BY HECTOR BALDERAS
This weekend, millions of Americans will pause to reflect and honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez.
Cesar Chavez will always be known as a tireless advocate for the poor and underrepresented. When he saw an entire group of our society struggle with no one speaking for them, he not only lent his voice, but helped them realize how to make theirs heard.
For most of our nation’s history the migrant workers who picked the lettuce, the peas, the beans, the cherries, and the grapes were paid almost nothing. They suffered their injustice without hope. With his nonviolent approach to change, Cesar Chavez led the pickets, the marches, the strikes, and the boycotts until finally farm workers achieved higher wages, better working conditions in the fields, and the right to bargain collectively.
As a leader in the fight for justice for migrant workers, and of the Latino civil rights movement in general, Cesar Chavez helped generations of Latinos in America realize a sense of self-empowerment, whether it was standing up to brutality or simply registering to vote.
Cesar Chavez was guided by a simple principle — to leave the world a better place than we found it. He showed us that a single voice can change our country. And he showed us how strong a people can be when they bind their hearts and efforts together in a sense of community.
The hope and optimism that Cesar Chavez articulated inspired generations after him. As a young boy growing up in Wagon Mound, my mom and I lived in public housing and survived on Medicaid and food stamps. But even as a boy growing up in family and community that did not have much, I never knew we were poor. Instead, my mother filled her children with a sense of hope and optimism. She taught us that with hard work, a strong sense of community, and the willingness to stand up for what is right, the sky was the limit.
Sadly, today there are far too many families in too many New Mexico communities who have lost that sense of hope – who no longer believe that the sky’s the limit. They worry about a lack of jobs in their communities, whether or not they can pay their mortgage, how they will send their kids to college, or if their kids will even finish high school. For the first time, they’ve lost hope that their children will have it better off than they did.
And it’s no wonder. When they look at Washington and see our political and leaders arguing over how big of a tax cut to give the wealthiest among us, people lose hope.
When they look at Wall Street and see that not one single person that caused our nation’s economic crisis has gone to jail or been held accountable, people lose hope.
Cesar Chavez taught us that there’s a better way. That the only way to strengthen our society is by investing in all our people – not just the most privileged. By investing in public education, rural infrastructure, and our struggling small business owners, and protecting programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we will not only be helping our most vulnerable, we will be strengthening our entire nation.
As Chavez once said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
That is a lesson our political and corporate leaders could stand to learn.
But we cannot rely on them. If there’s anything that Cesar Chavez taught us, it’s that we must take our destiny into our own hands. Only we can ensure that our voices are heard and that our communities thrive and succeed.
That is what inspired me to enter into public service. Throughout our entire history as a nation, only seven Latinos have ever been elected to the U.S. Senate. We need more people from our community to step up and be active, not just by running for office, but by getting engaged in our community, and by using the most simple but powerful weapon we have – our votes.
Even with that, there are many cynics who wonder if we will ever be able to truly bring change, if we are too much of an underdog. To them, I say that I began every one of my political campaigns as an underdog. But that’s OK because I’m in good company. We are a state full of underdogs.
But if there’s one thing that Cesar Chavez taught us – and that history has proven – it is that we as a community, we as a people, and we as a nation are at our strongest when our underdogs make their voices heard.
This weekend, the dream still lives and our hopes continue to sustain us. Cesar Chavez’s struggle is our struggle, and the struggle ennobles us. Let us honor him by never losing his sense of abetter world, and let us prove to our mothers that we still believe that the sky’s the limit.
HECTOR BALDERAS is New Mexico State Auditor and a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate. Learn more about him at www.hectorbalderas.com