In his letter to the News on Thursday, Fidel Martinez calls MEChA de Yale’s assertions as to Cesar Chavez and his work to be “wholly incorrect” and a “historical inaccuracy that distorts and insults ‘la mexicanidad.’ ” Also, Martinez calls a comparison of Martin Luther King Jr. to Chavez “both disrespectful and inaccurate.”
Martinez points out that the article (“MEChA fights to honor Cesar Chavez,” 3/28) suggests that Chavez fought for immigrant rights. By a slip of the tongue, I was quoted saying that Chavez was both a labor and immigrant-rights leader. This is not correct. I take responsibility for this and credit my recurring work with immigrant rights for the slip. As Martinez stated, Chavez did in fact oppose undocumented workers and fought to keep them out of the fields that his union, the United Farm Workers, would be harvesting had they not been on strike.
However, I would like to take the opportunity to argue that Cesar Chavez was, in fact, both a labor and Latino civil rights leader, in contradiction to what Martinez said in his letter. The UFW’s work was intrinsically tied to the Chicano/Latino community, given that a large base of the UFW was Mexican-American. For example, when Chavez led his historic march from Delano, Calif., to Sacramento, the standard of the patron saint of Mexico, La Virgen de Guadalupe, a significant cultural symbol for the Mexican people, was carried before the striking workers on their pilgrimage. This arguably held much weight with the largely Mexican-American National Farm Workers Association as it teamed up with the largely Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the UFW.
The use of La Virgen de Guadalupe would have harkened the strikers back to her use by Mexican revolutionaries like Miguel Hidalgo and Emiliano Zapata in their struggles for social justice. Her use by Chavez and the UFW pointed to a new social revolution. The Roman Catholic Church’s presence in the Chicano/Latino community is also apparent in the fact that Chavez himself was tutored by a Catholic priest in labor unionizing and social justice. The Roman Catholic Church and Chicano/Latino culture are very much tied together, and the ideals of this Catholicism came out through the mexicanidad and latinidad of Chavez’s work.
Further evidence for Chavez as a leader for the Chicano/Latino community is his role in paving the way for the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Chicano Movement’s goals were to give the Mexican-American community a political voice and to seek civil rights for La Raza that were being denied. The work done by Chavez and the UFW gave the Chicanos a familiar space within the political landscape, which then manifested itself in the American civil rights movement as the Chicano Movement. Therefore, there is little wonder that MEChA de Yale’s office in La Casa Cultural contains much UFW memorabilia and even a poster asking Yale to boycott grapes.
Chavez’s impact can still be seen in the Chicano/Latino community, when protesters and activists raise their fists and chant Chavez’s “¡Si se puede!” Chavez rose up as a role model for the Chicanos/Latinos of the United States and validated their political involvement.
As a labor and civil rights leader, Chavez is a leader of the caliber of Martin Luther King Jr. Granted, though King struggled for the civil rights of a whole race, he and Chavez went through similar struggles: fasts, marches, boycotts and strikes. King himself telegraphed Chavez during his first fast, saying: “Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”
Chavez said in 1990: “Just as Dr. King was a disciple of Ghandi and Christ, we must now be Dr. King’s disciples. Dr. King challenged us to work for a greater humanity. I only hope that we are worthy of his challenge. The United Farm Workers are dedicated to carrying on the dream of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. … Like Dr. King, I too have a dream. I have a dream that farm workers, and especially their children, won’t have to fear their safety and even their very lives when they labor in the fields.”
Saturday is Cesar Chavez’s birthday, and it is remembered in California, Texas, Arizona and Colorado. There might never be a holiday for Chicana labor leader Emma Tenayuca or for civil- and gay-rights activist Bayard Rustin, but having holidays to commemorate leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez helps us remember all those people who fought for, and whose legacies further fought for, the freedoms and rights we enjoy today.
Edgar Diaz-Machado is a sophomore in Pierson College and the social action chair of MEChA de Yale.