Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Cesar Chavez: A great American

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

A few weeks ago I visited my storage locker to sift through the completely unorganized contents of the several trunks and boxes I have filled with old and new manuscripts, publications, photographs, journals and assorted memorabilia. Some of those trunks had not been opened in 20 years. It was a search for specific manuscripts that were found, but several long forgotten personal treasures also showed up.

One of them, a letter dated July 26, 1974 was sent to me at General Delivery, Jackson, Wyo. It brings encouragement and inspiration across more than 30 years in the face of the dismaying and mounting consequences of the determined and horrific policies of the current disgraceful, dishonest, destructive and dangerous to democracy administration in Washington. The letter begins "Dear Brother Dorworth" and was dictated to someone with the initials "ns" and signed by Cesar Chavez, who thanked me for my interest, support and an embarrassingly small amount of money I had sent to his United Farm Workers of America to help what he called "the striking workers, who are always in need of food and clothing."

Very few people reading this (including me) have any idea of what it means to live with the daily fear and indignity of being "always in need of food and clothing." Lucky us. But in a larger sense we are only lucky (and, in a still larger sense, human) if we remember and take care of, as opposed to taking advantage of, those not so lucky. Chavez was a lucky and grandly human being, one worth thinking about, remembering, learning from. Tomorrow, March 31, is his birthday. He would have been 78. It is Cesar Chavez Day of Service and Learning in California, a day, according to the California Service Corps, when students, parents, teachers, business and community members join together to commemorate Chavez by participating in beautification projects, programs to harvest fields of excess crops, park clean-up projects, and community health fairs. A day to do all those jobs no one wants to do but which have to be done. Cesar Chavez Day.

Cesar Chavez, one of America's great citizens, lived within the tradition of the non-violent practices of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Francis of Assisi and, of course, Jesus Christ, whose non-violent tenets are completely ignored by all too many who shout his name loudest while wrapping their greed and ambitions in his mantle and the flag. Chavez was born (1927) and died (1993) near Yuma, Ariz., but he is remembered and associated with the giant agriculture industry of California. He spent his life among the overworked, underpaid, exploited, powerless migrant farm workers who lived and labored in conditions of poverty and toxicity and injustice and fear in that industry. He was one of them. At a certain point he set about changing those conditions through organizing those workers and pledging them to the principles of non-violence. He had his share of success and failure with his endeavors, but, to paraphrase Yeats, Chavez was honor bred to a harder thing than triumph. It is not the current status of wages, pesticide poisoning or social services of migrant workers in California that Chavez labored to make better and, in fact, did make better, but, rather, it is his personal example that encourages and inspires. He is remembered for helping farm workers, but his cause was humanity, the powerful as well as the powerless.

He came to his destiny the hard way. The son of migrant farm workers who spoke only Spanish at home, Chavez and his brother attended 37 schools by the time he graduated from the 8th grade, the end of his formal education. He hated the Anglo schools and the racism he encountered there. He was a self-taught man who never stopped learning. He read. He worked. He spoke. He listened to his friends as well as his enemies. Chavez was a practical organizer who did not let his integrity and idealism get in the way of his vision. We need reminding that in 1969 he told Peter Matthiessen, "People can be organized for the most ridiculous things. Look at the John Birch Society. Look at Hitler. The reactionaries are always better organizers. The right has a lot of discipline that the left lacks. The left always dilutes itself. Instead of merging to go after the common enemy, the left splinters, and the splinters go after one another. Meanwhile the right keeps after its objective, pounding away, pounding away." He had a large library of books on philosophy, economics, cooperatives, unions, biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedy brothers, and he lived by his credo that "The end of all education should surely be service to others."

He helped organize the farm workers of California to get the state to pass laws to permit them to organize into a union and allow collective bargaining for better pay and safer working conditions. He shunned the weapons of violence and shock and awe. He was a worker, not a gladiator, and his tools were persuasion backed up with boycotts, pickets, strikes and, most famously—and, in terms of illuminating the suffering of farm workers and their families, the dangers of pesticides and the denial of free and fair elections among the workers—the fast. Chavez, in the tradition of Gandhi, fasted once for 36 days, another time for 25. Robert Kennedy called him "one of the heroic figures of our time."

He is one of the heroic figures of any time, one worth thinking about on his birthday or on any day.

Viva la Causa!

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