March 30, 2001


The Legacy of César Chávez

by Jorge Mariscal

The photograph of César Chávez standing with Robert Kennedy in 1966 has the faded hue of an era long past. After twenty years of attacks on "liberalism" and any political stance associated with the progressive movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we find ourselves in a society in which a young César Chávez would undoubtedly be met with derision or merely ignored. The concerted efforts begun by Ronald Reagan and continuing under the current leadership of President Bush and Dick Armey to gut the trade union movement has made many young workers suspicious of organized labor. Anti-affirmative action zealots have coopted the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh now enlist John Kennedy as one of their ideological soulmates. The political climate has moved so far to the "center" (in reality, the right) that even the Democratic Party, the party of Chávez and the United Farm Workers, bears only a scant resemblance to its former self. What relevance could Chávez's message possibly have in the year 2001?

When he and Dolores Huerta created the United Farm Workers's Union in 1962 and joined forces with Filipino organizers Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, Chávez accomplished something most union leaders had thought impossible. For a majority of the population, including union officials, the migrant farmworker was an invisible sector of the workforce without a political voice. Yet by diligently organizing door to door, by using the language of the workers, and by deploying the cultural symbols of Mexican and Mexican American culture, Chávez and Huerta took on the powerful agribusiness magnates and their allies in order to improve conditions for the most exploited among us.

The dramatic early accomplishments of the UFW coincided with the rise of the Chicano Movement, a movement that questioned traditional ideas about assimilation and the place of Mexican Americans in U.S. society. While young Chicano militants were reading Fanon and Che Guevara, however, Chávez studied the works of Gandhi, Aquinas, and St. Paul. Chávez's message of non-violent social change did not sit well with some Chicano activists, yet the boycotts and strikes organized by the UFW served as a training ground for many young Chicanas and Chicanos who are now professionals still dedicated to working in their communities of origin.

More important, "La Causa," the farmworkers's struggle was the most dramatic example in the Viet Nam war era of how to contest the long-standing treatment of Mexican Americans in the Southwest as second-class citizens, reminding us why all Mexican Americans ought to commit themselves to the struggle for equal rights.

In a 1969 letter to a grower, Chávez wrote: "The color of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our slain in recent wars—all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit." The UFW showed that the Mexican American's spirit could not be broken. Through the tactics of what Chávez called "miltant non-violence," the status quo could be challenged and ultimately transformed. According to Chávez, "In some instances non-violence requires more militancy than violence. Non-violence forces you to abandon the shortcut in trying to make a change in the social order." Refusing to use violence as a short cut to social change, Chávez practiced a philosophy that had its roots in the thought of Gandhi and coincided with that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As governor of Texas, President Bush presided over a situation in which Texan farmworkers were the most severely underpaid and exploited farmworkers in the nation. Mexican and Mexican American workers in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and even New York occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Suburban teenagers attack and almost kill Mexican laborers in San Diego County, and the most marketable icons of pop culture promote unabashed consumerism and self-indulgence. On every level, the culture has become harsher. As in all societies where the ideological spectrum has narrowed to a single choice, political debate has degenerated into name-calling. One can hardly imagine the soft-spoken Chávez participating in one of the political talk shows/shouting matches on FOX or CNN.

Despite the conservative hegemony of the current moment, the union movement continues to grow, especially in the service sector where thousands of Latino immigrants struggle for better working conditions. On college campuses, young people are beginning to question the influence of corporations on public education and the effects of globalization on poor nations around the world. Chávez no doubt would be pleased, for as he taught us many times: "Only through dedication to serving mankind—and in this case to serving the poor and those who are struggling for justice—only in that way can we find ourselves."

Jorge Mariscal is Associate Professor of Literature at UC San Diego

Return to the Frontpage