Living the legacy of Cesar Chavez

Like most campesinos, Cesar Chavez was the color of the earth.

There’s little doubt that history will one day look back on the United Farm Worker
movement as an indigenous insurrection – a struggle for dignity and human
rights for a people who have been here forever.

It should also be seen as a green movement, as the UFW has always warned
consumers about their own exposure to toxic chemicals.

When one hears the name of Cesar Chavez, it is usually associated with
Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. The late Mexican-American labor
leader came into national prominence for his several historic fasts (1960s
– ’90s) that brought to light the plight of farm workers. Yet as we
celebrate his memory, we should always recognize that he co-founded the
United Farm Workers of America with his wife, Helen Chavez, and Dolores
Huerta; and that their very first strike was in support of Filipino farm
workers.

Perhaps one day, his name will also be associated with the likes of Zapata,
Geronimo and Sitting Bull. On the day before Chavez died in Arizona in
1993, he was reading a book on American Indians. At this, he told a
colleague: “We need to work with our Native American brothers and sisters.”

It’s no secret that most campesinos are indigenous or Indian, and many
nowadays come directly from their pueblos in Mexico and Central America,
speaking Zapotec, Otomie, Nahuatl or a variety of Maya languages. But even
those who do not speak their ancestral tongue are indigenous; they have
always had a special relationship to the land. Their hands tell us this.

As Huerta has often said, farm workers do not hate their work … they’re
not all trying to escape the fields. They love the land. What they don’t
like is the low pay and the extreme exploitation.

To this day, farm workers remain outside of the protection of the National
Labor Relations Board. And they are treated as foreigners. In dictionaries,
the word “dehumanization” should come illustrated with pictures of
hunched-over farm workers.

Chavez used to say that the UFW was born the day the Bracero Program was
abolished in 1964. The Bracero Program, was in effect, modern slave labor.
Workers had no rights, except the right to be exploited and shipped back
home. In fact, many (of those still alive) are owed money withheld from
their paychecks from the 1940s – ’60s.

A generation later, and now – incredulously – there’s a push for another
bracero program, albeit with a different name. So desperate is the
situation regarding the border that this new “guest worker” program is
being touted as a solution.

If Chavez were alive, he would say this legalization of indentured labor is
the problem, not the solution. The move to legally codify a category of
humans with fewer rights and less pay is contrary to the march of history.
It’s a return to 19th-century coolie labor; contract them cheaply (leave
their families behind), subject them to inhumane working conditions, then
ship them home. If they escape, sic La Migra on them. And if they have not
given the patron any trouble (union organizing), they can return. This is
seen as an alternative to dying in the desert and continuing to work in the
shadows. Unless contested, this may become the future model of labor for
the United States.

Perhaps a better alternative and interim solution can be found in Europe.
There, workers from any of the 25 nations that make up the European
community are legally entitled to work in each other’s nations. In North
America – as a result of NAFTA – jingoistic politicians treat human beings
not as workers, but as criminals. Under this trinational agreement, goods
and capital generally flow freely, but not human beings.

To conveniently assuage America’s fears, hard-working migrants are now
conflated with terrorists, thus the push to further militarize the border.
Some will not be happy until there’s an impregnable 2,000-mile wall along
the United States-Mexico border, patrolled by trigger-happy vigilantes. The
merchants of fear have done a great disservice to humanity by getting
people to see the issue of migration within the context of criminality or
“the war on terrorism,” rather than as part of a global economic phenomenon
– one that could easily be resolved.

If Chavez taught us anything, it was to appreciate the men and women who
provide us with our daily sustenance. This begins by accepting and treating
all workers as full human beings.

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