What Would Cesar Do?
Reflecting on Cesar Chavez and all that’s been lost since his death
By Jake Armstrong 03/24/2011
The children in Cheryl Hubbard’s art class always refused to eat the grapes in their fruit salad, even as their parents spent their days toiling in the vineyards and fields under the ever-present San Joaquin Valley sun, eking out a living to support them.
At their young age, the children — mostly the offspring of migrant farm workers passing through Chowchilla in the early 1980s — probably didn’t understand their act of protest, which more than 13 million people had joined just a decade earlier.
“They would pick all of the grapes out of it. ‘No uvas.’ They knew not to eat the grapes,” recalled Hubbard, now of Pasadena.
But the students seemed to recognize the act’s importance, and one day Cesar Chavez, the man who inspired it, came to explain it to them.
For someone shouldering the struggle of millions of migrant workers, Chavez was surprisingly tranquil, Hubbard said. “He was a very humble man, a very quiet, soft-spoken guy. But he was intense at the same time because what he was trying to get across to people what he was very adamant about.”
Social justice and equality was Chavez’s devotion and demand, and Pasadena will reflect on those ideas during Saturday’s Cesar E. Chavez Commemoration and Peace Walk, ahead of marking Cesar Chavez Day on March 31.
But amid unyielding unemployment, widespread economic struggles, virulent attacks on workers’ rights and mounting concern over immigration reform, what might Chavez, who died in 1993, think of the modern age and the possibility of achieving his goals today?
Hubbard, a community activist who is now part of a local initiative aimed at curbing gang violence, said today’s youth receive too little information on Chavez and similar leaders — so little it’s cheapened their appreciation of why the struggles of the past matter today. “When you talk to these young people now, they say, ‘That happened way back then.’ They don’t realize that the things they did affect this generation,” Hubbard said. “It’s not that it’s been lost — it’s that it’s been taken for granted.”
Yuny Parada, a member of the Pasadena Latino Forum, said recent legislation to strip state workers of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin — and calls to do the same coming from legislatures in other parts of the country — are a sign that the labor rights for which Chavez and so many others worked are in regression.
“It is a disgrace that the public does not have the rights that he fought so hard for. Instead of getting improvement, we’re going backwards all because of the greed of corporations and people with money,” Parada said.
If Chavez was around today, “He would be advocating for a more equitable society,” she said, adding that the widening income gap between the country’s rich and poor, which grew even worse during the recent recession, would figure prominently on his modern-day agenda.
In fact, that income gap hit a record high last year, with 20 percent of the highest-earning Americans, or those earning more than $100,000 a year, taking in 49 percent of income generated in the US in 2009, according to US Census Bureau figures. Those below the poverty line earned only 3.4 percent of income. The poverty rate reached a 15-year high that year, at 14.3 percent.
But with the recession came lessons in sacrifice — a concept Chavez embraced through hunger strikes and selfless work — and Americans may now better understand the struggle of the less fortunate, said Randy Jurado Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social, a Pasadena-based nonprofit that advocates for social services for the Latino community.
“People fell into greed in the ‘80 and ‘90s, and even in the 2000s,” Ertll said. “But now the reality is hitting people that we’ve been privileged for a very long time. I think people are becoming a little more humane because of the personal sacrifices people have to go through because of the economy.”
Yet Hubbard said she wonders whether Chavez, born in 1927 to a family of farmers turned migrant workers by the Depression, will be one of the last prolific civil rights figures, given the lack of attention paid to his stories and others like it. “He sacrificed everything so that everyone would benefit,” she said. “The sad part about it is that there is nobody to step into his shoes, like there was nobody to step in Martin [Luther King]’s shoes, or Malcolm X’s shoes.”
Ertll questions whether someone like King or Chavez would be able to hold the same political sway today, given the often fractious nature of today’s political landscape. “They spoke the truth, and I think that creates a lot of enemies. Were they were alive, I don’t think they would be very well-regarded by many,” he said.
Chavez was also active in the forum of immigration reform. He opposed the Bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican nationals to serve as cheap labor on US farms between 1942 and 1964, because it put downward pressure on farm wages. But where Chavez might stand in today’s debate is a matter of debate itself. The apparent targeting of undocumented workers, the ever increasing number of deportations and the lack of consistent political pressure on the issue might be one area of concern, Parada said.
More than 393,000 people were deported from the US in 2009, the seventh consecutive record high, 72 percent from Mexico, the US Department of Homeland Security recently announced. “That is shameful and Obama should do something. The executive arm of the government is under his watch and he should not be letting all these deportations go on now.”
Ertll said the absence of leaders like those who inspired the civil rights movement is almost palpable, especially in the ongoing immigration debate.
“It’s very easy to demonize immigrants because when things are going bad, governments look to find scapegoats to blame for social ills, The most vulnerable get blamed for economic problems,” he said. “That’s why we need good leadership that will beyond the finger-pointing. I think now it’s more important than ever to read up on Ghandi and Cesar Chavez.”