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Cesar Chavez: Solidarity in Action

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Modern Peace Makers

Cesar Chavez: Solidarity in Action
Thursday, October 29, 2015

In giving of yourself, you will discover a whole new life full of meaning and love. —Cesar Chavez [1]

Though he is fondly remembered by Mexican Americans, Cesar Chavez is not otherwise well known in the United States, so I will share some of the details of his life. Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was born in Arizona to Mexican American parents. He experienced discrimination and racism from a young age and, when his parents’ farm failed during the severe drought of the 1930s, he suffered poverty too. Rather than continue on to high school after finishing eighth grade, Chavez began working on farms in California.

From his experience in the fields, Chavez knew the very real needs of farm workers and the injustice of agri-business. Through nonviolent actions—such as boycotts, marches, pickets, strikes, and fasting—he advocated for laborers’ rights to fair wages and working conditions. Chavez’s rallying motto was “Si, se puede”—Yes, one can! Yes, we can make a difference.

Though not formally educated beyond eighth grade, Chavez drew inspiration from reading, particularly about St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. My Franciscan brothers in California told me that they knew personally that Cesar Chavez and his wife awoke early every day to say the rosary next to their bed. Their children grew up hearing this. Talk about a true catechism class!

With Dolores Huerta, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (which later became United Farm Workers). The organization joined Filipino American farm laborers in a strike against grape growers in California. The strike began in 1965 and continued for five years, gaining national attention, with thousands of Americans boycotting table grapes. It culminated in contracts for fair wages.

The grape strike was important not just for the workers involved. In the words of Chavez’s biographer, Jacques Levy: “To us the boycott of grapes was the most near-perfect of nonviolent struggles, because nonviolence also requires mass involvement. The boycott demonstrated to the whole country, the whole world, what people can do by nonviolent action. Nonviolence in the abstract is a very difficult thing to comprehend or explain. . . . It’s difficult to carry the message to people who aren’t involved. Nonviolence must be explained in context.” [2]

The grape boycott showed that solidarity through actions and not just words is essential. Levy writes, “Often only talk results when a person with social concern wants to do something for the underdog nonviolently. But just talking about change is not going to bring it about. . . . Nonviolence becomes just an ideology, something to write about, read about, or talk about while still being very comfortable. The ideology becomes a luxury, not a way of life. And nothing can be changed while being comfortable.” [3] I guess far too many of us are what they call “limousine liberals.”

When you agree to live simply, you do not consider the immigrant, the refugee, the homeless person, or the foreigner as a threat to you or see them as being in competition with you. You have chosen their marginal state for yourself—freely and consciously becoming “visitors and pilgrims” in this world, as St. Francis puts it (quoting 1 Peter 2:11). A simple lifestyle is quite simply an act of solidarity with the way most people have lived since the beginnings of humanity. It is thus restorative justice instead of the world’s very limited and punitive notion of retributive justice. [4]

Retributive justice and violence are the lazy and quite uncreative way to approach the problem of evil. Restorative solutions require much more from us, and not just others, and thus bring about transformation in both ourselves and in the world. Chavez writes:

I don’t subscribe to the belief that nonviolence is cowardice, as some militant groups are saying. In some instances nonviolence requires more militancy than violence. Nonviolence forces you to abandon the shortcut, in trying to make a change in the social order. Violence, the shortcut, is the trap people fall into when they begin to feel that it is the only way to attain their goal. When these people turn to violence it is a very savage kind.

When people are involved in something constructive, trying to bring about change, they tend to be less violent than those who are not engaged in rebuilding or in anything creative. Nonviolence forces one to be creative; it forces any leader to go to the people and get them involved so that they can come forth with new ideas. I think that once people understand the strength of nonviolence—the force it generates, the love it creates, the response that it brings from the total community—they will not be willing to abandon it easily. [5]

Gateway to Silence: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” —Gandhi

[1] Cesar Chavez, edited by Ilan Stavans, An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches (Penguin Books: 2008), 236.
[2] Jacques E. Levy, Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa (University of Minnesota Press: 2007), 269.
[3] Ibid., 269-270.
[4] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 38.
[5] Chavez, An Organizer’s Tale, 64.

Image credit: Abernathy children (Donzaleigh, Ralph David, and Juandalynn) march on the front line, followed by Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, leading the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, Abernathy Family Photos.
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