Today marks the anniversary of the birthday of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders, César Chávez (1927-1993). Across the world, the legacy of a man who spent his entire life fighting against the injustices saddled on the shoulders of hardworking people will be celebrated and honored.

He was a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 under the Presidency of Bill Clinton and was nominated for a Congressional Gold Medal in 2004 by leaders of the Democratic Party. Buildings, schools and streets across the United States have been renamed in his honor.

Here in Tucson, the city government is considering an official holiday to commemorate and honor his mission.  Even the U.S. Congress has a bill calling for a federal holiday, which is probably collecting dust somewhere in Speaker Hastert’s office.

So who was this humble man on a mission of justice?

Born in 1927, César learned at a young age what it was like to be a victim of society.  From his Wikipedia entry:

Cesar grew up in Arizona; the small adobe home where Cesar was born was swindled from them by dishonest white businessmen. Cesar’s father agreed to clear eighty acres of land and in exchange he would receive the deed to forty acres of land that adjoined the home. The agreement was broken and the land sold to a man named Justus Jackson. Cesar’s dad went to a lawyer who advised him to borrow money and buy the land. Later when Cesar’s father could not pay the interest on the loan the lawyer bought back the land and sold it to the original owner. Cesar learned a lesson about injustice that he would never forget. Later, he would say, “The love for justice that is in us is not only the best part of our being, but it is also the most true to our nature.”

Known primarily for his work in organizing the United Farmworkers Movement, César followed in a long line of historical figures who adhered to the nonviolent method of protest and activism. He empowered everyday workers to take a stand for their rights, organizing widespread marches and boycotts that allowed their calls for justice to be heard and joined across America. He also showed the corporate masters that he believed in his mission by engaging in multiple hunger Fasts for Life.

Cesar was willing to sacrifice his own life so that the union would continue and that violence was not used. Cesar fasted many times. In 1968 Cesar went on a water only, 25 day fast. He repeated the fast in 1972 for 24 days, and again in 1988, this time for 36 days. What motivated him to do this? He said, Farm workers everywhere are angry and worried that we cannot win without violence. We have proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and build a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence.

Thirty-six days. A testament to the power of the human will when the entire “body, mind and soul” are united for a common cause – or causa, as it is known in the Xicano community.

Seeing images and video of hundreds of thousands of people marching and students walking out of their classrooms to join in solidarity the past few weeks has been breathtaking. Much hay has been ordered by conservative talking-heads to water down the power of these demonstrations of unity and comunidad by their touting of César’s opposition to illegal immigration during his years of activism.  From the 3/27/06 transcript of CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight:

And there is horrible symbolism, at least in my opinion, that these students would be leaving their schools to demonstrate, and particularly on a day that is Cesar Chavez Day by the way, a man who fought fiercely for the rights of migrant workers and Hispanics in this country and who objected to illegal immigration with all of his heart and all of his energy, because he understood that the people who would be most victimized by it would be the very people he sought to help and that is the Hispanic community.

By the way, The Pew Hispanic Center bore out Cesar Chavez’s views last year with a study that showed that of two million Hispanic illegal immigrants into this country, those who lost their jobs as a result, were the most recent Hispanic immigrants into this country. A difficult, difficult complex issue. In one that, could it seems to me, be far better represented by the elected officials, certainly in Los Angeles.

Now would be a good time to mention that L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined his people in the march for justice last Saturday. He has also met with students this week to address their concerns at seeing the U.S. Congress consider making their friends and family members felons overnight; finishing with a stern plea for them to return to their classrooms to discuss the issue.

People like Lou Dobbs and Michelle Malkin have no credibility to dictate what Latino leaders believe. To get the facts, it’s best to go straight to the source. In this case, The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation should be a good starting point.

Following huge marches & student walk-outs, the Cesar Chavez Foundation and United Farm Workers have created a special immigration curriculum to further engage students in taking action on Justice for Immigrants.

Download it Today!  (.pdf file)

The curriculum activity found at the download link should put that particular right-wing talking-point to a quick death.

César was indeed an opponent of illegal immigration, but he was also vehemently opposed to the enslavement of workers by corporate greedmongers who worship at the altar of the Almighty Dollar. To suggest that he would support draconian bills like HR4437 if he were alive today shows a gross disconnect to understanding the legacy of Chavez’s mission, summed up today by Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO)’s reciting of one of César’s personal prayers on the floor of the Senate.

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.

Help me take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with others workers.

Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.

Take some time today to remember César’s long legacy of promoting justice and human dignity. He was able to reawaken the conscience of the people through a combination of organizational power and personal humility that can easily be replicated today if we believe and hope in the collective strength of la causa de paz y justicia.  It can be done.  ¡Sí, Se Puede!

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