tools that apply to anyone … anywhere.

Mario Torero
FUERZA, Community Muralist

“When César Chávez brought his movement from the fields, they needed support from the city. We knew they needed recruits. So when I was in tenth grade, we used to go out in the summer and pick in the fields with them, and it became a relationship. It was very adventurous and exciting, but you know personally I didn’t last. It was hard work, and it was killing me. It was hot and the living conditions were not the best. It was very uncomfortable. But it left an impression on me, because when we came back to the city and the United Farm Workers came to organize the urban youth, the legacy they left is work; it’s the labor.

“The philosophy of agriculture is in the fields, out in the country, but what it means is work and labor. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, agriculture. It could mean carpentry; it could mean shipbuilding; it could mean teachers, jobs, work, and today everybody’s got to do their part for society. But we want to work knowing, and being conscious, that we’re trying to make this world a better place.”

Dennis “Mr. Q” McKeown
King/Chavez Elementary, Principal

“César Chávez lived spirit first, and that’s what he gave, a spiritual movement in a political world. Here at King/Chavez, the teaching of César Chávez is one more of consciousness than of an education or curriculum. If a kid is just memorizing problems with no inner value, there’s no cultivation in that. We concentrate on cultivating hearts in an academic crisis. When you have such a mechanistic education system, the kids are going to explode.

“We’ve adopted the name Love School, and we build on creating a safe place, a beautiful school, and these are the bi-products of the movement. We’re constantly trying to cultivate school spirit, because our philosophy is based on spirit first, and academics second, like César Chávez.”

Mariajulia Urías
Red CalacArts Collective, Vice President

“Growing up in La Paz, our community worked as a whole. So, it made me very idealistic in that sense, to where, now, when I think about community, I think of people giving selflessly. It allowed me to recognize the strength of unity.

“I remember listening to César talk and thinking that he was just like everybody else, only he had a vision that he was willing to dedicate his entire life to. I think his legacy is for us to recognize that every being deserves to be treated as though they are worth something. The issues of the farm workers were more than just oppression, and exploitation, and racism. It was about the inhumanity that people endured, and his message has brought about progressive thought. However, we haven’t won the war, yet ... for all people to be treated with respect, dignity and worth.”

Solo Hernandez
César Chávez Elementary, Music Teacher

“Because he was Mexican American, he would be stereotyped as only helping the Mexican Americans. To him, it didn’t matter. His teacher was [Fred] Ross, a white man. The Filipinos were inspiring him as far as beginning the strikes in Delano. He was very much aware of the poor whites who were working in the fields. We were at the bottom of the social scene, and sometimes you tried to hide the fact that you worked in the fields, but you couldn’t. It showed on your hands. Now, people are dying to tell their stories about how they worked in the fields with a lot of pride. This is honest, hard work, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s something that we should be proud of that we once did.

“That’s the whole point. You have to say what happened. If we don’t talk about the things that César Chávez did, is there a possibility that we might go back to the way things were in the fifties? As bad and as unrealistic as it sounds, the answer is yes. Yes, we could conceivably go back to the way it was before.”

Camila Chávez
Dolores Huerta Foundation, Director

“I was raised in the movement from a very young age, knowing that long ago as a child, we could make contributions for the cause. In my adult life, it’s empowering to me, to not give up on assuming the impossible.

“The legacy of this man was the way he sacrificed his life, himself, especially with his fasts to bring attention to people from across the world.

“I was in high school when he passed away. Being a teenager, I didn’t feel the impact until 45,000 people came to his funeral. He was somebody that made a huge difference with simple acts.

“I think that because of the state holiday, and the César Chávez events across the nation, I think he’s left something to be proud of, ... I hope people don’t look at him like an icon, or a hero, that can’t be found again, because we have to find the César Chávez in all of us and be capable of using him in our life.”

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