This March 31 will mark the 87th birthday of Migrant Farmer and Human Rights advocate the late Cesar Chavez. He along with Dolores Huerta founded what became the United Farm Workers union (UFW) which gives migrant farm workers in the US a voice and seeks to improve working conditions and fair pay. Although conditions are still harsh they were even more harsh prior to Chavez and Huerta forming the UFW union. In those days before the UFW migrant farm workers were little more than America’s slave class. Most of the workers were from Mexico or other Latino nations but some were born and raised in the US and were US citizens. Abuses and low pay were common and if a worker complained about conditions or pay he/she was simply fired and replaced. Entire families worked the farms hand-picking peas and lettuce in the winter, cherries and beans in the spring, corn and grapes in the summer, and cotton in the fall. Chavez knew the work firsthand as he himself worked in the fields with his family in California. Chavez quit school during the 7th grade and served for 2 years in the US Navy. He was an US citizen born in Yuma, Arizona.
Cesar Chavez Day is celebrated March 31 in California, Colorado, and Texas. Communities in other states also celebrate the day as will Tucson, Arizona this month in commemoration of Chavez. However, the holiday is not a federal holiday even though President Obama declared March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day.
Chavez tried to organize Hispanics and get them to vote in local and national elections. He also focused on police brutality against migrant farmers and gave numerous speeches concerning worker’s rights across the country.
I heard and met Chavez a couple of times. He was a simple and humble man with true compassion for his fellow-man. He was sincere in his efforts to stop the abuses against migrant farmers and in his work to improve working conditions and fair pay. His was an attempt to liberate migrant farmers from the slavery they endured. He was a true humanitarian.
Some people did not like Cesar Chavez. Growing up in a mixed race family I heard many harsh comments expressed against him primarily from the side of the family that was non-Hispanic. Those comments were most often prejudice and some were outright racist comments. Sadly, most of those comments lacked any real understanding at all of what Chavez was trying to do and persons making those comments didn’t even understand the harsh conditions migrant farmers were forced to endure. One non-Hispanic relative was very outspoken about Chavez and even sneered when he appeared on local news programs. This person consistently referred to him as a “Wet Back” and when I tried several times to enlighten them about the fact he was born in Yuma, AZ my explanation was passed off as “so what.” Racism, prejudice, and hatred are horrible things and the ignorance and misinformation that usually surrounds these things is blinding. This relative would catch any opportunity they could to make racist anti-Hispanic comments and usually they were directed towards me with a sneer as the relative knew full well that I was half Hispanic on my mother’s side.
I finally came to the conclusion that this relative of mine was absolutely numb and dumb. Trying to educate this person about Chavez and migrant farm worker conditions was a lost cause as this person didn’t want to know the truth nor did they want to understand. They had already made up their mind and, sadly, chose to be racist and hateful based on the lack of facts and misinformation. This person used to really bother me and we had some pretty big arguments at times but eventually I stopped even giving this person the time of day as I knew trying to educate them with facts was worthless. Hate and prejudice had already eaten up their mind and that is normally what hate and prejudice do. When you chose to hate it normally ends up that your hate does more damage to you as a person than to anyone else.
I admired Cesar Chavez growing up and for me he was one of the few male Hispanic role models around in those days. His tactic was one much like that employed by Gandhi because Chavez employed non-violent protests, strikes, and boycotts. Passive resistance is something both he and Gandhi understood and used effectively. Although he could be very focused in his speeches he never encouraged migrant farmers to riot or do harm to anyone. He took a stance and he stuck to it. When he took on a cause he pursued it with everything in him. He was dedicated to improving the plight of his fellow-man and in that we can all learn a lot from his life example no matter what our race is.
Chavez gave a voice to a people who had no voice prior to his work. Up until that time migrant farmers were America’s new slave race. Many times entire families worked in the fields and for very little money. Some farm owners treated the migrant farmers well while others did not. Some were abusive and there were even instances when some were killed or disappeared never to be seen again. Migrant farmers handpicked crops in often harsh conditions. In summer they worked under the blazing sun and in winter they worked in nearly freezing temps. Almost all of these people were very poor and almost all were exploited in various ways although they were just trying to earn a living. The work hours were long, often from sun rise to sun set. I remember seeing some of them work even in the rain and hot desert sun. To them Chavez was a hero. He gave them a voice and showed them how to stand united and improve their conditions. For that he is to be admired as is any other human being who improves the lot of people.
This March 31 I will remember Chavez and what he worked to accomplish. I will also remember him as one of my Hispanics role models which were few in those days. But more than anything I will give thanks for him for giving a voice to a people who had no voice as there is nothing more noble than that no matter what race one is.