By Jose Zapata Calderon
Many of my students, particularly those who came here as immigrants to this country or who were farm workers in the fields, can identify with Cesar Chavez. They identify with how Cesar’s views on nonviolence and morality were influenced by his mother and his grandmother. They identify with his struggles with racism in his school years when the Anglo children called him “dirty Mexican.” Others identify with the story of how the Chavez family was stopped by immigration officials when they came to California from Arizona in the 1930s on the suspicion that they were undocumented immigrants.
Today, we identify with Cesar’s life of fighting racism in all its forms and his consistent practice of building multi-racial coalitions to fight injustice. We identify with his resistance to injustice through the use of the boycott, the march, the fast, and community based organizing, strategies that he used to build the United Farm Worker’s Union.
In this context, it is important not to compromise or water down what Cesar Chavez stood for.
There is no doubt that Cesar was a leader in helping to institutionalize a movement that is still serving the workers and the community through medical plans, worker pension plans, housing development projects, voter registration drives, and policy-making electoral initiatives. Many of these sustainability initiatives were won through the use of marches, pickets, fasts, lobbying, voter registration, and voter turn-out efforts.
If Cesar were here, I know that he would be concerned about what is happening to our economy when billions are still being spent in wars abroad, when there are massive cutbacks in programs that affect the lives of the poor and working classes in this country, and when the blame for the economic problems, once again, is being placed on the backs of undocumented immigrants.
There is no doubt that, alongside Dolores Huerta, when Cesar was alive, he organized against federal guest worker programs, against the open collusion between the growers and the immigration service in breaking strikes, and ultimately fought for the rights of undocumented workers as part of the larger demand for equality among all workers.
Mexican-origin labor and civil rights leader Bert Corona, who acknowledged in his autobiography the difficulties that Chavez faced in the collusion between the Immigration Service and the growers in exploiting the labor of undocumented workers to break strikes, ultimately complimented Chavez and the union in supporting ”the more positive measures of immigration reform.”
Presently, there is a situation in this contemporary period where politicians, such as Rep. Marco Rubio, are proposing a temporary worker program, like the bracero program, that is nothing more than a legal means of exploiting workers, paying them low wages with few benefits, shipping them back before they can be organized, and exploiting their labor as part of breaking unions both here and abroad.
There can be no better gift to the memory of Cesar Chavez than to continue the legacy of “service to the community.”
But, at the same time, we must ensure that this strategy includes the advancement of organized efforts for human rights, immigrant legalization, and peace — efforts that include working together to stop deportation and enforcement policies that racially profile our communities — and work for policies that will immediately lead to permanent residency and citizenship, with no expansion of temporary guest worker (bracero) programs and with labor-law protections