Quien era Cesar Chavez?
By Richard Ybarra
(This article first appeared in Vida Nueva, a newspaper established by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)
This is the story of Cesar Chavez. It will tell readers who he was and what he believed and did with and for others that has made him a household world in and outside the United States of America.
During his funeral Mass Cardinal Rogelio Mahony said, “Cesar Chavez was a special prophet for his people.”
Cesar Chavez was born to be special but it was not easy to know in the beginning. He became someone who developed many complex characteristics that made him hard to label. This small yet powerful man with an 8th grade education became a giant in history. His roles were varied. He was at the same time a strong labor and a tireless civil and human rights leader, a pacifist like his heroes St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Cesar was an economist, accountant, photographer, vegetarian, animal rights activist, organic gardener, wine connoisseur, pool and billiard ace, German Shepherd lover and trainer, Cursillista and jazz aficionado. His good friends included Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, Arizona’s Bill Soltero, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, Bill Kircher of the AFL-CIO, Paul Schrade – UAW, Paul Hall – Seafarers, Pete Velasco , Father Victor Salandini, Anthony Quinn, Martin Sheen, Joan Baez, Delancey Street’s John Maher and many nuns, rabbis, ministers and priests. Some say he was not a great speaker but only great speakers like him make audiences cry and get thousands to volunteer their time and hundreds to become full time volunteers for $5 a week, plus room and board.
Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma Arizona on March 31, 1927 to Librado Chavez and Juana Estrada. He grew up on the farm that his grandfather settled in the 1880’s. His parents taught him the significant values that the world later came to know him by – loving thy neighbor, non violence, feeding the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned (essentially Mathew 25).
During the depression they lost the farm and became migrant workers. Cesar often said that he and his family “picked everything under the sun except pockets.”
Like many other migrant workers, he attended 28 different schools, dropping out in the 8th grade to work in the agriculture fields to help his family. Cesar later learned to enjoy reading, and his curiosity about everything in life caused him to read hundreds of books. His family joined every farm labor strike they encountered and he recalled the difficulties and fun he had living in labor camps and tents. His favorite recreation as a boy was shooting pool in his family’s pool halls. It was a skill he never lost.
He also enjoyed big band music from this country and he and Helen, whom Cesar married in 1948, loved to swing dance the jitterbug. He wore zoot suits and other styles of his times. At age 18 he joined the US Navy serving for two years during WWII.
After the service he returned to Delano and married Helen Fabela Chavez. He was once arrested there for not obeying a theater rule saying he had to sit in the Mexican section. Over the next several years he and Helen along with brothers Richard and Manuel and their spouses traveled California doing farm work to mill work. In 1950 while living in San Jose near his parents Cesar’s life would forever change. As a devout Catholic, he volnteered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. He helped Father Donald McDonnell who introduced him to the writings of Pope Leo XII, Rerum Novarum and the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
In 1952 he met Fred Ross who recruited Cesar as a community organizer. Fred was his lifelong friend and mentor. Cesar became State Director of the Community Service Organization (CSO) and moved his family around the state, organizing urban and rural chapters, that helped Mexican Americans and registered them to vote in elections.
Then he founded the United Farm Workers of America with Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, his wife Helen and their eight children: Fernando, Silvia, Linda, Elouise, Anna, Paul, Elizabeth and Anthony. Cesar gave credit to the Filipino workers, who started in 1965 the Grape Strike one week before his Mexican union joined them. He would later build the Paulo Agbayani Village as a retirement home for the Filipino brothers he and his family loved. This became the first successful union of farmworkers in United Sates history. Though he went on to become a labor and civil rights leader, his most comfortable role was as a husband, father and grandfather to a family.
To know Cesar Chavez, you must know his primo hermano (first cousin) Manuel Chavez, his closest friend and confidante. Before his death in 1999, Manuel was asked when Cesar got the idea to do what they would do and accomplish later in life. Manuel said, “We were teenagers working in the fields and living in a labor camp. We were cold, hungry, angry and had not been paid. We said, ‘someday if we can, we will change how this works’.” Asked why Cesar believed he could succeed where everyone else had failed before in forming a union? “We had nothing to lose!” said Manuel, smiling.
“Si se puede” the saying he made popular, was born during his 1972 Fast for Justice in Arizona. The governor had signed a law not allowing farmworkers to form unions. Many said things could not be changed in Arizona – “no se puede” was what you heard in the community. Cesar’s 24 day fast ended with 10,000 persons in the march and rally, highlighted by Joe Kennedy, son of Senator Robert Kennedy, shouting “Si se puede! Viva Cesar Chavez!”
Cesar never stopped growing. When asked what he found most brilliant about Cesar, chief biographer Jacques Levy (author of the authentic book on Chavez – “Autobiography of La Causa”) said, “His curiosity! Any topic that caught his attention he would read and learn about it. Whether it was history, architecture, finance, management, agriculture, cooperatives, labor, natural resources, eastern and western religions, etc.” Cesar Chavez read from one to ten books at a time. He read slowly but captured and learned everything.
Cesar was a serious and disciplined man who faced pressure with calm, patience and courage. As a leader he never betrayed his humility, and by example showed supporters and followers the power of finding courage to overcome fear. He was passionate about everything he did – organizing, campaigning, handball, yoga, vegetarianism and animal rights. He comforted families in mourning and had a habit of stopping along highways to help people whose cars had broken down.
I believe that God prepares all of us with basic capacity. In the case of Cesar Chavez, he gave him an extra portion. As Cesar grew as a leader and as a person, he formed an unusual, gentle and powerful mix of philosophy. He once answered a question from a European diplomat visiting him on how he would describe his political beliefs, he simply answered, “radical Catholic.” Courage and fearlessness under pressure were part of his make-up.
Cesar Chavez’s philosophy could be categorized as a fine blend of Catholicism, Judaism, United Auto Workers (from the Reuther brothers) and yoga, with a touch of Gandhian thought, St. Francis and Martin Luther King, Jr. He learned from each to create his own whole. His greatest teachers were his parents, Librado who showed him work ethics and worldly skills and Juana who was his spiritual guide and role model.
He felt that to “Treat people as people” was one of the most difficult lessons for human beings to learn. He deemed it the basis of differences and difficulties in our world, people not taught how to treat and respect others. A favorite quote was “Hay más tiempo que vida”. He would explain that truth would always triumph and good things happen in time! His direction was always simple and straight ahead. He treated all people with dignity and respect. He was very close to the farmworkers he served and relished the times spent sharing and teaching them.Person
Up close this man of small stature (about 5’6” tall) was as he seemed. He was a visionary, a courageous and relentless fighter, true to his beliefs with the discipline of a world-class athlete. He was brilliant and had an unquenchable curiosity for life and how things work. For him a fun afternoon was slowly peering at book after book on shelves of a used bookstore in any city. The subjects he enjoyed ranged from the classics to history, biographies to architecture and organic farming to religious studies. If he read it he could master any subject and tie it to something he wanted to teach or do. Cesar had a serene seriousness bolstered by a quick sense of humor. He was always ready to laugh – and if it was really funny, a gut-wrenching contagious laughter. He could be silly and joke about himself and regularly included corny jokes in his speeches.
His influence and leadership are alive and will be with us forever. He is like Benito Juarez, Miguel Hidalgo, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Simon Bolivar and other Latino legends. Cesar led by example and gave people the coaching to succeed. He was extremely frugal and like many from his generation was concerned about budgets and spending. His background and the lessons he learned from other groups taught him that organizations — and especially “movements”– could be wiped out due to mishandling of funds or overspending. Though at times he was criticized as being too tightfisted and a micromanager of money issues, his legacy includes never being accused of mishandling a dime of organizational funds to enrich himself or anyone else. Having raised millions upon millions of dollars from donations, coop funds and nonprofit businesses to keep his organizations alive, this is a powerful cornerstone of his legacy.
Hundreds of former colleagues and volunteers went on to become leaders impacting our society as much as any “group” from any US movement. Cesar was a trainer of leaders — someone whose style and commitment influenced those he coached and gave opportunities to advance their own lifelong contributions. Mostly he enjoyed the interactions with the poor and working families he served. Their love and respect for him as well as their sacrifices and courage kept Cesar humble, honest and inspired. He was a loyal leader who represented many undocumented workers. During strikes he and they opposed all strikebreakers, with or without documents.
Student of life – his teachings
Cesar Chavez learned the value and importance of “treating people like people.” That led to his movement getting support from a broad collection of backgrounds and people, enabling his movement to become a bastion of diversity. His example was a key influence to thousands of volunteers who supported his movement in the fields and in the cities. He encouraged and supported women as leaders long before it was fashionable.
Cesar’s inspiration caused many Americans to join his cause and become leaders in it. Their contribution should long be noted. When it came to key leaders and keen strategists who helped make “Cesar Chavez” into a national figure and legend, there was no shortage of superstars from all backgrounds especially Anglos and people from the Jewish community. Their efforts were solid and performances were stellar. Without them there would have been no grape boycott, farmworkers movement or Cesar Chavez. His movement included farmworkers of many backgrounds. While the majority were Mexican immigrants, Filipinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Salvadorians, Portuguese, Arabs, Haitians, Punjabs, Cubans, Oakies and Arkies played important roles. He valued each group. Cesar assembled a mini United Nations.
Cesar inspired a generation of Latinos to stay in school, graduate from college and become professionals. The one semester he taught labor studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, the biggest classroom overflowed with over 800 attending ever lecture. Cesar prepared long and hard each week and while there had a room at Mission Santa Barbara with the Franciscans who viewed him as one of their own.
Besides his family role, his spirituality was the most central aspect of his life. Though a devout Catholic who represented his church with pride, Cesar’s earliest church support came from Protestants, Jewish temples and synagogues. For the most part, the Catholic Church, priests and nuns came around later and made great contributions. They had more difficulty due to so many opponent farmers being Catholics as well.
Cesar was popular with churches and religious group in the USA, Canada and Europe. His work took him to every church or religious conclave and service imaginable. He enjoyed welcomes from every major religious denomination at international, national and regional convenings. Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Church of Christ, Orthodox and Reform Jews, World Council of Churches, Anglican, Baptists –even Krishnas– and other denominations invited him to address them. He gathered encouragement and strength from them. Boycotters and strikers formed the volunteer army that fought for “immigrant farmworkers rights” while churches, labor and students fueled the fight for the soul and conscience of the American people.
Cesar was always focused and direct in setting goals and personal habits. He took care of his health in most every way imaginable (with the exceptions being his many fasts and not getting medical attention before his sudden and unexpected death). His vegetarian diet was very clean. He exercised and was an accomplished student of yoga.
He set his routine to fit his demanding seven-day-a-week schedule. Early to rise, early to exercise, healthy eating, meeting after meeting, something to soothe the mind and spirit — like a long walk, glass of carrot juice, working in his organic garden, listening to jazz and mariachi music and those books he read late into the night — were the things that kept his mind and body keen.
He was a healer of sorts, and everyone who knew him well was familiar with his remedies and hand curing methods, that he employed to ease pains of others. He would rub his hands together quickly, to warm them up and then place each on opposite sides of the ailing body part, without his hands touching the person’s body. Within a few minutes, one could feel heat on the injury and hear his calm voice ask if there was a difference, most often noting a successful treatment. This was not widely publicized or known about him.
Cesar Chavez went from desert farm boy to labor and human rights leader. He studied economics, economic development, leveraging resources, funds, services and benefits for farmworkers and other poor people. He experimented and dabbled in economic development. From his earliest days fundraising for CSO — where he would stage a carnival that involved his family, even his father running the small ferris wheel, to the multimillion dollar funds and nonprofit organizations he developed in his life.
Cesar led burial services, a credit union, a state chain of clinics, prepaid legal programs, health clinics, day care, a retirement village, a multi-million dollar health care program for farmworker families on both sides of the border, day care centers, retirement villages, job training in printing, auto/diesel mechanics and data processing, a private bus company, English and negotiations schools, a statewide microwave radio network, radio stations, the publishing of two newspaper, affordable housing and a pension plan for his members. There were experiments he had in mind that he never got to explore.
In 1979 he said his long term goal was to leave the UFW to others and go into cities across the USA to form the “Poor People’s Union”. He would bring poor working people together to leverage funds to get more goods and services. He studied cooperatives all over the world and found the Mondragon system in Spain to be the best model. He thought that poor people, especially immigrants, needed to form economic cooperatives and businesses to provide for themselves at lower rates and to become self sufficient. These included farming coops, garden coops in cities, insurance, health clinics along with social service centers to serve poor and working immigrant families.
He believed services for immigrants would be in great need for many years. It is now up to people living today and the generations that follow to take make his dream their own and organize to do the things he taught. Se puede? Si Se Puede!!
The father of eight children, grandfather to 31, Cesar was looked up to, loved and respected. He was a husband who respected and loved his wife Helen. He was a father whose cause took him away from his children. He tried to make up for this with the love and time he shared with grandchildren. The role of grandfather was Cesar’s greatest.
His ways of convincing others to follow his lead and ideas, no matter how impossible they seemed, was practiced on his family. He cared deeply about them but never showed them favoritism when it came to the movement’s scarce financial resources, meaning they were last and least. When his children asked for bicycles or dolls, he would say “when the eagle flies” (when the union won). Over the years they came to believe “that old eagle will never fly.” In a poetic way, that old eagle finally flew on April 23, 1993 – the day of his passing and when 50,000 people came to pay respect at his funeral services in Delano, California. He even managed to organize his burial to be 29 days after his birthday.
Upon his passing Helen honored Cesar’s wish of being buried in the La Paz Rose Garden with his two German Shepherds – Boycott and Huelga.
About the author: RICHARD YBARRA served as union organizer, writer/editor of Chavez’ newspaper, personal assistant, speech writer, advance man, head of security and friend. He traveled and worked day and night with Chavez for three and a half years in 1972 to late 1975. In 1981 he received a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University’s JFK School of Government. His wife Anna Chavez is Cesar’s daughter. They have four children who share their grandfather’s humanity curiosity and varied life interests.