Yes We Can/Si Se Puede: Remembering and Forgetting Cesar Chavez (March 31, 1927—April 23, 1993)

Perhaps the most memorable slogan to emerge from the 2008 presidential campaign was the inspiring phrase, “Yes We Can.” This utterance alone embodied the inspirational spirit of a new and hopeful political age. However, as Barack Obama himself admits (albeit belatedly), the mantra was coined over forty years ago in the hot and dusty agricultural fields of California’s central valley by a Mexican-American man, obscure, but nonetheless determined to transform history: Cesar Chavez.

Do an online search for Cesar Chavez and you have to drill down quite a bit before you get to any information at all about the religious dimension of Chavez’s life and work. It is an odd omission, but while Chavez may have been a revolutionary, he was no materialist.

Chavez first captivated global attention on Valentine’s Day in 1968 when (taking his cue from Gandhi) he began his famous “love fast,” abstaining from solid food for 25 days. The expressed reason was to re-commit his movement, La Causa, or simply “The Cause,” to the religious practice of nonviolence. The result was to launch his effort to organize a farm workers union into a national crusade for social justice. Upon breaking the fast, Chavez received a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. declaring that his and Chavez’s movement were actually one—the struggle for human equality.

On July 4, 1969, Chavez’s bronze face and dark eyes adorned the cover of Time. The accompanying story dubbed him the “earthy” and “mystical” leader of the new American left—comparing him to the late Dr. Martin Luther King.

Chavez is mostly remembered as a Latino hero, community organizer, and labor leader, yet he galvanized passionate support—across the United States and around the globe. At his funeral, politicians, celebrities, and religious leaders including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney joined a chorus of voices who, like many before, declared him the “Latino Gandhi.”

These apt comparisons ring true historically, for Chavez looked to both Gandhi and King in his spiritual organization of the hearts and minds of Americans. Like Gandhi and King, Chavez’s appeal was largely moral, ethical, and religious. He began his work in the early 1950s, focusing on community improvement, working with Saul Alinsky’s Community Service Organization. In San Jose, he registered voters to influence local and national politics—adding 300,000 Latino Democrats to the California voting rolls, and providing the edge for John Kennedy in 1960.

In 1962, Chavez struck out with Dolores Huerta to form a union despite over one hundred years of attempts thwarted by the powerful agribusiness industry, the biggest source of revenue in California. In 1965, Chavez called a general agricultural labor strike that stretched over five years. Chavez and Huerta’s fledgling United Farm Workers (UFW) was dwarfed by the Goliath of the California Grower’s lobby. Still, Chavez never lost faith and, yes he did indeed form a successful union.

His movement was a Latino mirror image of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But while King was based in the black church, Chavez’s movement was adorned with the religious rites and symbols of Mexican culture. Chavez’s marches were deemed “Peregrinations” or pilgrimages—including his most famous, a march that crossed California and arrived at the steps of the Capital in Sacramento on Easter Sunday, culminating in an interfaith ceremony with more than 10,000 celebrants. Chavez’s religiosity was always broadly cast, involving rabbis, Catholic priests and nuns, mainline Protestant ministers, and Pentecostal preachers. He wanted to create mass appeal; La Causa was in a very real sense a broadly religious movement that pivoted on the faithful declaration “Yes We Can!/Si Se Puede.”

In the tradition of Gandhi and King, Chavez appealed to the better angels of Americans, to a nonviolent, compassionate spirit. Like King, Chavez’s work held Americans accountable for beliefs they already professed. He capitalized on the knowledge that Americanism requires a faith all its own, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau named “civil religion,” defined as “a spiritual dimension” of the republican state.

Chavez, while no less human than the rest of us, possessed a prophetic identity; he spoke as if bringing a fresh revelation from God, and channeled this momentum into “fixing a lot of things that are wrong with this society.” Toward this end, he worked for the rights of all workers to earn a living wage and human dignity. He was also involved with minority civil rights—for African and Asian Americans as well as Latinos. He even traveled to Mexico to advocate for workers there. But perhaps the most commonly forgotten component of Chavez’s nonviolent struggle was for the rights of gays and lesbians.

In 1987, Chavez addressed a crowd of 200,000 at a march for gay rights and for funding to combat AIDS in Washington DC. There, he claimed: “Our movement has been supporting lesbian and gay rights for over 20 years. We supported lesbian and gay rights when it was just a crowd of 10 people.” In 2006, during an interview with the Human Rights Campaign, Dolores Huerta explained: “Yes, there were farm workers who were gay and lesbian. Cesar Chavez had a ‘comadre’ [close friend], who was a lesbian and baptized his oldest son, Fernando. She owned a little bar called People’s. For the strikers, that was our hangout because there was so much discrimination against us that People’s was a place that we all went to because there was never any hostility. If fact, it was part of our movement.”

Hence, Obama’s reiteration of the phrase, “Yes We Can,” not only articulated and inscribed a new hope onto the American psyche, but it also captured the spirit of a political revival and religious transformation: Chavez once rightly declared that “we need a revolution not only in art, but in the realm of the spirit.” Obama’s campaign conjured this revolutionary spirit, while leaving Chavez’s ghost in veiled repose. Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to lead the inaugural prayer was not at all in the spirit of Chavez’s prophetic call. The popular pastor had lobbied in favor of amending California’s constitution to prevent gay marriage, comparing it to bestiality and pederasty. By contrast, Chavez’s theology was humanistic, advocating for the rights of lesbians and gays while leaving judgment and condemnation for God alone. More, the UFW together with Chavez’s granddaughter, Christine Chavez, lobbied in favor of California’s 2005 Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would have legalized gay marriage.

Certainly Obama’s use of Chavez’s charisma as expressed in his signature narrative, “Yes We Can,” does not bind the president to the late prophet’s every political position, but he has acknowledged the authorship of his slogan. On Chavez’s birthday, Obama released the following statement:

Cesar Chavez’s legacy as an educator, environmentalist, and as a civil rights leader who struggled for fair treatment and fair wages for America’s workers is important for every American to remember. Having begun as a farmworker, Cesar Chavez eventually co-founded the United Farm Workers and struggled to provide hundreds of thousands of people with better working conditions and the chance to live a better life. The cause of fair treatment and fair wages for America’s workers lives on today through the work of countless others. Chavez’s rallying cry, “Si Se Puede/Yes We Can” was more than a slogan, it was an expression of hope and a rejection of those who said farm workers could not organize, and could not take on the growers. Through his courage, Cesar Chavez taught us that a single voice could change our country, and that together, we could make America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation.

Now safely ensconced in the White House and enjoying high approval ratings, the president can give Chavez his due credit. By contrast, just last year at this time, candidate Obama had not yet cited Chavez as the author for his campaign slogan, but he had in some ways gone farther; the candidate had proposed that Chavez’s birthday become a national holiday—a cause supported by millions:

His cause lives on. As farm workers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what Cesar Chavez accomplished so many years ago. And we should honor him for what he’s taught us about making America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation. That’s why I support the call to make Cesar Chavez’s birthday a national holiday. It’s time to recognize the contributions of this American icon to the ongoing efforts to perfect our union.

Chavez did not copyright his phrase “Yes We Can,” and Obama cannot be held accountable to the many noble justice movements it animated. But a democratic citizenry can and should hold politicians accountable for declarations they clearly made to win support. Sadly, the president seems to have forgotten his promise to declare a national holiday in honor of the man whose legacy continues to influence our politics, and our lives.