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I first learned about Cesar Chavez in my 6th grade social studies class as part of a series on leaders who advocated for human and civil rights through non-violent resistance. I still remember that feeling of pride to hear a name like Chavez being the subject of focus for Mr. Cotter’s lesson. Retrospectively, I marvel at the value of having had the privilege of experiencing Cesar Chavez in a textbook that also taught me about Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. In fact, for a young child who grew up in the Bronx, it was so inspiring to benefit from a textbook and a class that showcased the diversity that I lived. Unfortunately, today in Texas, school boards work to remove his name from textbooks, in Arizona legislators work to eliminate his legacy from curricula and in San Antonio lawyers work to block a street from bearing his name.
The most relevant aspect of that inspiring 6th grade lesson featuring Chavez was the context in which he was introduced: a Non-violent advocacy for Civil Rights. His name and accomplishments were brought to life in the same context as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Nearly three decades after Mr. Cotter’s lesson, the US Navy announced this month that it will name a ship after our revered advocate for farm worker and human rights Cesar Chavez. In light of this event, the Latino community should consider two important questions: would this non-violent activist want his name associated with an instrument of war? And, is this the best way to honor his legacy?
Cesar Chavez described his time in the Navy as the “worst years” of his life. He took no pride in having been a part of the military and in fact modeled his life and activism after Gandhi and King. He dedicated his life to non-violent resistance to injustice. His most notable acts of protests were fasts, such as the one for Justice that lasted 25 days in 1972. In the context of the Vietnam war, in his famous 1971 speech at a Veterans memorial rally, Chavez questioned why “do poor brown and black farm workers” take up arms to go “kill poor farm workers in Southeast Asia.” He also questioned our culture of weapons and violence and its association with perceived “manhood.”
Chavez joined the military likely for the same reason many Latino youth (poor and/or from inner cities) do so today: lack of access to an affordable quality education makes the military appear as a stable career alternative. Today, Latino youth continues to struggle more than ever with education. Over 50% of the adult Latino population has not graduated high school and is ill equipped to survive and thrive in this recessionary depression. Chavez cared deeply about the conditions of Latino youth. Thus the greatest honor he may have received during his lifetime was the opening of the Colegio Cesar Chavez in Oregon.
The plight and conditions of undocumented immigrant workers were also of paramount importance to Chavez. Through the United Farm Workers, UFW, Chavez organized and protected the unalienable rights of undocumented workers. He fought against all injustice to the undocumented and sought equal recognition and protection for them as human beings in the United States. Chavez was directly involved in the immigration reform resulting in amnesty for many undocumented people in the 80’s.
You may be asking why is his dedication to immigrant rights relevant to whether he would approve of the military recognition in question. It’s important to consider the US military’s track record in matters associated with immigration and human rights. There are thousands of immigrants serving in today’s military in exchange for conditional citizenship or green cards. In fact, the US military has gone as far as directly recruiting in Mexican border cities like Tijuana leveraging the promise of US residency/citizenship. If you are willing to sacrifice your life for this country, why would you qualify for anything less than the same citizenship everyone else gets?
As the man who denounced the Bracero program and advocated for equal respect for all humans, Chavez would loudly denounce many of the actions of today’s US military. He would question why once again poor people of color are out killing poor people of color in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would advocate for equal recognition for immigrant soldiers. He would challenge our detention and torture of prisoners in Guantanamo.
In short my answer to the first question is that Cesar Chavez would certainly not welcome the attribution of his name to instruments and institutions of war, because they run counter to his unshakable defense of peaceful non-violent advocacy for change, and his defense of humans no matter their immigration status, religion or country of origin.
Cesar Chavez was also a man of action and sacrifice. The progress made by the UFW under his leadership was due to targeted and effective action. Boycotts, fasts and rallies not only brought attention to the plight of farm workers, but specific improvements and reforms as well. What will naming a ship in Cesar Chavez honor accomplish for the Latino community today? Will it improve the economic conditions of the Latino community? Will it lead to greater investment and advancement of the education of Latino youth? Will it drive Washington to action on comprehensive immigration reform? Will it stop the spread of discriminatory and fundamentally illegal laws such as SB1070 from spreading across America?
Cesar Chavez would not want idle honors. He would want us to be part of actually succeeding at improving the conditions of our people. He would want us to teach our children to sacrifice for justice and focus their skills towards pulling their communities out of poverty.
Therefore, in order to properly honor Cesar Chavez and his legacy of disciplined sacrifice, lets work to re-open “El Colegio Cesar Chavez” and establish a network of “Colegios Cesar Chavez” across the US to improve the education and future of our Latino Community. Lets engage our successful Latinos to secure the funding necessary for such an endeavor. Lets recruit the Latinos who currently indeed are graduating from High School and college to be the educators of the Latinos of tomorrow. Lets institute our own curriculums so that no politician can threaten Latino Studies and erase from textbooks the contributions of Latinos to the United States that Mr. Cotter so skillfully taught me. Lets train and eventually elect the community leaders we need so that we control our own fate on issues such as Immigration reform.
Now that is a “Dream Act” that Cesar Chavez would love to associate his name with. When that ship sails, put his name and face on the front of it with his signature call to action: “Si Se Puede.”
For the poor it is a terrible irony that they should rise out of their misery to do battle against other poor people when the same sacrifices could be turned against the causes of their poverty. Cesar Chavez
San Antonio judge blocks the naming of a street after Cesar Chavez:
Video of Cesar Chavez “We are also responsible” speech at a Veteran’s memorial:
Cesar Chavez and immigration: