Misusing Cesar Chavez in Immigration Debate

Last week Harry Reid announced plans to use the brief lame duck congressional session to bring controversial Senate Bill 3963, known as the DREAM Act, to a vote of cloture. The DREAM Act would provide citizenship for an estimated two million undocumented residents who enroll in college or enlist in the military. The failure of the congress to act on the bill, however, has prompted Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez to threaten a new civil rights movement for immigrants. Evoking the legacy of Cesar Chavez, he is calling for acts of civil disobedience.

This past spring, the National Council of La Raza called on congress to honor Chavez’s legacy by passing immigration reform. In response, long-time Chavez critic Ruben Navarrette Jr. published a column on Pajamas Media, titled “Cesar Chavez Would Not Have Supported Amnesty for Illegals,” in which he argues that “it is absurd for anyone to invoke the name of Cesar Chavez to pass immigration reform. As I said, were he alive today, it’s a safe bet that Chavez would be an opponent of any legislation that gave illegal immigrants even a chance at legal status.”

The extent of this misrepresentation is stunning. Chavez opposed undocumented labor inasmuch as workers were exploited, used to depress wages, and undercut unionization efforts. While he did oppose Mexican guest worker programs he simultaneously campaigned for the legalization of Mexican citizens. But above all, Chavez demanded that the common humanity of Mexican people be recognized and appreciated. He literally gave his life toward this simple goal so one can be fairly certain that he would have protested any immigration policy that dehumanizes Mexicans, such as Arizona’s notorious SB 1070.

The mixed results in Arizona’s recent elections are both a repudiation and reaffirmation of hatred (which, as Gary Laderman recently argued is a deeply entrenched American value). Governor Jan Brewer and senate candidate Sharon Angle owe their notoriety to their bombastic attacks on Mexican undocumented workers. Both in word and in deed the candidates stoked the flames of extreme xenophobia and racism, denouncing Mexicans as criminally prone, culturally inferior, and downright un-American. As a result, Angle was narrowly defeated by the more moderate Harry Reid, whilst Brewer went on to beat her opponent handily.

The basis of Brewer’s popularity is her signature, SB 1070, the most severe anti-immigrant law in the nation. But rather than an aberration of Americanism, Arizona epitomizes the qualities of intolerance, greed, and paranoia that the discourse of divine exceptionalism breeds—especially when coupled with the realities of economic distress. Perhaps there is something in the parched vast stretch of Arizona desert that grows radical experimentation with American ideals.

Misusing Chavez

It was in response to an Arizona state law nearly 30 years earlier—once again aimed largely at Mexicans and Mexican-Americans—that the Arizona-born Cesar Chavez endured a twenty-five day “Fast for Justice” back in 1972. Arizona House Bill 2134 prevented farm workers, the vast majority of whom were Mexican and Chicano, from organizing, picketing, and boycotting—effectively stripping them of rights guaranteed to all other American workers. Chavez turned to these tactics as a recourse against employers who exploited farm labor.

On 28 August, 1988, Chavez terminated the fast—his longest ever at thirty-six days, a duration trumping even those undergone by Gandhi, his Indian guru. Like Gandhi, Chavez staged three public fasts, including the “Love Fast,” begun on February 14, 1968, which ended twenty-five days later with an ecumenical mass in which he broke bread with Robert Kennedy.

Each of Chavez’s three public rituals was dubbed a “spiritual fast,” during which he took communion from priests and communed prayerfully with Protestant ministers, rabbis, nuns, and atheists/humanists. Despite posthumous efforts to contain Chavez within an orthodox Catholic frame, he demonstrated little tolerance for religious boundaries or differences. His concern was humanity. Chavez’s fast in Arizona succeeded in framing the practice of legislating racism as a failure not only of American policy, but of Americanism as a Christian cult in particular, and also among good people of all faiths: A powerfully sacred international transcript. Clergy and religious laity issued statements condemning the hatred and discrimination pulsating throughout Arizona’s Christian and Jewish communities (no official word to the large percentage of Mormons was issued).

How ironic, then, that some advocates of Arizona’s SB 1070 have misappropriated Chavez in their anti-immigrant hysteria, citing the late organizer’s advocacy for the enforcement of laws against Mexican immigrants isolated from its historical context. This myth is repeated in Richard Rodriguez’s recent essay “Saint Cesar of Delano.” A critic of SB 1070, Rodriguez unwittingly feeds the anti-immigrant fervor:

When Cesar Chavez died in his sleep in 1993, not yet a very old man at 66, he died—as he had so often portrayed himself in life—as a loser. The… union he had cofounded was in decline; the union had 5,000 members, equivalent to the population of one very small Central Valley town. The labor in California’s agricultural fields was largely taken up by Mexican migrant workers—the very workers Chavez had been unable to reconcile to his American union, whom he had branded “scabs” and wanted reported to immigration authorities.

This is far from the whole story. In fact Chavez did organize and reconcile undocumented workers to his union. He also worked to repeal the infamous bracero program which imported exploited laborers from Mexico leading to the law’s 1965 expiration and he traveled to Mexico for a meeting with politicians to discuss improving working conditions for Mexican workers. in 1973 the UFW was one of the first unions to oppose the federal law making it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers.

Chavez’s goal was to undo hatred, writ large on the American landscape; for this, he is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Marshall Ganz, a former Chavez follower, writes in Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement:

social movement organizations like the UFW are inherently unstable. Led by zealots who are poor administrators, they pursue ideological goals, interpret dissent as disloyalty, and splinter or collapse like religious sects. They may influence thousands of individuals and create a cultural legacy, but rarely do they institutionalize firmly enough to survive the death of the charismatic founder.

The creation of a cultural legacy that empowered millions (not thousands) of Chicana/os and Latina/os to command respect and dignity in a place and time where it was often denied to them is no small feat.

By the time of Chavez’s ritual finale in 1988, the western zeitgeist had been so shaped and informed by Reaganomics that interest among Chavez’s many publics had waned. The fast, tragically, seemed trite and formulaic in the eyes of some cynical global viewers. Chicano journalist Frank del Olmo understood it differently, however, noting in the Los Angeles Times that, “Chavez…uses his body to make the point…He believes in what he is doing so fervently that he is willing to do anything to keep his movement alive—even nearly kill himself…It’s hard to argue with someone who is willing to risk death to make a point.”

Chavez recognized that political change in the United States amounted to a battle over hearts and minds, and that the battle field was a fickle American imagination. Still, Chavez suffered from insomnia and a largely benign megalomania. He is a tragic hero.

In AZ, the state where the American alphabet begins and ends, there is battle for the hearts and minds of a flamboyantly religious population which continues to enact laws based on racial hatred. The humanist “Prayer of the Farm Workers” places the sentiments behind the Arizona law in sharp relief:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the spirit will be alive among us.
Let the spirit flourish and grow;
So we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.