César Chávez has been criticized for his stance in the early 1970s against the importation of Mexicans.
History instructs. History inspires. History matters. Ignoring it is problematic and causes discord. A couple of recent events bring this to mind.
One has to do with César Chávez and his hard-line stance in the early 1970s against the importation of Mexican workers to work in the fields. A member of a Listserv I subscribe to posted a critical comment about this, which generated much discussion. The consensus seemed to be that the person who criticized Chávez was either ignoring history or misinterpreting history by implying that Chávez disliked Mexicans and had animus toward them.
César Chávez was no Mexican hater…
Let’s take a stroll down history lane: The Chávez-UFW stance regarding Mexican workers was not popular with Chicano Movement activists. At that time, I was an organizer for the Centro Chicano in Tucson, a hotbed of pro-UFW activity. In May, 1972, I and a Centro Chicano delegation drove to Phoenix – where he was conducting his second public fast – to meet with Chávez and express our opposition to his Mexican-worker stance. After hearing us out, Chávez explained that:
Because it was winning strikes and developing a national urban support base, the UFW represented an enormous threat to the growers. So the growers and the Richard Nixon administration conspired to have the United States government import foreign workers, i.e., Mexicans, to break the UFW strikes that were going on.
The Nixon administration conspired to have the United States government import Mexican workers, to break the UFW strikes.
In short, Chávez’s stance centered on the U.S. government’s complicity in strikebreaking. To not have fought this conspiracy, Chávez maintained, would have been an abdication of his responsibilities as a labor leader. As a lifelong unionist (I joined my first union when I was a teenager) I know that no labor leader tolerates strikebreakers, regardless of their ethnicity.
We left the meeting with Chávez still uneasy about his stance, but we at the Centro Chicano never stopped supporting and working in behalf of the UFW, which is true also of the great majority of Chicano Movement activists. Eventually, Chávez shifted his focus elsewhere. Chavez’s stance, re: Mexican workers, was not one-dimensional. It was multi-faceted and nuanced and is well documented. It is this history that the listserv commenters believed the Chávez critic misinterpreted or ignored.
Our history is not just in books…
But our history is not just found in books or in words. It exists in buildings, parks, and other physical structures. Chicano Park in San Diego, for example. The Barrio Logan community fought hard to establish the park. That history permeates the park and resonates emotionally for the Barrio Logan residents. Ditto for Rubén Salazar Park in Los Angeles, so named after the 1970 Chicano Moratorium at which journalist Ruben Salazar was murdered by law enforcement officers. Attempts to change those designations or otherwise mess with those structures would generate a tsunami of outrage and protests.
A recent proposal sought to take the Trini Alvarez El Rio Municipal Golf Course and El Rio Neighborhood Center out of Ward 1 and place them in Ward 3.
Which brings me to a local Tucson issue in this regard. Recently, there was a proposal to take the historical landmarks of Trini Alvarez El Rio Municipal Golf Course, El Rio Neighborhood Center, and Joaquín Murrieta Park out of Ward 1 and place them in Ward 3, which has no historical or cultural connection to these landmarks. Nor even a physical connection – the Santa Cruz River, the I-10 Freeway, and the railroad tracks separate Ward 3 from the westside barrios.
The barrios beat City Hall…
Another stroll down history lane to establish context: In 1970 a Democratic Mayor and City Council promised the people of working-class Chicano Barrios Hollywood and El Rio in Tucson’s Ward 1 a neighborhood center and a park in a portion of the El Rio Municipal Golf Course. The politicos broke their promise, giving rise to a barrio movement, “El Rio for the People.” Over many months, entire families – led by the El Rio Coalition, whose backbone was a cadre of women, many of them single mothers – marched and picketed in the summer heat. We were beaten and arrested (including my good self – twice). But we won—the City built El Rio Neighborhood Center and Joaquín Murrieta Park.
The El Rio for the People movement was a defining moment in the political evolution of Tucson’s Mexican American community. We declared we would no longer tolerate lies and broken promises from politicians and no longer be sent to the back of the (political) bus! El Rio for the People established today’s neighborhood empowerment movement and changed Tucson’s political landscape.
Although Ward One is predominantly Mexican American, up through 1970 no Mexican American had been elected to the City Council from Ward One. In 1971 that changed with the election of a Mexican American Democrat to the City Council from Ward One. This seat has been in Latino/a hands since then.
In the clearest of terms: El Rio for the People is directly and solely responsible for the integration of the Ward 1 office on the City Council. Thus, Ward 1 and El Rio for the People, and what that movement created, are inextricably linked and cannot and should not be separated.
And then again…
In 2013 City Hall attempted to sell the Trini Alvarez El Rio Municipal Golf Course to developers.
In 2013 we fought City Hall again when the City attempted to sell the Trini Alvarez El Rio Municipal Golf Course to developers. The politicos tried to divide us into camps of “golfers” vs. “neighborhood people” by getting someone to attack El Rio golfers at a City Council meeting on the basis that “golf is a rich man’s sport,” which exhibited their ignorance about the history of the west side:
Yet another stroll down history lane: Barrio Hollywood and Barrio El Rio are unique in that golf culture permeates them. Before the City bought it and made it a municipal facility, El Rio was a private Country Club. During the 1950s and into the mid-1960s, virtually every young man of my generation from these two barrios (including myself) grew up caddying at El Rio. Because caddies were allowed to play golf at El Rio on Mondays (course maintenance day), golf culture permeated Barrios Hollywood and El Rio. Thus, a large percentage of people from these barrios became and are still golfers (as are their children and grandchildren). [I was an exception; I never took up the game.]
So, in Tucson’s west side, “golfers” and “neighborhood people” are often the same people. Groups such as the Mexican American Golf Association (MAGA) are based at El Rio. Many El Rio golfers grew up or live in Barrios Hollywood and El Rio and/or still have family there. Some marched, as kids, with the El Rio Coalition in 1970. Barrio Hollywood’s Cocio-Estrada American Legion Post hosts fund-raising tournaments at El Rio. The El Rio Women’s Golf Assn. is based at El Rio. These are just regular working-class, middle-class people.
To fight this attempt to destroy El Rio, longtime civil-rights warrior and former Barrio Hollywood resident Ceci Cruz founded the El Rio Coalition-II. Ceci, a co-founder of the Tucson Women’s Commission, grew up on the union picket lines – her father was one of the co-founders of the militant Mine, Mill, and Smelters Workers Union in Arizona. Under her leadership the west side beat back the politicos and saved El Rio from demolition.
We are the children of…
Driving by the El Rio Golf Course, reminds one of the 1970 struggles and evokes a strong sense of pride in the barrios’ culture.
El Rio contains powerful historical memory, symbolic value, and emotional power to people who know and respect its history—just driving by the El Rio Golf Course, where many of the 1970 battles were fought, and El Rio Neighborhood Center, and Joaquín Murrieta Park, the products of the 1970 struggle, evokes a strong sense of pride, of the barrios’ culture.
The Barrio Hollywood Neighborhood Association brought together residents of Barrio El Rio and other neighborhoods, labor unions, former and present elected officials, and the El Rio Coalition-II to fight this attempt to de-historize the west side. As a result of this barrio-based campaign, the proposal to move the above landmarks to Ward 3 was defeated. At a press conference on the issue, a young Chicana from Barrio El Rio summarized the matter eloquently:
“We are the children of those who have stood up many years ago. And we will teach our children to continue to be the voice of those unheard for years to come. And to continue to fight for what is just.
“These neighborhoods being part of the west side is not only historical but symbolic for our hard working families who reside in them. It is part of our culture.”
Indeed, history and culture matter. c/s
Copyright 2020 by Sal Baldenegro. Photos of El Rio golf course and El Rio Community Center copyrighted by barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other images in the public domain.To contact Sal write: Salomonrb@msn.com