The question of Latino leadership and role models is raised more and more as political power and demographic dynamics shift in the United States. Very often, our sights look back into history for figures to lift up onto pedestals to fill what some see as a void, but nostalgia often clouds accurate portrayals of the past. History and those who make it are complex, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of César Chávez and his legacy. Sunday, March 31 is César Chávez birthday and in three states, California, Texas, and Colorado, it is an official state holiday where schools, libraries and other government offices are closed in recognition of the Mexican-American labor leader who, with Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, now known as the United Farm Workers. Born near Yuma, Arizona Chávez is most well known for leading marches, lettuce and grape boycotts and hunger strikes to improve farm worker conditions including better pay.
There have been calls to make the day a national holiday. In 2008, then presidential hopeful Barack Obama even lent his support and Obama took the chant of “sí se puede,” turning it into “yes we can” to promote his presidential run. When César Chávez was given a national monument, there was much controversy as to if it was a real recognition or a political ploy to attract the coveted Latino vote. “Sí se puede” and Chávez’s name are now also tied into the growing fight for comprehensive immigration reform, and here is where the retelling of history gets complicated.
[pullquote_right]La causa, or the struggle that Chávez led was squarely focused on U.S. citizens and legalized workers, not the undocumented. This has led to his name being used by both sides of the debate, anti-immigrant and pro-migrant. [/pullquote_right]In the retelling of history, what often gets left out is how Chávez and the UFW reported some undocumented immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation and set up a “wet line” along the border to stop immigrants from entering the US.
There has also been controversy as to if a Mexican-American can be or should be lifted up as an example for all Latinos. While lines can be drawn connecting the rights of primarily Mexican and Central American farm workers to the struggles of Caribbean Latino factory workers, it’s a harder historical sell to East Coast migrants and their children. There is also concern of Chávez’s name, emblazoned on more than 40 parks, schools and buildings across the United States being used as a catch all to the exclusion of other, more “radical” activists of the time. Certainly a parallel can be drawn with the African-American community and the use of the name of Dr. Martin Luther King over Malcolm X, for example.
But these important issues do not mean that Chávez isn’t relevant today or that he shouldn’t be lifted up. Chávez’s relationship to the immigration issue parallels labor’s own shift on the issue. Where unions once wanted to exclude and marginalize legalization, like Chávez, who saw the undocumented migrant workers as potential strikebreakers and a thorn in the side of union negotiations, now there is almost universal recognition that a shift in the worker population requires inclusion if unions want to survive and remain relevant. Chávez may have fallen victim to divide and conquer politics, which is something we see now in the immigration reform debate. In an interview earlier this year with Talking Points Memo, former UFW board member and current secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union Eliseo Medina said, “The growers exploited the misery of one group against the misery of the other.”
Perhaps that is where the lesson is in looking back for lessons on how to move forward. People need to be honest about the complex nature and dangers of relying on electoral politics for change then and now.