César Chávez Day was on March 31, last week, but you probably didn't know that. What, you don't know who César Chávez is? Look around; his influence is everywhere.To my social activist friends, he was the soul of the labor movement in the 1960s and completely turned around the status of many migrant workers demanding better pay and more workers' rights. He formed the United Farm Workers organization (UFW) at a time when grape pickers barely earned five cents an hour.
For Hispanics, he is the man who finally won them respect and dignity in the United States, which had long neglected its Latino citizens. Today, Hispanics make up 12.5 percent of the U.S.'s population (35.5 million people). Their culture has become an integral part of the United States, from the Southwest to Pilsen here in Chicago to basically anywhere else in the country. Today, in urban and rural settings, Mexican and Latin American workers have made an indelible mark on the U.S. economy and American society. In agriculture, the service sector, the tourist industry, construction, landscaping and nurseries, and meat and poultry packing, they support the American economy by doing jobs that others choose not to do.
Chávez is in many ways comparable to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both worked for the betterment of their minority group and for social justice for all Americans, and both used Mahatma Gandhi's passive resistance.Yet many people simply do not know who Chávez is or have not been aware of events on campus promoting his ideas and dreams.
This Thursday, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) along with the Organization of Latin American Students, the Organization of Black Students, Students Organized with Labor (SOUL), and Office of Minority Student Affairs, are hosting "Cesar Chavez: Decades of Activism," with keynote speaker Ana Castillo. Anyone who appreciates the diversity or the more encompassing liberty we enjoy in the United States today should attend the lecture.
César Chávez was one of the important civil rights leaders of the Latino community. He helped organize farm labor to get bargaining power for the first time and to ensure better working conditions. He led massive grape boycotts in the 1960s that were effective in granting unions contracts. For his beliefs, he often found his life threatened by the industrialized farm companies. Still, farm workers gained fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits and decent living conditions as a result of Chávez's work. All this from a Mexican migrant worker, whose family was cheated out of its Arizona homestead during the Great Depression, who never made more than $6,000 in a year, and who did not own a house or car when he died in April 1993.This event is important to have on campus simply because it is important to be aware of Latino history and issues. Latino history surrounds America; it started before the United States existed and will continue onwards into the future. But many people in America are ignorant of Latino history, even though they enjoy the comforts of the multicultural society Latinos and many other cultures provide. What César Chávez insisted upon is that those contributions made by people of Mexican and Latin American descent to every sphere of activity throughout U.S. history be known and respected.
Many people are familiar with Dr. King, but hardly know who César Chávez is. In fact, many Latinos themselves are unfamiliar with him. But nothing about Chávez suggests he should not be considered alongside Dr. King as a great civil rights leader. He is an icon for labor movements everywhere that subscribe to the famous saying "sí se puede" ("it can be done") that arose out of his movement. His own fasts, in admiration of Gandhi's teachings, were the centerpieces of La Causa, the movement to bring about social justice change for the Hispanics.In 1990, three years before he died, Chavez reflected on the life of Dr. King: "My friends, as we enter a new decade, it should be clear to all of us that there is an unfinished agenda, that we have miles to go before we reach the promised land. Our nation continues to be segregated along racial and economic lines. The powers-that-be make themselves richer by exploiting the poor. The time is now for people, of all races and backgrounds, to sound the trumpets of change."Perhaps, if these words ring true to you, you should learn more about César Chávez