Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America and the moral heart of the American labor movement in his lifetime, was born on March 31, 1927, on his grandfather’s small ranch in Arizona.
His remarkable life went full circle. He died on April 23, 1993, in Yuma, AZ, not far from the valley where he was born. He died as he had lived, fighting for justice for farm workers. He died after a day of testifying in a lawsuit filed in Yuma against his United Farm Workers of America by Bruce Church Company, largest lettuce grower in the world, over the lettuce boycott of UFW in California. It was the Bruce Church Company which had taken over the ranch of Cesar’s grandfather in the Depression, forcing Cesar and his family from farm owners to migrant farm workers. Cesar grew up to become the greatest nemesis of the powerful Bruce Church Company, based in Yuma.
Cesar died peacefully. He went to bed in the home of a farmworker member (he rarely slept in a motel or hotel but stayed in the humble homes of farmworkers), and just didn’t wake up. Those who attempted to awaken him in the morning for further testimony in that trial, said he fell asleep in his clothes, his shoes kicked off, a book he lying upon his chest as if he drifted off to sleep while reading. They said he had a small, serene smile on his lips.
“The angels came and took him,” a local farmworker told me when I went to Yuma as part of the UFW legal team when the trial recommenced after Cesar’s funeral in Delano, Ca.
California, Texas, and a number of other states will observe March 31 as “Cesar Chavez Day.” That is of symbolic value, since there are important lessons to be learned from the example of Cesar’s life, particularly about selfless service for others. But the practical impact is that government employees get yet another day off at taxpayer expense while the farm workers remain at work in the fields.
Like many if not most other migrant workers, many great wrongs were inflicted on Cesar in his life, not the least of which was the awful calumny first maliciously alleged by the infamous John Birch Society that Cesar Chavez was “a Communist.” It was an ugly brand which stuck for the rest of his life, and is repeated even now. It is utterly false.
For Cesar Chavez was no Communist: Cesar Chavez was a Christian, a devout Catholic who lived his Christian faith existentially, not merely rhetorically. Indeed, Cesar Chavez was man of deep, profound religious faith, whose life and whose principles were inspired by the life and precepts of Jesus Christ, who formed his great heart.
“I am convinced that the truest act of courage is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice,” Cesar Chavez wrote, expressing in a sentence both his personal credo derived from his Catholic faith, and the Christian life he lived. It is by the example of his life and his humble faith, not by any political ideology, that Cesar inspired thousands to service. It was honor it was to serve as one of his volunteer lawyers for some twenty years. I will always walk in his shadow.
Cesar Chavez never sought or held political office, nor sought personal celebrity, nor held ecclesiastical office. Yet when he died, Pope John Paul II, whom I (a non-Catholic) believe to be the greatest human being of the modern era, issued a statement from the Vatican on Cesar’s life and passing. Kings, and presidents, and potentates noted his passing. More than 50,000 Americans of all creeds, colors, and ethnicities, marched the dusty rural roads in Delano, CA, where the UFW was born to show respect and honor Cesar at his simple funeral services. He was interred in the plain, wooden coffin which his grieving brother Richard carpentered.
Cesar Chavez was posthumously awarded his country’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. It was accepted by his wife, Helen Chavez, now deceased, from then President Clinton in White House ceremonies.
Although Cesar Chavez never held any position in his church, the Catholic Church has recognized him as exemplifying living a life in Christ. More particularly, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published in 2006 the “United States Catholic Catechism for Adults.” It includes as the American exemplar of “the principles of the Christian moral life,” Cesar Chavez. (“Life In Christ, Part Two, page 324.)
It was and is, then, a continuing and terrible wrong to criticize and condemn Cesar Chavez as “communist,” and not what he was—a Christian.
Another lingering wrong is the attempt deprive Cesar Chavez of his American reality and make him in death what he was not in life. That is, there is a continuing attempt to expropriate and exploit Cesar’s identity and reality as a “Latino” or “Chicano” hero instead of what he was and is – and American hero, and, indeed, a veteran.
Cesar was a native-born, third-generation American. Cesar Chavez was also a veteran who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy in World War II to defend his county — the United States of America. I was with Cesar for some twenty years and never heard him publicly or privately describe himself as a “Latino leader” or a “Chicano.” Cesar described himself as what he was – an American “Labor Leader” representing all farm workers of whatever creed, color, or ethnicity.
Cesar Chavez was an American of Mexican descent, proud of his Mexican as well as his American heritage. In short, Cesar Chavez was a Mexican American, not an American Mexican.
Notwithstanding there are continuing attempts to segregate Cesar Chavez and make him some kind of ethnic cult leader instead of the American labor leader he was; and to expropriate his humanitarian work to aggrandize themselves politically or ethnically.
A pathetic and insulting example of that is the act of the liberal “progressive” members of the Portland City Commission, at the urging of a handful of self-defined “Latinos” who seek to aggrandize themselves by expropriating Cesar as a “Latino” rather than American hero, to change the name of 39th Street in Portland to Cesar Chavez Blvd. This was done over the overwhelming opposition of the people who actually live, work, and operate businesses on 39th Street was not about Cesar Chavez; it was all about ultra-liberal “progressive” politicians and Latinos anxious to appropriate onto themselves the work of Cesar Chavez which they have failed to do. They posture they are involved in “civil rights” work by renaming a street “Cesar Chavez” in Portland instead of going to California where the UFW is making the fight in the fields and needs all the help it can get.
An excruciating example of the “politically correct” disservice to Cesar Chavez in the Portland street-name insult was testimony in favor of the name change by the spokesman for the Planning Commission who advocated the name change at the urging of self-defined Latinos. That spokesman, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, is a soft-spoken, Liberal, a man of German ancestry and Jewish ethnicity if not religion, perhaps both. In his testimony, he carefully and conspicuously referred to Cesar Chavez, repeatedly and only, as “Señor Chavez.”
Got that? Cesar Chavez, native-born, third generation American, veteran of the U.S. Navy, is referred to as “Señor Chavez” – and all the “progressive” members of the Portland Commission sat there nodding approvingly at this politically-correct insult.
What, pray, would this German-Jewish paragon of “progressive” political correctness in Portland think if in testimony concerning him before a governmental body he was referred to as “Herr [Blank]”?
Another example of egregious political correctness is that Portland has decided that all the street signs should be spelled like this: “César E. Chávez Blvd.” Oh, how so politically correct. So, what is wrong with that? What is wrong is that Cesar Chavez, as far as is known, never signed his name with those accent marks. He was an American. Hugo Chávez, the socialist-communist “Latino” dictator, signs his name with that accent mark. Cesar Chavez, the native-born American veteran, did not.
The City Commissioners of Portland, the Principality of Progressive Political Correctness, at the urging of a handful of self-described “Latinos” who collectively and individually have done little or nothing to actually aid the cause of Cesar Chavez in the fields of California (as there has been little or no UFW organizing effort in Oregon), carried out this insult to the memory of Cesar Chavez over the all but universal opposition of the citizens who actually live on 39th Street and despite the fact that Cesar’s own son, Paul, who has devoted his life to the UFW, stated in an interview by the Oregonian that his father would consider it a “waste of time” to work to name a street for Cesar Chavez when there is so much to do.
I published an op-ed piece in the Oregonian newspaper objecting to the exploitation of Cesar’s good name in the politically-motivated stunt of renaming 39th street for Cesar Chavez as it totally distorted his reality, as an American hero, not a “Latino” hero, and as a man who never sought personal celebrity or aggrandizement but insisted it was “La Causa” that should be focused upon, and not him. I respectfully refer you to that op-ed piece in the Oregonian here.
Finally, Cesar Chavez should be honored for what he was, an American of Mexican descent, a veteran, a man who lived his Christian faith.
“What does the Lord ask of you?.” the ancient Jewish prophet Micah asked, and answered: “That you do justice, that you love compassion, and that you walk humbly with your God.”
So lived Cesar Chavez, a great and humble American. May the God and the nation he served embrace and remember him for what he was, a Christian, a native son of America, whose greatness was in his humility, who had no in material riches but great spiritual wealth, and whose greatest gift to his country is his life of selfless, non-violent service to others, all others.
Rees Lloyd is a civil rights attorney who marched with Cesar Chavez and served as his lawyer. He’s also a veterans activist.