(Note to readers: This piece is a reprint from a blog/column from two years ago)
“When your children and grandchildren take their place in America, going to high school and college, and taking good jobs at good pay-when you look at them you will say, ‘I did this, I was there…at the point of difficulty and danger’.
And though you may be old and bent from many years of hard labor, no man will stand taller than you when you say, ‘I marched with Cesar Chavez!’” Robert F. Kennedy
Cesar Chavez Day is coming up and I thought I’d write a few lines about the man that I have come to regard as a personal hero.
I grew up in the United Farmworker’s Union, as you can see in this photo. I was about 3 or 4 years old in this picture. It’s a picket line in Arizona, around 1978 or 1979.
My family’s name is well-known in “La Causa” and am the third generation of my family to be heavily involved with the Union and the movement. My grandfather Pedro, and great-uncles Hector and Ernesto were close advisors to Cesar and were with Cesar since the birth of the Union. Tio Hector was with Cesar since the days of CSO and Fred Ross.
My father, as I’ve previously mentioned, was an organizer for Cesar and my Tia Barbara (Dad’s sister) was a contract negotiator (one tough lady!) for the Union. Her ex-husband, I still call him Uncle Mark, was his long-time Press Secretary.
I tell you this because I want you all to understand the fact that I have a different perspective of the man than some other people because of the fact that my family was so intimately involved with the Union. I’ve had the great privilege of seeing things happen in real time that others only learn about in books.
My children only know of Cesar Chavez through pictures and video clips. But that’s more than I can say for a lot of people, even people from my generation. I can stress enough how important it is for our people to remember him and his legacy.
My father made a very bad mistake when he was a young man. That mistake led to a short prison sentence in the 60’s. After he got out of prison, my abuelito and my father had a falling out. My father went to live in California with my tia who was working with Cesar Chavez. This was right before the grape boycott. At the time, the Union was in its infancy. Chavez mentored the young misguided man and gave him direction. The man my dad was died on that day, and my Father was born.
Dad stopped thinking about himself and starting thinking about others. Cesar put the energy and angst of my father to good use and unleashed him as a fervent field organizer. As I have previously written about in my blog entry about the Hillary Clinton ad, my parents met one another in the fields when my father was trying to organize the fields that my Tata Remigio worked.
So it was not a strange thing that we were different from the other kids when we grew up. We were raised to be causistas since we were little. We were politically aware years before our peers. Though we didn’t always enjoy it, we spent a lot of time on picket lines, marches, and demonstrations. To this day, my sisters and I are world-class hell raisers. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I am not telling you anything you don’t already know.
One of my earliest memories was of my father taking my brother and sister (eventually there were 8 of us and we were all born about 9 to 13 months apart) out to the fields to work the cebolla. My dad wanted us to know what it was like to have to work with our hands so that we’d study hard and not end up working with our hands. I remember the smell of the soil and onions. I remember how the dirt felt between my toes when it made its way through a hole in my shoe. At first I enjoyed the dirt in my hands, but it got old real quick and my finger nails looked green because of the dirt under my nails.
But what I will never forget is the heat. They call El Paso the Sun City, but it’s nothing compared to the way the sun beats down on you in Arizona. It’s dry (for some reason people think it’s humid, but it’s not) and it almost feels like the heat from a fire. The heat and sun make you squint when you are out doors and you almost don’t sweat because it quickly evaporates in the parched air.
It was that kind of heat that day. My brother and I were beat by the end of the third row that we worked. We didn’t even work that hard, I mean we were really little so we couldn’t have gotten all the much done, but it was certainly exhausting. My little brother started crying out of frustration, so I started crying too. Normally my Mom would’ve bailed us out when we started crying, but having worked in the fields much longer than even my father, I think my Mom was a little embarrassed that we cried so soon.
My father made us finish a couple more rows, but it was an experience I will never forget. We worked in the fields much more than that, but you never forget your first time. It is humbling work, but there is a quite dignity to it. The dignity that only comes through enduring the worst conditions possible and producing something with your own dusty, calloused hands. Vegetables and produce taste a lot better when you work in the fields. Onion has a better zip, chilé is more vibrant and colorful, oranges are heavier and sweeter, strawberries are meatier, and a good piece of cold, refreshing watermelon waiting for you at the end of your last row can’t be beat. Especially when you know that the adults didn’t get permission from the farmer to pick it for themselves or divide it amongst their many children.
The food that we enjoy on our tables passes through the humblest of hands before we enjoy it. If the meek shall inherit the Earth, then our planet will be in good, hard-working hands in the next life.
Dad played Santa Clause every year around Christmas time and would take toys from the Union, churches, and local nice people out to the farmworker children in the campos. Campos were small little make-shift communities that had their own unique culture and structure. I remember the older kids and men working out in the fields and the older girls and women all working together to make meals. Everyone ate together and I think that must be where I developed my life-long addiction for home-made (field-made) tortillas. I can still hear the sound of older señoras slapping and clapping white masa back and forth between their hands before they would lay them on a giant fire-warmed comal.
Naturally since my Dad was Santa, guess who got to be the little tights-wearing elves? We felt ridiculous, but my Mom and Nana worked really hard at making the costumes for me and my brother. One year we didn’t have enough toys so my Mom drove us to the house and we wrapped some of our toys for them. It really didn’t bother us because we all played together anyway, so the toys weren’t going far. It always amazed me though that no matter how poor we were, there were always kids poorer than us.
These are memories that I will carry with me forever. But perhaps the memory that is the strongest is of one particular march that we went on with Cesar Chavez. We marched from El Mirage, Arizona to the state capitol in downtown Phoenix. It’s about a 20 mile trek down Grande Avenue. It was a beautiful morning when we left the UFW office my father ran in El Mirage. We started with a few dozen people but the crowd grew steadily as we made our way through Sun City into Peoria, Glendale, and then west Phoenix. My brother and I took turns pulling my little sister Margarita in our little red wagon. We carried the tattered red, black, and white Huelga flags on rested them on our little shoulders as we marched.
It was a little breezy that day so we could hear the flags ruffle in the wind. I looked up to see my father walking next to Cesar and a group of older men and women. There were priests and nuns fingering their rosaries as we proceeded. My father and Cesar would often close their eyes and pray along the way, a trick my father taught me to take my mind off of being hungry, thirsty, or tired. They made small talk and laughed at the occasional joke. I remember that my father and another man often served as body guards for Cesar, so my dad was always rotating his head back and forth, scanning the area and crowd. To this day I wonder how a man with my father’s notorious temper managed to keep to the union creed of non-violence. Especially when people would be in his face, saying nasty things about him or trying to grope my mother just to provoke a reaction.
In the front of the march, even in front of Cesar, where three people. One carried the American flag, another carried a large union flag, and yet another carried a large banner of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The image of “mama virgen” was always around the marches and campos. Right behind us were the mariachis. Strumming their guitars and blaring their trumpets. My heart is still moved and a tear comes to my eye whenever I hear Nosotros Venceremos or De Colores. The music always took our mind off the heat and fatigue. During my Nana’s funeral, Don Manuel and his Mariachi Campesino played. I remember looking at him and thinking how he’d changed over the years, but his voice was still strong as I remember as I child on that march.
Cesar eventually pulled my sister along himself, giving my brother and me a much-needed rest. He winked at us when the news reporters and cameras came around. He told us to “stand up straight and make your parents proud”. He tried to comb my hair to the side with his hands and patted my head as he made his way over to the microphones set-up for the press conference at the end of the march.
As I grew up, Cesar always reminded me about how we pulled my little sister on a march that was so long. He used to laugh with my Dad about the time I tried to stop a cop in Yuma from arresting my Dad at a demonstration, talk about how much we’d grown and tell us how important it was to La Causa that we continue our education.
The remarkable thing about Cesar was how unremarkable of a man he was. He was so normal and down-to-earth that if you didn’t know who he was, you’d never know that he was a founder of a movement. He started a movement and had the courage to speak truth to power. He was not a dynamic, fire-and-brimstone speaker. He was small in stature but big in courage. It’s natural that such a humble and dignified man led such a humble people. His parents knew what they were doing when he was given such a powerful name. He was able to do things that could only have been done by a Cesar!
Cesar was a visionary. He was an environmentalist and pacifist before his time. He even fought for the improvement of the treatment of animals. No matter how much he tried to reassure me, I was terrified by his two dogs, Huelga and Boycott, when we went to visit him in La Paz. He never stayed in fancy hotels when he visited a town to organize or speak. He stayed at the homes of supporters, often insisting to sleep on the couch or on the floor.
When he died, my father got to carry the simple wooden box he was buried in for a short while. My father was already in declining health, but he was determined to help carry the body of his friend and mentor. Cesar’s wishes were to have his coffin carried by as many campesinos as possible, so it was a memorable experience to see famous people and farmworkers carry Cesar’s body through the streets of Delano.
We’ve come a long way during his time. Streets that Cesar once led marches on now bear his name. He fought legislatures for the simplest of rights for farmworkers, and now legislatures have passed holidays marking his birth. Cesar Chavez Park in Phoenix used to be the same fields where farmworker’s toiled. Ironic and fitting.
He once led a move to recall the governor of Arizona and now politicians all over the southwest trip over one another to speak to Latinos on Cesar Chavez Day. He used to tell young people about the importance of an education though he only had an eight grade education himself, and now he has schools that bear his name. My tio, who worked in the fields next to my mother, now teaches at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in south Phoenix! How’s that for improving the lives of farmworkers!
If I’ve learned anything from Cesar it was to never be afraid to speak truth to power. We all have a responsibility to make sure that our children understand who he was and what he did.
From now until the day that I draw my last breath, I will be proud to say, I MARCHED WITH CESAR CHAVEZ!
¡Viva La Causa Y Viva Cesar Chavez!