The Deification of Cesar Chavez

The fact is, we all know exactly why we have Cesar Chavez day, and it has everything to do with his ethnicity and politics, and very little with his actual accomplishments. We started down this slippery slope when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a holiday.

Tomorrow is Cesar Chavez Day. In honor of it, libraries, state colleges, and city and state offices are closed, and parades and festivals and marches are taking place. You see, it’s a California state holiday, as well as an ordained city holiday for San Jose. Futhermore, throughout the nation, streets, including major ones, like San Francisco’s former Army Street, have been renamed for him, and if there’s a new library, park, or school under construction, odds are pretty good it’s going to be named after Cesar Chavez. Neil sings songs about Cesar Chavez at school, and there’s talk in San Jose of turning a house he once lived in into a historical shrine.

And what exactly is it that Cesar Chavez did to deserve all this honor? I posed the question to a Cesar Chavez fan, and she told me “he organized the farm workers,” clearly meaning the migrant, largely Mexican, work force that’s a major component of California agriculture. Ok, I understand limited-English, migrant workers are a tough group to unionize even under the best of circumstances, but in the long run, he didn’t even succeed on that end. The workers he empowered and unionized in the 1960s used their clout and money to buy the farms off the “rancheros demonios” (as one song calls them), whose farms were not as profitable (and maybe not profitable at all) when they had to pay union wages. But today, are those enlightened former farm-workers-turned-farmer hiring union labor to work their fields? Duh, no. Farm workers remain as oppressed as ever. If strawberry pickers in Watsonville decide they want better pay, they know better than to organize a strike, because as soon as they do, there’ll be vans from Juarez delivering desperate laborers eager to take their place. And even involving the consumer in a boycott can backfire: the great grape boycott (because of noxious pesticides used) sometimes leaves only two kinds of grapes at the supermarket: Californian organic and expensive; or Chilean sprayed, and cheap.

Cesar Chavez’ actual enduring accomplishment was founding the United Farm Workers Union. Judging from their website, their current campaigns include lobbying congress for money for unemployed citrus fruit pickers (the kind of relief unions traditionally provided as a benefit of membership), creating pressure to make Cesar Chavez Day a federal holiday, and immigration reform.

Along the same lines, we should just as well be honoring Samuel Gompers, who united the unions. But the poor guy can’t even get his face on a postage stamp these days, we’re so busy churning out new Cesar Chavez stamps on an annual basis.

The fact is, we all know exactly why we have Cesar Chavez day, and it has everything to do with his ethnicity and politics, and very little with his actual accomplishments. We started down this slippery slope when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a holiday. I don’t mean to belittle the great man, but much of what we honor on MLK, Jr.’s birthday used to be part of the discussion for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Remember Abraham Lincoln, the president who actually emancipated American slaves in the first place? Now his birthday, and that of George Washington, has been mushed into the non-judgmental Presidents’ Day, which honors the dregs of the presidency, like Millard Fillmore, just as much.

The premise behind Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was essentially identity politics. And even then, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an odd choice. People of African heritage have been part of the United States even before it was founded, and there were plenty of honorable emancipation and civil rights heroes: W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, just to name a few. So to choose a 1960s civil rights leader who so eloquently said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” as America’s token black hero was a bit ironic.

And so we get to Cesar Chavez, who’s even more problematic in that context. First of all, it’s a lot harder to find a token Mexican-American hero in the first place. Mexico, as a nation, is younger than the United States, and even if you want to stretch the search to become for a Hispanic-American hero, you’re going to get into trouble. Until it became politically expedient to seperate them as an ethnic group, Hispanics were simply Americans, just like the white guys. Junipero Serra founded the missions in California, but without a Mexico to pin him to, he’s just an Imperial Spaniard. Juan Seguin fought against Santa Anna to free Texas from Mexico, but in today’s political atmosphere, not everyone still thinks that was a good idea.

And besides, the closest Hispanic analogue to Martin Luther King, Jr. –the one guy to picked for a holiday because of his skin tone and 1960s politics–was Cesar Chavez. The difference is that Martin Luther King, Jr. and those like him inspired a change that’s still in place today: we no longer have segregated water fountains and bathrooms, and there’s no (sometimes even reverse) prejudice for the smart, ambitious African-American who wants to get into a good college and land a lucrative corporate job. Cesar Chavez in the context of history is just a union founder.

The smaller the hero, the larger his pedestal, and I think that’s the case with Cesar Chavez. He’s reached near-divine status in some of the materials I see about him, particularly the folk songs. The vast naming and renaming of places and buildings in his memory is over the top. And I think looking for national heroes to honor with holidays by ethnicity was, and continues to be, a bad idea.

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