A proposed commemorative coin honoring Cesar Chavez is based on the false premise that Chavez was anti-immigrant.
Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar is sponsoring a bill to create a commemorative coin minted in César Chávez’s honor. Hopefully, his bill will die a quick death. Not because César Chávez doesn’t deserve recognition for his body of work but because of who is sponsoring the bill and because it’s based on a false premise.
Right-wing Congressman Paul Gosar is a racist … an anti-Semite … a pathological liar … a despicable politician who says hateful and dehumanizing things … has no character, no integrity, and no honor. And that’s only a sampling of what six of his own siblings say about him in a 2018 campaign ad, urging Arizonans to vote against him. (Source 1) In a 2021 video, three of Gosar’s siblings assert that Gosar should be held accountable – even if that means criminal charges and imprisonment – for the deadly rampage pro-Trump supporters waged on the Capitol on January 6. (Source 2)
I won’t dignify Gosar by devoting a lot of words and space to expound his views. Suffice it to say that he fervently espouses the racist, xenophobic, and inhumane views regarding immigrants and Mexicans of Donald Trump.
Gosar proposal based on false premise…
Perversely and cynically, Gosar chose César Chávez’s birthday (March 31) to falsely claim that Chávez believed that undocumented workers were the root cause of farm workers not earning a decent wage. (Source 3) Gosar’s cynical proposal alludes to the period – circa early 1970s– when Chávez and the UFW (United Farm Workers union) were fighting against the government’s importation of Mexican nationals to break the strikes that were being waged by the UFW.
Unfortunately, the false narrative that Chávez was against undocumented workers has seeped into our community, even among good people who have done, or are doing, good things on behalf of our community. Like clockwork, it tends to emerge about this time of year, close to Chávez’s birthday.
So, to set the record straight – again(!):
Chávez fought importation of strikebreakers…
Jack London’s definition of a scab: “A two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a waterlogged brain and a backbone made of jelly and glue.”
I, like virtually every Chicano Movement activist, was greatly bothered by the Chávez-undocumented workers dynamics. So I and other colleagues confronted Chávez in real time about the matter. At the time, I was an organizer at the Centro Chicano in Barrio Hollywood, the Chicano movement headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. A delegation from the Centro Chicano drove up to Phoenix, where Chávez was conducting a 25-day fast, to express to him our concerns. Chávez listened respectfully and then explained the situation, viz.:
The UFW posed an enormous threat to the growers. It was winning strikes and developing a national support base among politicians, clergy, students, unions, and others. Hiring esquiroles (scabs, strikebreakers) was becoming harder because so many farm workers were joining the union. This gave birth to an evil marriage. The growers made common cause with the Richard Nixon administration to import foreign workers to break the UFW strikes.
As any true unionist will attest, strikebreaking is anathema, no matter who is involved – families have been rendered asunder during strikes when a family member of a striking worker scabs. Not surprisingly, Chávez fought the Nixon-Grower conspiracy fiercely. He and striking farm workers even went to the border and made personal appeals to the Mexican workers to not let themselves be used as strikebreakers. And they hurled insults and nasty names and epithets on those who ignored their pleas. I’ve been on union strike picket lines and have myself yelled nasty things to scabs. This is common during strikes.
In short, Chávez’s campaign had nothing to do with being anti-immigrant. Rather, it had to do with strikebreaking and the U.S. government’s complicity in strikebreaking. To not have fought this conspiracy, Chávez believed, would have been an abdication of his responsibilities as a labor leader. And in the final analysis, that’s what Chávez was—a labor leader. Any labor leader will fight tooth and nail against the use of strikebreakers to break a strike.
In a November 27, 1974 Letter to the Editor (to the San Francisco Examiner) Chávez made it clear that he and the UFW opposed the mass deportation of undocumented workers (as was being proposed by U.S. Attorney General William Saxbe) and that he and the UFW recognized undocumented workers as “our brothers and sisters” who should be allowed into the U.S., “But they should not be used as strikebreakers.” (Source 4)
They too were demonized…
It is grossly unfair and wrong on many levels to define Chávez by that slice of his history rather than by his entire body of work. Unfortunately, the practice of defining people in our history who did great things by a single instance that some people consider bad is an old one. Consider the cases of labor-community organizers Emma Tenayuca, Luisa Moreno, and Josefina Fierro de Bright.
Emma Tenayuca was arrested for leading the Pecan Sheller’s strike of 1936.
Emma Tenayuca, of San Antonio, Texas, was moved to action by the injustices committed against Mexican Americans and Mexicans in Texas. In 1933, at age 18, Tenayuca was arrested when she led the Finch Cigar Company strike. In 1938 Tenanyuca led a strike of twelve thousand workers—almost all women—of the International Pecans Shellers Union, the first time in San Antonio’s history that Mexican women challenged pay violations, unfair production quotas, and unsanitary working conditions. Tenayuca and hundreds of strikers were arrested and beaten by police. When Tenayuca joined the Communist Party in the late 1930s, she received many death threats and was blacklisted, forcing her to leave San Antonio.
Guatemalan immigrant Luisa Moreno began her organizing career in the 1930s-1940s, while in her early 20s. On behalf of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) she organized garment workers in New York, cigar rollers in Florida, pecan shellers in San Antonio, and walnut pickers and cannery workers in California. As was common in those days, she was beaten by police and arrested while picketing.
In 1939, Moreno and Josefina Fierro de Bright (discussed below) brought together 73 organizations in El Congreso Nacional de Pueblos de Habla Hispana (National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples), the first national effort to unite Latino workers to work for civil, labor, and women rights. Moreno and Fierro de Bright were also active in the Los Angeles Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee that supported seventeen Chicano youths falsely accused of murder. At one time, Moreno joined the Communist Party and was deported in 1950 as part of “Operation Wetback,” which targeted labor leaders and political “troublemakers.”
At age 18 Mexican immigrant Josefina Fierro de Bright quit her pre-med studies at UCLA to organize against anti-Mexican American discrimination in California in the 1930s. She organized boycotts of businesses in Mexican American barrios that did not hire Mexican American workers. She also organized protests against racism in the Los Angeles schools, the exclusion of Mexican Americans from public swimming pools, and police brutality. As noted above, Fierro de Bright was a co-founder of El Congreso Nacional de Pueblos de Habla Hispana. With fellow El Congreso founder Luisa Moreno, she supported Spanish-speaking union workers in various industries and was a key figure in the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee.
Josefina Fierro de Bright was a co-founder of El Congreso Nacional de Pueblos de Habla Hispana in 1938.
Although Fierro de Bright was never a member of the Communist Party, her husband, Hollywood actor John Bright, was blacklisted in Hollywood due to allegations of having ties with the Communist Party. As she became more prominent in the community and among workers, Fierro de Bright was labeled a “communist subversive” by the California Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1948, the authorities set out to arrest and deport her, and she fled to Mexico.
Tenayuca, Moreno, and Fierro de Bright are important figures in our community’s history. César Chávez is usually credited with being the first to successfully organize agricultural workers. No doubt, Chávez did great work in organizing farmworkers and bringing their plight to the nation’s attention. But Tenayuca, Moreno, and to some extent Fierro de Bright paved the way for him, making huge sacrifices in doing so. However, for years their outstanding work was not known because they were defined by the thin slice of their “communist” ties. Fortunately, historians like Vicki Ruiz and Mario T. García and others have resuscitated these women’s work and rich legacies.
Chávez’s actions regarding the importation of strikebreakers were not ideological or philosophical. They were tactical. Organizers know that tactics are fluid, that they change as the dynamics of a situation change. Chávez should be credited for evolving – for lack of a better term – from his initial position. In the early 1970s, Chicano movement activists started pushing established organizations to support immigrant rights, and it became clear that Chavez’s position was out-of-sync with other Mexican American rights groups. This brought about a change in Chavez’s stance. (Source 5) I’m proud that our Centro Chicano delegation was part of that pushback campaign that got Chávez to change his stance.
Being human, Chávez was not perfect. He had flaws and made mistakes. To be open to change based on feedback from people with contrasting views is a plus, not a negative. Chávez’s body of work is vast and rich. He should be judged on the whole of that body of work and not just a sliver of it. c/s
Copyright 2021 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: email@example.com Photos of Cesar Chavez and Emma Tenayuca copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc. Scab graphic and photo of Josefina Fierro de Bright in the public domain.
Source 1 Mark Z. Barabak, “News Analysis: He’s their brother. They want him kicked out of Congress,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 22, 2021 [Gosar siblings Joan, Gastin, and Grace were also part of those ads.]
Source 2 Alakananda Bandyopadhyay, “Who are Paul Gosar’s siblings? Brother Tim, sisters Jennifer and Grace accuse GOP rep of sparking Capitol riots,” MEAWW News, April 2, 2021.
Source 3 “Gosar Sponsors Cesar Chavez Commemorative Coin Act,” Press Release issued by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, March 31, 2021.
Source 4 “The 1974 Letter to the Editor Where César Chávez and the UFW Promoted Amnesty and Legal Residency for Undocumented Workers,” Latino Rebels Newsletter, April 1, 2021
Source 5 Ted Hesson, “Cesar Chavez’s Complex History on Immigration: How the union leader’s views shifted over time,” ABC News, May 1, 2013.