Many people yesterday noticed the bust of the late Latino activist Cesar Chavez behind Joe Biden’s desk in the Oval Office.
From The Washington Post:
Chavez, a first-generation American born outside Yuma, Ariz., became a migrant farmworker at age 11 when his family lost their farm. In 1962, after years of laboring in the fields, vineyards and orchards under harsh conditions, he founded the National Farm Workers Association, a pivotal farmworkers union that would later become the United Farm Workers.
About a week ago, Biden’s transition team asked the Cesar Chavez Foundation for a bust to display in the Oval Office, his son said. The sculpture, designed by artist Paul A. Suarez, had been on display at the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument’s visitor center in Keene, Calif., where Chavez lived and worked during the last 25 years of his life.
“We told them immediately that we’d be honored to share the bust with the White House,” said Paul Chavez, who also serves as the president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
… Others viewed Biden’s choice to honor Chavez, who died never earning more than $6,000 a year as a farmworker, as a testament to his support of farmworkers.
“For the president to have Cesar’s bust there and to do it so prominently, to have it so visibly, this is like a message to the world: These are the people we have to take care of,” Dolores Huerta, a labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Chavez, told The Post…
Chavez, significantly, was a devoted Catholic:
“[My father] led peregrinaciones (pilgrimages), not just marches. At the head of the peregrinacions was a standard of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Masses were celebrated during union conventions and other union functions. His fasts were not hunger strikes (political acts to get someone to do something); his fasts first and foremost were directed at himself. They were acts of penitence in the Catholic tradition…for what he perceived to be his shortcomings as a leader,” said the civil rights leader’s son, who is President of the Cesar Chavez Foundation in Keene, Calif.
He said his father’s vision was much bigger than better wages, hours and working conditions. In the 1980s, Chavez and the Rev. Chris Hartmire wrote a Prayer for the Farm Workers that still guides the United Farm Workers and the Cesar Chavez Foundation. It’s not solely for the farm workers, either, his son pointed out. It’s also for others, because Chavez was convinced that God is present in every person and that non-violence was more successful than violence. “He would say, ‘When you practice non-violence, then you are in control of the fight, instead of reacting to attacks from your opposition.” He saw violence as a shortcut for angry, frustrated people,” and Chavez didn’t believe in shortcuts.
“My father also understood that grape strikers were not just struggling for better wages and conditions; they were really struggling for respect. He knew that violence might scare the growers into concessions but it would never earn their respect,” Paul Chavez explained.
During his first long fast, Chavez prayed and reflected on his own actions and shortcomings. He lost 35 pounds in 25 days, but as followers saw his suffering, the younger Chavez said, “they asked themselves, ‘If he’s willing to die for his beliefs, what more am I willing to do?’” The talk of violence stopped, and the grape strikers kept sacrificing for two and a half years. The boycott persuaded the growers to sign their first union contracts in 1970 and established the first enduring farm workers’ union in U.S. history.
Cesar Chavez firmly believed that real change would never come unless farm workers took personal responsibility for building their own union. He declared that how workers used their lives would determine what kind of men they were. “The truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice,” his son quoted him as saying. “To be a man is to struggle for others. God help us to be men.”
A Catholic, Chavez drew inspiration from African American Protestant church services with their enthusiastic singing and clapping, as well as from the Southern civil rights movement’s songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” and the Catholic Cursillo Movement. The farm workers used a variety of art forms to enliven the spirit of their movement and to celebrate life. Paul Chavez recalled that his father fostered a community in which thousands joined him to work for social justice and to live out the principles of nonviolence, self-sacrifice and service.
He moved the union headquarters from Delano, Calif., to a place he christened Nuestra Señora de la Paz (Our Lady, Queen of Peace) on 187 acres in Keene, in the mountains near Bakersfield. It offered Chavez and many others a place of peace where they could rest and renew themselves for later battles. He invited the Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, actor Anthony Quinn and Mexican singer Cornelio Reyna to speak to the community.
Paul Chavez recalled that his father maintained relationships with Catholic and Protestant organizations that organized people around things other than money, such as Catholic religious orders, the Bruderhof Christian sects who served the poor, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and Hare Krishna communities.
“My father understood the strength of community,” the younger Chavez commented. “When people work and eat together, it can be very powerful. At La Paz, people drew strength from one another and lived their lives for a common cause,” he said. Today, countless U.S. communities honor Cesar Chavez with schools and streets named for him, and 11 states include his birthday as an official holiday. In 1994, Chavez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
Several years ago, a movement began to put forward Chavez for sainthood.
Below is the prayer the late activist composed for farm workers — which, as noted, could be a prayer for us all.
Show me the suffering of the most miserable, so I will know my people’s plight;
Free me to pray for others, for you are present in every person;
Help me to take responsibility for my own life, so that I can be free at last;
Grant me courage to serve others, for in service there is true life;
Bring forth song and celebration, so that the Spirit will be alive among us;
Let the Spirit flourish and grow, so that we will never tire of the struggle;
Let us remember those who have died for justice, for they have given us life;
Help us love even those who hate us, so we can change the world.
By Cesar Chavez
UPDATE: A number of readers have also pointed out another side to Chavez. From one report in 2013:
Think Mexican posted a link Wednesday to video of a 1972 televised interview with United Farm Workers union co-founder Cesar Chavez to its Facebook and Twitter accounts. In it, Chavez calls undocumented immigrants hired to break a strike, “wetbacks” and “illegals.”
“As long as we have a poor country bordering California, it’s going to be very difficult to win strikes,” Chavez says in the interview.
Discussing a strike against a gas and oil company, he then says: “All of a sudden yesterday morning, they brought in 220 wetbacks — these are the illegals — from Mexico.”
A 1969 article in the Lodi News-Sentinel quotes Dolores Huerta, who helped found the UFW with Chavez, using the term. “There is a detention camp for wetbacks at Coachella from where they’re (wetbacks) (sic) taken out every day to work in the fields,” one article says.
The term “wetback” has multiple connotations for Latinos, as The Los Angeles Times points out. While generally regarded in English as a pejorative term for undocumented immigrants — particularly Mexican and Central American farm workers — Latinos in the border area often use the Spanish equivalent, “mojado,” without malice.
The term originated to describe people who cross the Rio Grande into the United States, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Chavez, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, is generally viewed as a pioneering Latino civil rights leader who helped secure historic gains for people toiling in the fields. President Barack Obama named March 31 Cesar Chavez Day in 2011 and Google honored his memory with a doodle on Sunday, sparking controversy since the day fell on Easter.
But many also criticize the labor leader’s early attitude toward undocumented immigrants, whom Chavez sometimes viewed as a threat to unions because employers often recruited them as scabs.