Understanding Cesar Chavez

by Randy Shaw on March 31, 2008

Today is Cesar Chavez Day in California. Chavez is the nation’s most honored Latino, and momentum is growing for a national holiday in his honor. In the fall of 2005, I began planning a book that would portray how Chavez, and the ideas and staff of the farmworkers movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, still shape today’s progressive movements. The book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, will be released by the University of California Press in September. In researching Chavez, I was struck how the perception of him as a larger than life, almost symbolic figure has obscured the traits that enabled him to build a farmworkers movement. For example, many are not aware that Cesar Chavez was a great grassroots organizer, a brilliant strategist, and a profoundly religious man. In honor of Cesar Chavez Day, here are some lesser known and appreciated qualities about the man whose rallying cry of “Si Se Puede!” still animates today’s progressive struggles.

Cesar Chavez died in 1993, but from Barack Obama’s adoption of the “Yes We Can” campaign theme to the chants of “Si Se Puede” in immigrant rights marches, his spirit lives on. In some respects, Chavez got too much credit for the successes of the farmworkers movement, but there is no question in anyone’s mind that Chavez’s personal skills enabled him to succeed when all prior efforts had failed.

Chavez the Organizer:

Cesar Chavez was fundamentally a grassroots organizer. Trained by Fred Ross Sr., Chavez spent the 1950’s organizing Latinos for the Community Services Organization (CSO). When the CSO refused Chavez’s request to start organizing farmworkers, he left the organization to take on the task.

Ross had met Chavez while implementing his legendary organizing strategy of the house meeting. The oft-told story is how Chavez did not want to attend Ross’ meeting, told others that he would find an excuse to leave during Ross’ talk, but then stayed throughout the evening as he was so attracted by Ross’s message.

Chavez believed he could organize California farmworkers by using this painstaking house-by-house approach. When you think about it, his goal appeared crazy. But Chavez was never deterred by what appeared to be long odds, and in 1962 he set off to convince farmworkers they should get organized.

A great organizer soon attracts other top talent, and Chavez accomplished this without having any money to pay anybody. He got the Migrant Ministry so excited about his plans that the group assigned staff to work as fulltime farmworker organizers. The migrant ministers constituted the bulk of fulltime staff during the critical early years of the UFW’s growth.

My upcoming book discusses many of the organizers who got their start with Chavez and the UFW, and how they later went on to lead progressive campaigns across the nation. It is unlikely that any other organization trained more quality organizers, and this included women, who were generally unable to get organizing jobs in the labor movement of that era.

In the UFW’s heyday, organizing was a discipline, a craft. And the person who set the tone for this prioritization of organizing was Cesar Chavez.

Chavez the Strategist:

Cesar Chavez was a master strategist. His 1968 fast, the UFW’s high profile marches, and his brilliant plan to launch a consumer boycott of grapes alone put him in the Strategist Hall of Fame. And as occurred with his organizing talents, Chavez’s strategic talents attracted those of like minds and skills.

People like Marshall Ganz, whose organizing strategies have played a key role in progressive election campaigns for decades, and who in his role as an advisor to the Obama campaign helped designed the successful “Camp Obama” organizing program. Or current SEIU Executive Vice-President Eliseo Medina, who provides leadership in the struggle to achieve comprehensive immigration reform and heads the union’s South and Southwest organizing drives; Medina spearheaded SEIU’s historic unionization of Houston’s janitors in 2005.

Among others attracted to the UFW through Chavez’s leadership was Fred Ross, Jr., who is currently leading the nation’s largest organizing drive at California’s nine St. Joseph’s hospitals. And the late Miguel Contreras, whose leadership at the Los Angeles County of Federation of Labor transformed Los Angeles politics and helped make California among the bluest of states.

These and other UFW veterans applied the strategic savvy they learned from the farmworkers movement to boost Latino political clout, strengthen the labor movement, and greatly broaden the support for immigrant rights. And it was Cesar Chavez who created the vehicle for these and countless others to get the hands-on organizing experience they needed to achieve success in a wide variety of progressive campaigns.

Chavez’s Spiritual Quest:

Cesar Chavez was a profoundly religious man. This aspect of his character is less publicized, but it played a central role in his building of a farmworkers movement.

Chavez believed that the religious community had a moral obligation to help farmworkers. Papal encyclicals of the 1950’s and 1960’s promoted this position promoted, but it took Chavez to motivate mass numbers of Catholics (and Protestants, who were his first strong religious allies) to action.

The theme of the 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento that put Chavez on the national stage was “Perigrinacion, Penitencia, and Revolucion”—“Pilgrimage, Penitence, and Revolution.” The march began during Lent and ended on Easter Sunday, and many of those making the three hundred mile journey carried either crosses or photos of the Virgin of Guadulupe, the matron saint of Mexico.

Chavez’s use of spiritual symbols helped transform an economic justice campaign into a powerful mass movement. Young religious activists flocked to the UFW cause, and churches boosted support for the union’s nationwide grape boycott. Chavez always described his now legendary 1968 decision to forego eating to show the power of nonviolence as a “fast,” not a hunger strike—he felt that he and the movement could communicate most effectively with people in spiritual terms.

As occurred with Martin Luther King, Jr., Chavez’s increasing national prominence has coincided with the replacement of a flesh and blood man with a cardboard image. But Chavez’s success against extraordinary odds requires an understanding of the totality of his personality, and of how his character traits benefited, and then hampered, the farmworkers movement.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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