March 31, 2000
By Bernadette Self
El Paso Times
If César Chàvez were alive today, on this, his 73rd birthday, he would still be working to improve the treatment and rights of migrant farm workers in the United States.
He'd be no less despised by many California growers and the big produce companies with whom he locked horns. But perhaps Chàvez's action - and his humble but extraordinary courage and commitment - would be more broadly acknowledged, and appreciated, by the American mainstream if he were here to continue championing the rights of people who, to this day, are viewed more as commodities than human beings.
Chàvez, who died in 1993, will forever be remembered for creating the United Farm Workers union and linked to the 1960s and '70s boycotts of grapes, lettuce and other produce. The boycotts were a means to force California growers to pay more equitable wages to migrant workers (back then, many earned below minimum wage).
Chàvez and the union also fought (without violence) to improve the despicable living conditions in which many migrant workers toiled and to curtail the use of certain pesticides that made workers ill.
"Fighting for social justice, it seems to me, is one of the proudest ways in which man can say yes to man's dignity, and that really means sacrifice," Chàvez once said. "There is no way on this Earth in which you can say yes to man's dignity and know that you're going to be spared some sacrifice."
Chàvez made many sacrifices, which differentiates him substantially from the many wannabe rebels without real causes who parade in the spotlight for public adulation.
Raised in a migrant worker family, Chàvez knew the pain of back-breaking field work. His grandparents came to the U.S. from Chihuahua state (coming through El Paso) in the 1880s. Settling near Yuma, Ariz., the family farmed and operated a general store. Unfortunately, they lost everything during the Great Depression. To survive, they became migrant workers, following the crops into California.
Chàvez attended more than 30 schools but still managed to complete the eighth grade. He worked in the fields into adulthood. He eventually netted a decent-paying job for the Community Service Organization, a workers' advocacy group. In 1962, at age 35, he devoted himself to the unpopular task of organizing a farm-workers' union. His wife, Helen, picked fruit to make ends meet.
By 1965, Chàvez's group had its first big clash with California grape growers. There isn't room to detail the struggles endured, including being threatened, beaten and jailed. But those efforts eventually garnered national attention and support from Americans who sympathized with the plight of migrant workers.
But 35 years after Chàvez organized - with the aid of the AFL-CIO - that ground-breaking, five-year boycott against grape growers, too many people have forgotten the spirit of Chàvez's actions.
To put it bluntly, many view Chàvez as some folk-legend labor organizer who, because his skin was brown and his name "Spanish," is irrelevant to anyone other than Mexican-Americans. Sadly, there are Mexican- Americans who view Chàvez as an inconsequential civil-rights era "dead guy" who is irrelevant because neither they nor their parents were migrant workers.
Even worse, some Mexican-Americans refuse to recognize Chàvez's accomplishments because they perceive him as a Viva La Raza rabble-rouser whose very memory - and the public recognition of that memory with marches, masses and menudo fund-raisers - makes them cringe because, it's so, you know, Mexican. And for some Hispanics with conservative philosophies, Chàvez's links with organized labor are too much to swallow because "union" is a dirty word in corporate circles.
It's ironic that in an age of celebrity worship and money-lust, some people find it so difficult, or offensive, to acknowledge the accomplishments of people such as Chàvez. Had Chàvez's name and skin color been different, would his life's work mean more to more people today?
Acknowledging Chàvez's accomplishments isn't the measure of one's ethnic pride. But Chàvez's actions, and the way he lived his life, are worth recognizing, honoring and using as a model to all who want to stand up for just causes.
People should recall that the same kind of personal qualities and selflessness manifested by Chàvez were demonstrated, in previous centuries, by founders of this nation. Honoring Chàvez's memory isn't just "a Mexican thing."