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Defining and Continuing the Legacy of Cesar Chavez

By Jose 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 1930’s 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 the 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.

In recent years, the UFW won a big victory in forcing the governor to sign legislation giving farm laborers the right of mandatory mediation in contract negotiations.  This is unprecedented for the farm workers – since the passage of the 1975 agricultural labor relations law.  This was done through marches, pickets, fasts, lobbying, voter registration, and vigils at the Governor’s mansion.  These strategies followed the examples of Cesar, who like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, and so many others, stood for peace, justice, and equality.

If Cesar were here, I know that he would have stood up to condemn the irresponsible acts of war and taking of civil liberties that have occurred in this country and abroad since September 11th.  I am sure that he would have felt compassion for the many soldiers who, like a friend of mine who died on the front lines, were merely following orders and often serving as fodder for the monopoly games of greedy leaders and multinational corporations interested only in the quality of profit and not necessarily in the quality of life.  If Cesar were here, I know that he would be concerned about what is happening to our economy when billions are being spent in Afghanistan, 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, are being placed on the backs of undocumented immigrants.

There is no doubt that, alongside Dolores Huerta, when Cesar was alive, he lobbied against federal guest worker programs and spearheaded legislation granting amnesty for farm workers.

If Cesar were here – he would be doing exactly what the UFW has been doing in fighting for the AgJobs bill 645) which would allow an estimated 500,000 undocumented farm workers to earn the legal right to stay in this country and work in agriculture. He would be supporting the DREAM Act  which addresses the tragedy of young people who grew up in the U. S. and who have graduated from U. S. high schools but who, because of current immigration laws, have no mechanism for obtaining in-state tuition in the institutions of higher education and who have no way of obtaining legal residency. 

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, ensuring that this service is equally helping to advance organizing efforts for human rights, immigrant legalization, and peace. There can be no better gift to the legacy of Cesar Chavez than to use our lives to advance a world with peace, equality, and justice for humanity.  These are the flowers that we will take with us for our annual Cesar Chavez Breakfast on March 30th (between 8 A. M. and 10 A. M.) at The Avalon at the Fairplex (1101 West McKinnely Ave.) in Pomona;  a “Dining Hall in the Streets” action on March 30 at 12 noon to protest Pomona College’s firing of 16 immigrant dining hall workers who were trying to form a union (beginning with a march from  Shelton Park – corner of Harvard Ave. and Bonita Ave and ending with speakers, music by Quetzal, and a meal in the streets on College Ave. between 4th st. & 6th st.); and a pilgrimage walk on April 2 (beginning at 3 PM with a small fiesta at Garey High School – 321 Lexington Ave. – and a march to Pomona city hall – 505 S. Garey Ave. at 4:30 PM).


MLK’s legacy: a movement of common people


Martin Luther King

José Calderón
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Reprinted with permission, originally published on 01/24/2009 05:10:47 PM PST

The commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. comes at a time when there is a movement developing throughout the country that is calling for change. It is the same kind of movement that gave rise to the civil-rights movement in this country. We know today that it is the movement which makes the leader and that the best leaders espouse the needs and demands of that movement. King was such a leader.

While it is important to bring to center stage the leadership of King, it is equally important to commemorate the thousands of people involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott between 1955 and 1956, the Greensboro sit-in of 1960, and the marches (such as the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965 in Alabama).

It was the tenacity of the Montgomery Improvement Association to desegregate buses that made King a nationally known figure. Here, it is important to remember the courage of Rosa Parks, a seamstress by profession and a secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, who took a stand and refused to move to the back of the bus. It is also important to remember 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who, before Parks, was actually the first African-American woman arrested early in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat.

The actions in Montgomery were an example of a social movement involving a diversity of leadership. For months, the African-American community, with some support from other communities, responded to the arrest of Parks and historical segregation by developing their own system of carpools. Many used cycling and walking as alternatives to riding the bus. Their tenacity led to a Nov. 13, 1956, Supreme Court ruling that Alabama’s racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional.

The beauty of this organized movement was that it took on the power structure in Montgomery. It was an example of common working people using their social capital, their economic capital, and their spiritual capital – as tools for building community unity.

It was an example for all of us today – when an increase in ethnic/racial conflict in our diverse communities has more to do with having to compete for diminishing resources.

We share some of the same common structural realities: a deepening economic crisis, a decline in manufacturing, the development of an information/technological society requiring a much more educated work force, and segmentation in the lowest levels of the economy. Many of us, regardless of our social standing, are treated as the “outsiders” of a rapidly changing technological society.

King, today, symbolizes to me the type of leadership that we need today.

It should be pointed out that it was only four decades ago that King helped to unite thousands from all backgrounds in opposing the war in Vietnam. It should be pointed out that, when King was killed, he was helping to lead a strike in Memphis, Tenn., involving hundreds of working people of all colors, ages and genders who were aiming their efforts – not at each other – but at the structural conditions that were affecting their standard of living.

During the strike, King spoke to the workers and reminded them of the dignity of their labor:

“So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

Although King was killed in Memphis, this movement did not end. Ultimately, this 64-day strike ended with a union contract for sanitation workers and it gave life to public employee union organizing in other parts of the South.

Today, there are many of us who believe that the significance of the election of Barack Obama is not just in the individual but is in the rising of a new social movement that is uniting people from all diverse backgrounds in advancing a change in the way this country is run and whose interests it serves.

The legacy of King is seen everywhere in our schools, churches and communities. It is present in all the common people who are turning an abstract call for “hope” and “change” into organizing efforts of accountability for quality education, health care, employment, education and human rights for all. This is the same legacy of those who refused to sit in the back of the bus in the 1950s. It is a simple social movement to take back our dignity.

Jose Zapata Calderon is a professor of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont.