HOW TO HONOR A GIANT.
This month I was going to focus on some cultural matters, but then César Chávez got in the way. Many communities recently honored César Chávez, a labor- and civil-rights icon who, Arizonans proudly point out, was born and died in Arizona.
I’m proud to have known and marched with Chávez and to have walked miles of picket lines over the years on behalf of the United Farm Workers (and other unions). Thus it was that a recent news story on NBCLatino caught my eye.
The article reported that police in Chico, California were finalizing “…plans for increased patrols on Cesar Chavez Day.” Chavez adhered to and promoted non-violence. His birthday is usually celebrated by a peaceful march or a breakfast, featuring speeches by elected officials and local leaders (many of whom, truth be told, should not be confused with bona-fide civil rights fighters).
So, why would police be strategizing “increased patrols?”
It seems that César Chávez Day has become a party day for Chico State University students, who put on sombreros and ponchos and get drunk on tequila. The Cross Cultural Leadership Club, comprised of Latino and other organizations, took offense and organized a rally and set up an information booth on campus to provide accurate information on César Chávez.
“It is just disrespectful to see how they dress up. They see it as a Halloween day or just a holiday to drink, but it is more than that,” said a CCLC member. “[Chávez] just created a better environment for workers overall,” said another Latino member of CCLC.
The CCLC folks are to be commended for standing up to those who invoke racist stereotypes to demean a true American hero. That shows courage and integrity. Where they lost me was in what they suggest people do to honor César Chávez.
Those working the César Chávez booth said they want students to embrace the true meaning of César Chávez Day and get involved with community projects such as helping clean up area parks and lending a helping hand at various charities.
To be sure, those are worthwhile things. However, César Chávez was not about promoting civic projects.
The ignorance (and I mean that in its literal sense) of the CCLC students about César Chávez and his work is a manifestation that history courses in the K-12 system do an abysmal job of teaching about Chávez and the extraordinary and historic accomplishments of the movement he led.
Chávez set out to make fundamental changes in the labor, social, and economic systems of the country—a far cry from cleaning up city parks or volunteering for the United Way.
Honoring Chávez entails more than attending breakfasts and socializing while walking in a symbolic march and listening to speeches. To truly honor Chávez is to get in the trenches of the civil-rights struggles in our respective communities.
That in turn entails standing up to injustices and doing the hard work of organizing communities, which often involves walking picket lines.
El Teatro Campesino, the UFW’s artistic appendage, wrote and recorded a song titled “El picket sign.” The song’s introduction says, “One of the most important weapons in any cause, any movement, is the picket sign.”
Frankly, I don’t know anyone who actually likes to picket. It’s hard work, and in the summer heat, the winter cold, or when it’s raining it’s mighty uncomfortable. People yell insults at you, throw rocks and other objects at you, and you risk arrest every time you hit the picket lines.
But all of that is worth it: the scores of Fridays and Saturdays that I and others picketed local stores (asking people to boycott grapes, lettuce, and certain wines) contributed to farm workers obtaining union contracts, which helped them achieve a better life.
Absent those picket lines farm workers would still be paid starvation wages, would still have pesticides sprayed on them as they worked in the fields, and their children would still be pulled out of school to work the fields.
Picket lines have also brought changes in other areas of life. In Tucson and Arizona, and elsewhere, I’m sure, Latino(a) teachers, counselors and administrators abound in our school systems and in colleges and universities. We count our college and university enrollments in multiples of thousands rather than tens. And, Latinas(os) are routinely elected to office.
We fought hard for these things—among our arsenal of weapons was the tried and true picket line.
As we speak, marches—the larger version of picket lines—for immigration reform are forcing a change in how immigration is discussed and addressed. And the Dream Act is on the verge of being passed as a result of young people eligible for the Dream Act marching and picketing in communities all over the country.
Honoring César Chávez is a year-round endeavor and is more than attending breakfasts and socializing while walking in a symbolic march. To truly honor Chávez is to get in the trenches of the civil-rights struggles in our respective communities. This may or may not entail walking picket lines, but if it does, we should do it proudly, knowing we are continuing a rich and productive tradition in our history.
Copyright 2013 by Sal Baldenegro