The Real Legacy of César Chávez

Date Put forth on January 15, 2007 by XicanoPwr
Category Posted in César Chávez, Civil Rights, Immigration, Nativism, Propaganda, Racism, Raza, UFW, Uncategorized


I am compelled to write this post because I can no longer stay silent on one of the greatest injustices being done towards César Estrada Chávez – the greatest leader for la causa of his generation, next to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. I cannot let this travesty continue.

César Chávez made the ultimate sacrifice to make America a better place. Chávez stood for equality, justice, and dignity for everybody. His motto “s? se puede” embodies the uncommon and invaluable legacy he left for the world’s benefit. He, like Martin Luther King Jr, wanted America to become a place where people of all races would be able to get along and live together.

Currently, the aims of the Natavists is to debunk Chávez’s character, by denying his status as a crusader for nonviolent social change, spreading tales of being the first to form a Minuteman type project and alleging to beat up undocumented immigrants. Last year in The American Conservative, a magazine started by Pat Buchanan, Steve Sailer wrote an article comparing César Chávez and racist anti-immigration group the Minutemen.

Like today’s Minutemen, UFW staffers under the command of Chavez’s brother Manuel patrolled the Arizona-Mexico border to keep out illegal aliens. Unlike the well-behaved Minutemen, however, Chavez’s boys sometimes beat up intruders.

To prove this is accurate information, Sailor quotes a 1997 article written by Ruben Navarrette Jr. in the Arizona Republic (August 31, 1997):

“Cesar Chavez, a labor leader intent on protecting union membership, was as effective a surrogate for the INS as ever existed. Indeed, Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union he headed routinely reported, to the INS, for deportation, suspected illegal immigrants who served as strikebreakers or refused to unionize.”

This is nothing more but a slap in the face which goes to show how comfortable Nativists are in having us believe they are really honoring Chávez, while taking actions that go against every principle he stood for. They truely stand against any political or economic approach which seeks to provide true opportunity and genuine dignity to all people. I am fully aware that this post runs the risk of being viewed as an apologists for the Chávez. But I cannot help but question Navarrette’s facts contained in the his column that was pointed out by HispanicPundit. In my view, Navarrette lacks the facts and is playing the blame game on other people instead of backing it up with true facts. The problems is, many need to believe in this fiction in order to keep feeling good about themselves, and will most likely resent anyone who dares to show them the truth. They will all deny the evidence even as it is being presented to them. Sadly, our society has become a society of ostriches.

One of the common Nativist tricks is to pit one group of people against another. It is a fact, one of Chávez’s obstacles where the tactics that the California farmers used to depress wages by pitting one group of people against another. In fact, this tactics are stilling being used today. What is NOT a fact, Chávez was NEVER against the undocumented. Peter Matthiessen describes how the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 was used to undermine Chávez’s efforts and how Chávez handled the situation in a NON-VIOLENT manner. Matthiessen writes:

Under the law, no green-carder is supposed to work in a field where a labor dispute has been certified, but enforcement has been desultory, to say the least, and although almost half of the members of Chavez’s union are not United States citizens, many Mexicans have become strikebreakers. As long as farm workers are excluded from the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, they have no legal means of forcing employers to negotiate. When their strike was subverted by imported scabs and anti-picketing injunctions, they resorted to what the growers call an “illegal and immoral” boycott.

Chavez said that many of the green-carders, and especially those who intend to return to Mexico, felt they could do better than the union wage scale by working furiously for non-union growers on a piecework basis; others refused to join the union out of ignorance, they had never heard of a union, or out of fear of reprisal. “Out at Schenley, we have a contract there now, there was a guy named Danny,” Chavez said. “Danny was so anti-union that he went to the management and said, ‘Give me a gun. I’ll go out and kill some of those strikers.’ He just hated us, and he didn’t know why. He was working inside when we came with the picket line, and I guess he felt guilty about not joining us, so he went too far. And also, he told me later, “I didn?t know what a union was. I never heard of a union?I had no idea what it was or how it worked. I came from a small village down in Mexico.’ You see? It’s the old story. He was making more money than he had ever seen in Mexico, and the union was a threat. Anyway, we won there, and all the guys who went out on strike, they got their jobs back. And, man, they wanted to clean house, and they wanted to get Danny, and I said no. ‘Well, he doesn’t want to join the union,’ they said. ‘And if he doesn’t join the union, he can’t work here.’ And so I challenged them. I said, ‘One man threatens you’ Do you know what the real challenge is? Not to get him out but to get him in. If you are good organizers, you will get him, but you’re not…you’re lazy!’ So they went after him, and the pressure began to build against him. He was mad as hell. He held out for three months, and he was encouraged by the Anglos’the white guys. They had the best jobs … mechanics and all … and they didn’t want to join the union, either. But finally Danny saw the light, and they did, too. It took about six months before we actually got down to negotiating a contract after we won the election, and by the time we got around to setting up a negotiating committee Danny had not only been converted but been elected to the committee.

True, there were some members of the UFW who had different views than César, but to pin their views on Chávez is illogical. It is as illogical to claim the actions of a white supremacy group as being representative of the entire white society or the criminal actions of a few immigrants being attributed to every immigrant. César has time and time again curtailed the actions of those who advocated for violence. His demand for non-violence has never wavered, he has always believed that that whatever gains that were made through violence, ultimately be destroyed. The truth is, the Nativist have turned his love for his union which he felt he was responsible for their acts into some wet dream.

To advocate violence would totally go against his commitment to non-violence and to show his commitment, it was his reason for fasting. Matthiessen writes:

Everywhere he had gone, the militant groups that supported him or sought his support had been talking about the violence that was being planned for the summer of 1968, and in Delano his own people were rivaling the growers with loose talk about quick solutions….Perhaps a little burning in Delano, or an explosion or two, might force the growers to negotiate. Chavez could not deny this. “If we had used violence, we would have won contracts long ago,” he once told me, “but they wouldn’t be lasting, because we wouldn?t have won respect.” Depressed, he decided on the fast as a kind of penance for the belligerence that had developed in his own union.

I have spent countless hours researching on this issue because one my biggest fear is some of the sources used adds to the potential for gullible people to be taken in by half-truths and revisionist versions of history. Now that this half-truths exist on the Internet there is a large potential to spread misinformation to a wide audience year after year.

I will not deny that much of what Navarrette is credit for is disturbing. All across the city and perhaps the country, people are now questioning their support of the UFW, not only in recent years but also in the past. In hushed voices they express their sadness and anger at having been “misled.”

Tearing down of our leaders is nothing new in a country that is obsessed with examining human failings and putting them on display for the world to see. It is a travesty, when we allow them to completely overshadow the sacrifice and hard work that may have done. This week marks the beginning of a national celebration to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet there are some today, who are also determine to drag the legacy of the man through the mud in a way that will undermine the greater good achieved by this extraordinary man.

I will repeat, César has represented more [tag]undocumented workers[/tag] than anyone in the country and his 1969 march was NOT a march against the undocumented it was about strike breakers. The ONLY thing he was against was strike breakers, documented or undocumented.

Today, we are the guardians of his legacy, it is up to us to honor César Chávez to protect and enhance the future of today and tomorrow’s immigrants. Discredit him, it is us who will harm the future of the Latino community and will provide the opportunities for others to keep our people down or gain power at Chávez’s expense. César told Matthiessen that the reactionaries were always better organizers. “The right has a lot of discipline that the left lacks. The left always dilutes itself. Instead of merging to go after the common enemy, the left splinters, and the splinters go after one another. Meanwhile, the right keeps after its objective, pounding away, pounding away.” It is true today as it was true back then.

No one should deny the impact the [tag]César Chávez[/tag], Dolores Huerta, and the [tag]UFW[/tag] have had on creating a movement that has led people to become dedicated to improving the lots of people less fortunate; [tag]Latinos[/tag], African Americans, Asians, whites, and others. And because of this, I will fight tooth and nail to protect the legacy of César Chávez against any nativist pundit who continues to spin César for their racist agenda.

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9 Comments

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  1. Gravatar Icon Nezua Limón Xolografik-Jonez Jan 16th, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    This is a great post, XP. Thanks for taking the time to set the record straight. Another post I have to link to.

  2. Gravatar Icon el_longhorn Jan 16th, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Very good post. You truly honor someone by critically examining their life, not with simple adoration.

    My take:

    Chavez was a union organizer for farmworkers, first and foremost. He was the leader of the UFW, a young organization that had to prove itself. UFW’s strikes and other actions against the growers were being strategically undermined by the growers in cooperation with the Border Patrol…the Border Patrol was letting groups of undocumented Mexican immigrants come through for use as strikebreakers by targeted farms. Chavez opposed the use Mexican immigrants in this manner. I don’t see that as a blanket opposition to Mexican immigration or immigration in general. This was a man in the heat of battle opposing the use of immigration as a weapon agsint the UFW.

    Granted, many unions at the time were virulently anti-immigrant (that most unions are pro-immigrant today is one of the major policy shifts that I have seen in my young life). But Chavez and the UFW were also involved in a struggle against racism toward Mexicans in general, and Chavez was smart enough to see the divide and conquer attempt. He knew that any potential civil rights gains were vulnerable to attack as “giveaways” to “mexican wetbacks”.

  3. Gravatar Icon Professor Zero Jan 16th, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Important and key – and great summing up, el_longhorn – and
    I haven’t seen analysis this good on the news.

  4. Gravatar Icon HispanicPundit Jan 17th, 2007 at 12:07 am

    A couple of points of agreement – I agree that Chavez himself, as opposed to others intimately involved in his cause, never used violence. I also agree that Chavez would not have endorsed or approved of such acts. So on his non-violence, I think all reasonable people can agree his credentials are rock solid. I also agree that he did a lot for union immigrants, and had their interests genuinely in mind. On this there is no disagreement.

    As far as immigration goes, however, things are different. You write, “The ONLY thing he was against was strike breakers, documented or undocumented” well that’s the rub, I would phrase it another way, I would have wrote, “The ONLY thing he was for was union workers, documented or undocumented”. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

    Remember, unions were strongly anti-immigration at his time, they have only recently shifted for political reasons, but their interests have always, and are still, at odds with immigration interests in general. So to be against ‘strike breakers’, or ‘scabs’, as Chavez and his friends would have certainly referred to them, is to be against immigration itself, or do you think the rich white guy down the street, or the young black person next door would have been the most likely scabs? Chavez learned early on that immigrants coming across the border, “out of ignorance—they had never heard of a union—or out of fear of reprisal”, or out of necessity, would not give up pay and working conditions that were significantly higher than what they were used to back home to placate the needs of, what I am sure looked to them, richer spoiled immigrants already in the United States.

    Okay, Chavez initially tried to convert the recently arrived immigrants, fine, but when he learned that many would not succumb, he turned to immigration in general. This is exactly as Navarrette said, when he wrote, “Worried that the hiring of illegal immigrants drove down wages, Chavez — according to numerous historical accounts — instructed union members to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to report the presence of illegal immigrants in the fields and demand that the agency deport them. UFW officials were even known to picket INS offices to demand a crackdown on illegal immigrants.” You say he did so to improve the lives of immigrants in the United States, I say he did so to improve the lives of union members in the United States, but the historical facts themselves are not in dispute – Chavez did instruct union members to call the INS on immigrants who did not heed his demands.

    I grant that Chavez did a lot for union farm workers – that is not in dispute. What I am saying here is that he did a lot for union farm workers at the expense of immigrants. And because of such, Chavez is not an immigrant’s hero, nor is he a Latinos hero, properly speaking, Chavez is a union hero, and as such, his glory rises or falls on the glory of unions in general. Since I don’t think unions do much good in the long run (and in fact do much harm, see here and here), I give Chavez his props for what he did for farm workers then while also taking into account the harm he caused and it stops there.

  5. Gravatar Icon brownfemipower Apr 11th, 2007 at 7:08 am

    i came over here because of your comments at nez’s.

    in regards to the internet disbursement of material regarding Chavez, since I heard about this whole subject (which I heard about through vivir latino, btw), I have been looking all over the internet, and everything from wikipedia to vivir latino to joe schmoe with radom internet site has some type of commentary on this.

    I’m glad you’re posting stuff.

  6. Gravatar Icon Sara Oct 23rd, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Not all those who want to secure our borders are racists. I will give you that some may be, but for the most part, they are true-blue patriotic Americans of many races who seek only the good of our citizens first. When our own (the American people) are given their due, if there is anything left over for those who seek to make the United States their permanent home, as law abiding citizens, fine. Most people have no problem with law-abiding immigrants who enter legally. Every native-born citizen must obey the laws of our country; it is not too much to require that those seeking to move into our HOME to do the same. Come in the legal way and you are welcome. Break our laws, and you are NOT welcome in OUR HOME. If what you say about Mr. Chavez is true, I applaud your speaking out. No one should have their character tarnished with lies or be misused as a platform for any parties’ gains. On the other hand, parties that state they are doing the work of people like Dr. King and Mr. Chaves yet encourage racist views and violent towards other races are just as bad…probably worse.

  7. Gravatar Icon Not a Latino Nov 17th, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Cesar only opposed strike breakers (?)and this is all well and good, but what do you think our economy (by “our” I mean Latinos as well as white citizens) is based on? The prosperity here comes from decent wages. With a huge supply of labor and decreasing jobs, YOU are all going to be negatively affected too. The issue isn’t discrimination, its about NUMBERS. Quality of life decreases for EVERYONE, with unchecked illegal immigration. Every country in the world has immigration laws and controls. A given land mass can only support so much population and then it turns into a ratrace of survival behavior. Take a look at Mexico city. This is exactly what will happen to Los Angeles if the borders are opened. If you think this is only about white people, then why don’t you all go and live in Mexico City then, because the idea of open borders and reconquista is going to recreate exactly the situation all of your parents and grandparents left Mexico to get away from. Your race “demands” equality? Then work your asses off to support all those mexicans who come in and have no skills to earn a living, or do have skills and drive down wages for jobs YOU hold, because the people here who created freedom and the constitution, which was NOT created in Mexico by any of you, wasn’t created by any of you third generation whiners and complainers either who “demand” what? You and your parents didn’t create what we have here, so how is it you feel you have the “right” to demand ownership? You can have the deserts, because that is all that was here when Mexico lost it in a fair WAR. Mexico was defeated by small numbers of US soldiers, because Mexican presidents took all the money in the country to line their own pockets. So go back to that barren land and DEMAND that your own presidents give you freedom, equality and land. Stupid people do not see that revolutions have not solved anything ever in any Latin American country. They just put new dictators in place. , which is a system that has never brought prosperity to anyone. Take your backwards thinking back to mexico.
    Open borders? If it gets to that, you’re going to wonder why you ever wanted them in YOUR backyard to begin with.

  8. Gravatar Icon Trent Sorenson Feb 19th, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    I read your article on Cesar Chavez, and it shows that Hispanics do not know their own history. Cesar Chavez was against illegal immigration. Chavez, making a statement to the Subcommittee On Labor Of The Senate Committee on April 16, 1969, stated that: “Our potential competition appears almost unlimited as thousands upon thousands of green carders pour across the border during peak harvest seasons. These are people who, though lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence, have not now, and probably never had, any bona fide intention of making the United States of America their permanent home. They come here to earn American dollars to spend in Mexico where the cost of living is lower. They are natural economic rivals of those who become American citizens or who otherwise decide to stake out their future in this country. In abolishing the bracero program, Congress has but scotched the snake, not killed it. The program lives on in the annual parade of thousands of illegal and green carders across the United States-Mexico border to work in our fields. To achieve law and order in any phase of human activity, legislators must pay need to other laws not made by man, one of which is the economic law of supply and demand. We are asking Congress to pay heed to this law in the light of some hard facts about farm labor supply along our southern border. Otherwise, extension of NLRA coverage to farm workers in that part of the country will not produce much law and order. What we ask is some way to keep the illegals and green carders from breaking strikes; some civil remedy against growers who employ behind our picket lines those who have entered the United States illegally, and, likewise those green carders who have not permanently moved their residence and domicile to the United States” (Chavez 8). Chavez, in this statement, explicitly felt that illegal immigration produces economic competition towards American citizens, illegals have NO INTENTION of wanting to become American citizens, breaking Untied Farm Workers strikes, and that big Agricultural companies should be penalized for hiring them. This pretty much debunks everything you have written. Also, the incident where Manuel Chavez and other UFW farm-workers beat up illegals crossing the border is true. See page 244, in book Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval. Also, on page 244 of this book, Cesar defended his brother’s actions, however, Cesar was not involved in this incident. He was, indeed, a peacful guy, not wanting people to result to violence to solve the illegal immigration problem. Also, in the book Fight in the Fields, Chavez’s lawyer, Jerry Cohen, said: “…we [or Chavez and Cohen] wanted immigration laws enforced…” (Ferriss and Sandoval 243). So, the idea that Chavez wanted open borders is a fallacy. He wanted border security and using him as a symbol for May-day marches is a disgrace to his legacy.

    Trent Sorenson

  9. Gravatar Icon Mario Aug 2nd, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Cesar accomplished many things during his life. Not only did he help form a very powerful and important union, he also was an important orator, a wonderful role model, a beacon of hope and strength, a good husband/father, a hard worker, a great American, fabulous writer, musician, was scientific in his observations and interactions, while being full of faith as a man of God.

    The UFW is here today because the standard set by him and those around him, continues to be high. If the Union does not cow tow to corruption, the Union shall carry on in toatal strength, not being hindered by substandard working conditions. Only through complete awareness of all human rights, can workers begin to move forward to fairness. By fully educating all members and affiliates, the Union will be made perfect. The need to lift Cesar’s voice to a higher level is essential, to educate all people equally on the importance of fair jobs and good food and wine!

    When the workers are happy, regardless if they are so called illegals (racist term), they will spread the happiness around in a certain spiritual way; in effect, through gratitude, as opposed to only hardships. Mexico has a special place in this country’s history, so to use the term “illegal” for these people is absurd. It would be akin to conquering half of Europe, building a wall, and calling them “Illegals” when they try to return, or go to a land once recently theirs. Lou Dobbs may say, well Mexico only owned the taken lands for only 35 years, almost indicating it is ok to take the lands. This is like saying, I can take your watch because you only owned it for a week! Not so. Then to call their people “illegals” is not good. Just like telling the Native children they can’t speak their own language, till they get their culture beaten out of them. Not good. If we are to remain a powerful nation, truly then we must be fair to all people. The weakest link, as in abused workers, will only break the chain, which will not be good for anyone.

    We worked the fields, we know the struggle. Some weren’t there, or have ever been in the fields, yet they have a passion to see what is humanly right.

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