‘¡Sí, Se Puede!’ “Yes, It can be done!” (yes we can), has been borrowed to be Obama's slogan.
Cesar Estrada Chavez was born near Yuma, Arizona on 31 March 1927. Chavez’s family were cheated out of their home and ended up as migrant farm laborers in California. He became a community organiser and eventually founded, with Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which became the United Farm Workers (UFW).
In 1966 there was a strike of grape pickers and a 340 mile march, from Delano to Sacramento, from the fields to the state capital. In front of all his marches there was the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a pilgrimage for justice. The strike lasted five years and people were asked to boycott grapes. There followed government investigations and legislation. Senator Bobby Kennedy became an ally, and friend, to Cesar Chavez.
More strikes, more organising, Tejas, Wisconsin and Ohio. He fasted for the cause. Later, he protested the use of pesticides on grapes. Higher wages, better, safer and healthier conditions through peaceful action to attain these modest goals was his mission. Even before, this active work for labor, citizen and political rights, he became an enthusiast of Saint Francis of Assisi and Mohandas Gandhi. A Father Donald McDonnell* introduced catholic social and labor literature to Cesar starting in 1952, in San Jose. Before the UFW, Cesar was a member of the Community Service Organization, and then the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee.
By the early ’70s there was much success for the movement. Counter-resistance was organised, by the fascist power structure: the landowners, police forces, moneyed power, their political representatives — the Republican party. Bringing in strikebreakers from across the border being a favorite and successful tactic. This created a lower payed and more pliable workforce than unionised, citizen labor.
“Oh, the grape boycott? Well, I’ve classified it in the past as immoral. And I think it is.” — Ronnie Reagan, 1968.“A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride ... When people see it they know it means dignity.”
Chavez showed that peacefully, united people could win. Fasting was both a spiritual practice, and an active practice, as was marching and speaking.
Cesar Chavez died on the night/morning of 22-23 April 1993 near where he was born. During that last day, he was at a frivolous, yet expensive lawsuit trial where a California grower was suing for boycott damages, sustained in California, but in an Arizonan court friendly to moneyed interests.“A fast is first and foremost personal. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind, and soul. The fast is also a heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all those who work beside me in the farm worker movement. The fast is also an act of penance for those in positions of moral authority and for all men and women activists who know what is right and just, who know that they could and should do more. The fast is finally a declaration of noncooperation with supermarkets who promote and sell and profit from California table grapes.”
Chavez was married with eight children, and he was a fervent, believing and practicing Catholic. Cardinal Roger Mahoney presiding at his funeral, said Cesar was “a special prophet for the worlds’ farm workers.” A cause may be opened up for him one day. The Bishop of Monterey, California, Richard Garcia may be supportive of the idea. And there will be celebrated the 8th Annual César Chávez Mass this Sunday, April 6th, 2008 at 3:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California.
“Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak... Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.”
“We maintain that you cannot really be effective in anything you are doing if you are so loaded with violence that you cannot think rationally about what you have to do. We know that violence works. I’m not going to say it doesn’t work. Total violence still works and is working many places. I disagree that it has long-lasting good results. I disagree with that. But violence works only when it’s total violence, and non-violence works only when it’s total non-violence. And you can’t have anything in between.”
“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”
“If you want to remember me, organize!”
“Who gets the risks? The risks are given to the consumer, the unsuspecting consumer and the poor work force. And who gets the benefits? The benefits are only for the corporations, for the money makers.”
“I had a dream that the only reason the employers were so powerful was not because they in fact had that much power, in terms of dealing with the lives of their workers at will, but what made them truly powerful was that we were weak. And if we could somehow begin to develop some strength among ourselves, I felt that we could begin to equal that, balancing their power in agriculture. ”
“From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.”
“We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure.”
“We shall strike. We shall organise boycotts. We shall demonstrate and have political campaigns. We shall pursue the revolution we have proposed. We are sons and daughters of the farm workers’ revolution, a revolution of the poor seeking bread and justice”.
“...when the farm workers strike and their strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike. And, for over 30 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has looked the other way and assisted in the strikebreaking. I do not remember one single instance in 30 years where the Immigration Service has removed strikebreakers. . . .The employers use professional smugglers to recruit and transport human contraband across the Mexican border for the specific act of strikebreaking.”
“The whole idea of the union, it’s not only the union, but it represents, together with you and me, all our brothers, Chicano and white and black and everything, represents an idea that poor people can get together and win. Because they, if we build a union in agriculture today, the balance of power is going to turn around, because, in the rural areas, the growers have undisputed power, and the fight is to keep the workers from organizing so they could equal that. If we could organize the workers, without interruptions from the Teamsters Union, I bet you in 5, 6 years, we will be electing state legislators from the rural area, we’ll be electing judges, we’ll be electing city councilmen, and those workers will be taking hold of governmental agencies through their organization. That’s the fight. Because the moment the worker gets a union and feels secure with his job and his income, what is the next step that he thinks of? Automatically he thinks about politics. ”
*“Father McDonnell sat with me past midnight telling me about social justice and the Church’s stand on farm labor and reading from the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII in which he upheld labor unions. I would do anything to get the Father to tell me more about labor history. I began going to the bracero camps with him to help with Mass, to the city jail to talk with prisoners...”
noto bene: John Steinbeck, in 1936, released In Dubious Battle, about a strike in the California apple orchards. Compare the settings and contrast the socialist Jim Nolan’s devotion to the cause and his fate, to that of Cesar Chavez’s. The cause of the workers was as desperate, but the motivation of the organisers was different. Chavez’s starting point was christian witness in fellowship, though their opponents were on the same page.