¡SI, SE PUEDE! (Yes, it can be done!) Remembering Civil Rights Leader Cesar Chavez

chavez

Today is Cesar Chavez’ birthday. It is a state holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas.  In 2011, President Obama designated March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day, although it is not an official federal holiday. But most Americans today know very little about this Latino civil rights leader. In fact, last year when Google designed a “doodle” to commemorate his birthday (which happened to coincide with Easter that year), it received a surprising backlash by users who felt he was not worthy of a doodle, that he should not have been recognized on a day that Christians devote to recalling the sacrifice of Christ, and some who simply out of ignorance confused him with the now-deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.  But who is Cesar Chavez? What legacy has he left us? As Director of Latin American & Latino/a Studies and Assistant Professor of Sociology here at Lewis, I am devoting my very first blog to bringing to you this piece of American history that you may not know much about.

The 1960s are known for the Civil Rights movement in the United States. While the activities of African-American activists have remained in our cultural memory, less is recalled about the struggles of Latinos during the same period. In 1962, Cesar Chavez, along with Dolores Huerta, founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers of America) and led a strike of California grape pickers seeking a fair wage and decent working conditions for their labor in the fields. In 1966, Chavez and Huerta led farm workers on a 300-mile(!) march from the fields of rural Delano, California, to the state capitol in Sacramento. They arrived on the steps of the capitol on Easter Sunday (yes, Easter!) accompanied by the original 70 marchers, plus supporters numbering near 10,000, including Catholic priests and nuns, rabbis, Protestant ministers, and more. The farmworkers’ journey was both political and spiritual. The marchers arrived at their destination holding high a banner emblazoned with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the NFWA’s symbol of an eagle before a red background. He is quoted as saying, “And if this spirit grows within the farm labor movement, one day we can use the force that we have to help correct a lot of things that are wrong in this society.”

Dedicated to non-violent protest, Chavez also assisted and inspired movements across the country seeking economic and political justice for farmworkers and for Latinos.  In 1968, he fasted for 25 days to express his dedication to the principle of non-violence. He broke that fast in the company of Robert F. Kennedy, a strong supporter of Chavez’ and Huerta’s efforts.  In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Chavez, also recognizing their shared goals and vision for the country. He wrote, “You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”

Chavez’ and Huerta’s legacy continues among those still seeking social, political and economic justice in our country today.  In our current era of increasing inequality and unequal access to resources and opportunities, Civil Rights activists like Chavez and Huerta, along with King and others of that period, serve to remind us that the fight is worth fighting and even against seemingly impossible odds for change: “¡SI, SE PUEDE!” Yes, it is possible!

I encourage the Lewis community to learn more about this inspirational civil rights leader by attending the new film, Chavez, opening this week in theaters around the country. The film stars Michael Peña (American Hustle, End of Watch, Million Dollar Baby) as Chavez and Rosario Dawson (Seven Pounds, Eagle Eye, Rent) as Huerta. You can also click the links below for additional sources.

http://www.biography.com/people/cesar-chavez-9245781

https://www.pbs.org/itvs/fightfields/cesarchavez.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/25/cesar-chavez-martin-luther-king-jr_n_3813214.html

http://religionandpolitics.org/2012/06/18/california-a-dreamer-walks-with-cesar-chavez/#sthash.bdjIotrY.dpuf

One thought on “¡SI, SE PUEDE! (Yes, it can be done!) Remembering Civil Rights Leader Cesar Chavez

  1. Mike Cunningham
    March 31, 2014 at 10:05 am

    Yes, see the film….it’s a reasonably good biopic….Also take a look at the Chapter on CC in Richard Rodriquez’s Darling, a book that I blogged about. As a Mexican-American essayist, he has a rather complicated take on “Saint Caesar.”

    If you’re a mainstream Democrat, you’ll like the way that the film criticizes Nixon – for enabling boycotted grapes to be shipped to markets in Europe and to be sold to the military….and Reagan, who, when asked about the farm workers drive to unionization, called their efforts “immoral.”

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