A New School Year

Today I begin my 30th semester as a teacher in higher education.  With any luck, it will also be my last as an untenured, assistant professor.

A new school year always brings with it a mix of emotions and stresses.  One consistent for me for the better part of the last decade is the very specific excitement that comes with the fall semester’s beginning and the fresh crop of students enrolled in my intro-level Chicano/Latino history course.

As a class, it is the very reason I chose my vocation.  The power and meaning that comes with being able to create an academic space that is collaborative, critical, and focused on narrating the diverse experiences of people of Latin American descent in the US is an overtly political act, and a very necessary one.  So much so is this the case in our present moment that it is a point I need only casually make for my students this morning.  As Chicanas/os and Latinas/os living in the US at this time, they are brutally aware of the consequences of “not knowing” and the stark lack of human compassion that is nurtured by this.

When we put it in those terms, however, that politics is inherently about people.  And that is perhaps what sustains me most throughout the year.  What we are going to do today and throughout the semester is not just learn, but build the greater likelihood of a more just, more humane, and more decent future for us all…

one mind at a time.

A Chicano and his Books

Every once in awhile, a young student will walk into my office and immediately be struck by the number of books s/he sees on my shelves.

“Have you read all of these books?,” they’ll ask.

“Yes,” I’ll say.  “It’s what they pay me to do.”

In actuality, I really haven’t.  As a historian, many of the books I have are for reference while working on a  lecture for a class, or a book or an article.  I have “covered” almost every book I have on my shelves, that is, I have read substantial parts of it to identify the argument, sources, perspective, and various elements of the proof.

It might seem odd, but I’m actually not a voracious reader.  I don’t love books they way other academics do.  I love History.  I LOVE Chicano/Latino histories.  I am obsessed with the evolving, scholarly understanding of us and our collective past.  I am also obsessed with California history, the history of social movements for change, and the history of racial inequality in the US.

When you put it all together, I’m not much for a novel, but I intellectually salivate over a new book on the the history of the Chicano Movement, or the UFW, or some other kindred topic.

In any event, every once in awhile I think it is important for those of us who read and write in these fields to remind others that we exist.  What’s better, we know and have books.  Whoever you are, if you’re ever interested in learning more about the varied pasts of the Chicano/a and Latina/o people, I’d be more than willing to point you in the direction of a great book.

Pictured above are some of my shelves of books in the office related to: California history (closest section, all shelves), Chicana Feminism (farthest section, top two shelves), and Chicano/Latino History (the whole middle section, and bottom shelves of farthest section).

What is Cinco de Mayo?

If you didn’t know any better, you would agree with the idiot who recently appeared on a late night show and described Cinco de Mayo as a holiday invented in the US “to celebrate our neighbors to the South, by drinking” (see part 5 of this episode of Conan). Long ago seized by the alcohol industry, for far too many people Cinco de Mayo is a day to drink margaritas or Coronas, all while wearing a straw sombrero.

If you fall into this category, you are possibly racist but most definitely a pendejo. Well, profe is here to tell you: ¡No seas pendejo!

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla of 1862, when Mexico successfully defeated the French imperialist army of Napoleon III. The better-equipped and more numerous French forces had invaded Mexico. For that reason the day came to symbolize the victory of the poor but righteous against the more powerful. This historic day in the life of the Mexican nation–a nation which had been severely compromised by the loss of almost half its territory to the equally imperialist United States in 1848–-was celebrated almost immediately as a day of independence and freedom from foreign control.

But the day was not just a Mexican holiday. The events in Puebla also meant something to the growing number of Mexican Americans in places like California.

Spanish language newspaper like La Voz de Méjico provided its delayed coverage of events in the south, including what they described as “our triumph against the French” at the Battle of Puebla. Exclaiming “¡¡Viva Méjico!! “¡¡Viva la Independencia!! “¡¡Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos!!,” the paper left little question where its sympathies lie.

As the exiled government of Benito Júarez sought financial and political support from abroad, Mexicans in the States worked to aid the restoration of Republican rule in their homeland. They created Juntas Patrióticas in the US, groups with “the noble desire to directly or indirectly help and defend our country.” Beginning in 1862, that support took the form of monetary donations. At first contributing to a commemorative tribute for the victory of General Ignacio Zaragoza against the French, fundraising campaigns evolved to more directly serve “the war effort” of the exiled government. Juntas “raised funds to provide medical care for wounded soldiers and support for the widows and orphans of Mexican soldiers killed in battle,” as well as secure the passage of former prisoners of war from France and to award medals for distinguished military efforts.

The lasting effect of this was important to Mexican American community formation here, as well as Mexican nation-building in the homeland. Cinco de Mayo became an annual event for commemoration and celebration in the US, uniting the Spanish-speaking in their new homes and creating venues for them to showcase their presence.

So do yourself a favor this Cinco de Mayo and stay true to the past. No! I don’t mean go beat up a Frenchman. I mean recognize that your commemoration of something seemingly corporate and racist can actually involve something much more meaningful than a beer and a hat. You are part of a long history in this country, one that took pride and strength from this day.

What is a movement?

On September 16, 1965, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) voted to join a strike of grape pickers begun by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). AWOC and the NFWA were distinct organizations–the constituency of the first were primarily Filipinos and the latter, Mexican. AWOC also had legal status and the support of the AFL-CIO, of which they were a part.

The NFWA saw itself as more than a labor movement. Its founded and leader–César Estrada Chávez–envisioned his efforts as a poor people movement, something that could fundamentally attack the inequitable power system which determined the poor quality of famrworkers’ lives. Though they didn’t plan on a strike in 1965, their larger project was threatened by being placed in the position of strike breakers. Their primary goal–recognition–would ultimately be served by the dynamic leadership role they played in the ensuing 5-year struggle.

In the same month they voted to join the strike, their English/Spanish newspaper–El Malcriado–began publishing pieces to help educate the Mexican famrworkers about the moment in which they found themselves. One piece asked “What is a movement?” It answered:

It is when there are enough people with one idea so that their actions are together like the huge wave of water, which nothing can stop.

The NFWA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Latino History Month #4

For the fourth and final installment of the “Latino Like Me Presents: Latino History Month 2010″™ series I wanted to go into the past to provide you a historical primary source that is both a window into our collective past as well as our collective present.

And so we turn to the legendary Bernardo Vega.

Born in Puerto Rico, in 1885, Vega worked as a tobaquero, a cigar maker. Tobaqueros were skilled workers on the islands of the Caribbean, as well as a highly politicized class. In each workshop a man called “El Lector” was paid to read newspapers and political treatises to the workers, providing them something of a sustained education as they rolled their hand-crafted cigars.

In the late 19th century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were both Spanish colonies, tobaqueros were among the first migrants to the US from the Lain American Caribbean. They settled in parts of the US South and Northeast, and helped organize political groups to agitate for an end to Spanish colonialism. The groups they established became the roots of future Puerto Rican and Cuban communities for the next century.

In 1916, Vega became part of that community when he arrived in New York City.

What makes Vega an important figure is that he wrote about his life experiences. Published after his death, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega is less a personal story of one man than a record of early 20th-century Puerto Rican life, in particular in the mainland US. Among the more exciting elements of his text are the detailed descriptions of this early community, both passionate about their island home as well as the political realities of daily life in the belly of the US empire.

Vega, like other politically-minded people, had ideas about the world he witnessed, many times identifying and analyzing important issues facing Latinos in the US. This passage, from that seminal text, is one example:

The constant growth of the Puerto Rican community gave rise to riots, controversy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: at a time when there were no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life in the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the same cultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were in agricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American Southwest. The Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, settled in the large urban centers, especially in New York, where in spite of everything the circumstances were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment, whether we wanted or that way or not.

Vega’s analysis is perceptive and, on many levels, true.

In this time period, and for the next two generations, Puerto Ricans were concentrated largely in one urban center–New York. The “impact” they had on affairs in that city (and somewhat beyond) is partially a result of their concentration, but also a result of their political and cultural organization. Even when their numbers were few, Puerto Ricans came to the US and set out to do the work of community organizing, and they were successful.

The fact that much of this organization took root in New York city–the most important city in the US–provided other advantages. New York’s position within US economic, political, and cultural matters only increased throughout the 20th century, and by having a voice within the Big Apple, Puerto Ricans had a voice in the nation writ large.

Where Vega missed the mark is in his lack of acknowledgment of one key difference between the migration of Puerto Ricans and the millions of Mexicans in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans migrated to the US as citizens, vested with full political rights upon their arrival. This isn’t to say they did not face harsh racism and multiple forms of discrimination. But, as voters, they could garner the attention of politicians in ways that Mexican Americans could not.

Ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest were numerous and diffuse, but they were also clustered in key urban centers. By 1930, Los Angeles had become the second-largest Mexican city in the world, second only to Mexico City itself. But in the early 20th century, most in the ethnic Mexican community were first-generation, non-citizen immigrants.

As the number of US-born Mexican Americans came to represent half and, then, a majority of the population as a whole, they did so with the largest share of their population under the age of 21. For much of the century, then, ethnic Mexicans were primarily a non-eligible to vote majority population. Accordingly, as late as the mid-20th century, Mexican Americans struggled to exert any political force at all, living as they were in a political system that had little motivation to cater to them.

My analysis is not meant to disparage Vega as much as to point out the people we call “Latino” and “Latina” have much in common, as well as much that distinguishes their historical and present-day realities. Citizenship and regional migration patterns are but two. We could also have discussed gender, race, nationality, class and a host of other forces which have carved out divergent experiences.

The final lesson is not a pessimistic one. This “diversity within commonality” is at the heart of Latino America. It is the source of a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about the contours of US imperialism in “on the ground”, concrete ways. It is also an opportunity for us, as Latinos, to better learn about ourselves and, in the process, create something new.

The US national project has been simultaneously tragic and hopeful. Far from a fulfillment of its most enduring ideals, the US–as experienced by indigenous Americans, African slaves, and waves of immigrants–has been as much a story of conquest and oppression as freedom and liberty. But the space between those two poles, the lived reality of millions of us now and then, continues to breed a hope that something better can be realized.

The hope of this something better requires a deliberate and purposeful re-imagining of ourselves in ways that incorporate difference, acknowledge past and current struggles, and embrace true equity.

This is the example we set as Latinos in the US. We forge a pathway to this new nation by our current struggles to do exactly the same within our own “community.” The mere fact that this word can be used to describe us–however conditional it might be–should be embraced as a sign of hope for everyone.

We have been so important to the past of this nation. We are vitally important to it if it is to have a future.

Latino History Month #1

They say those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it. I say, those who do not know their past have no future. For what are we if not the bearers of the collective memories and struggles of our ancestors?

In service of “Hispanic Heritage Month” (which I fear means little more than a few PBS specials and an enchildada dinner at the White House) I offer you a free Chicano/Latino history lesson every Wednesday for the next month.

This week, we go into the past to explore a moment in our collective history when youth radicalism seemed to be sweeping barrios from East LA to East Harlem.

Known as a Chicano nationalist organization with a militant leaning, the Brown Berets began in 1966 as a Church-fostered youth group called Young Chicanos for Community Action (YCCA). Sustained police harassment and an emerging exchange of “radical” ideologies and organizational examples reshaped them by the late 60s into the Brown Berets.

Their ten-point platform might be both easy to celebrate or deride, depending on your political sensibilities. As historians of our collective past, however, it is a significant statement of self-determination and youth idealism, shaped by a particular moment and place. We might wonder what experiences framed this utopian vision as “truth” for the young men and women involved?

Brown Berets, “Ten Point Program,” 1968. Reprinted in “Brown Berets: Serve, Observe, and Protect,” La Raza (newspaper), June 7, 1968, 13.

  1. Unity of all of our people, regardless of age, income, or political philosophy.
  2. The right to bilingual education as guaranteed under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
  3. We demand a Civilian Police Review Board, made up of people who live in our community, to screen all police officers, before they are assigned to our communities.
  4. We demand that the true history of the Mexican American be taught in all schools in the five Southwestern States.
  5. We demand that all officers in Mexican-American communities must live in the community and speak Spanish.
  6. We want an end to “Urban Renewal Programs” that replace our barrios with high rent homes for middle-class people.
  7. We demand a guaranteed annual income of $8,000 for all Mexican-American families.
  8. We demand that the right to vote be extended to all of our people regardless of the ability to speak the English language.
  9. We demand that all Mexican Americans be tried by juries consisting of only Mexican Americans.
  10. We demand the right to keep and bear arms to defend our communities against racist police, as guaranteed under the Second Amendments of the United States Constitution.

Like many other nationalist organizations, the Brown Berets’ history was marked by deep conflicts over sexism, as well as debates over the meaning of being “Chicano.” This is the story that flows from the above document, one best encompassed by questions like: How did this platform reflect the needs and interests of their membership and the larger community of which they were a part? How did it not? How did they go about trying to implement their vision?

If you are interested in pursuing just some of the above questions, feel free to do some further reading. A nice overview of the rise of the Berets can be found in Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, by Ian F. Haney-López. A superb collection of feminist writings from this era, ones that often express the tension between nationalism and feminism, is Alma Garcia’s Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings.

You are reading LATINO LIKE ME.

Chicano History Month #2

The below slice of a longer historical primary source is offered to you for your learning pleasure as part of this year’s “Latino Heritage Month.”

Today, we have a brief excerpt from a letter written from the Secretary of Labor to an influential Representative in the Congress, in 1924. In that year, the Congress passed the most sweeping reform to immigration law in US history. The Johnson-Reed Act (Immigration Act of 1924) tightened up the immigration quota system first reflected in legislation in 1921. As a result, the US set quotas for the allowable number of immigrants from a given nation. The numbers were set based on their share of the US population in the 1890 Census. This meant that immigrants from England and Germany would be ore numerous than those from Italy and Greece. Other legislation of the time also forbade outright immigrants from Asia. Interestingly, Mexicans and other Latin Americans were exempt. The following letter expresses some concern about the movement of Mexican nationals into the US while also reflecting the reason for the exemption.

_______________________________________________

SOURCE: From a letter from Hon. James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor, to Hon. Cyrenus Cole, House of Representatives, United States Congress, April 15, 1924.

“On May 22, 1917, the United States Secretary of Labor issued an order instructing immigration officials on the Mexican border to disregard the literacy test, the contract-labor section, and the head-tax provision of the immigration law with reference to the coming of Mexican people who were to engage as workmen in agricultural pursuits. This order remained in force until March 2, 1921, or until within two days of the passing out of the Wilson administration. I have never been able to find out how many people came in under that provision.”

Chicano History Month #1

It’s that time of year again, “Hispanic (Latino) Heritage Month.”  What better way to celebrate than to learn a little something?

So here it goes: for the next month, I’ll be going out of my way to post some historical primary sources relating to the Chicano experience in the United States.

Of course, it deserves mentioning that the historical experience of Chicanos (Mexican Americans) and “ethnic Mexicans” (which includes both immigrants and US-born people of Mexican descent) should not be seen as the exact equivalent of the historical experience of all “Hispanics” or all “Latinos.”  They represent about 70% of the Latin American-descent population of the United States, one that also includes a large number of people with ties to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, increasingly, Central American nations like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.  Each “group” not only has a unique historical experience in the US, but they also have a diverse past internal to their own ethnicity.

But there are commonalities, too.  And maybe this can be a way for us to explore some of those.  So here we go…


Source 1: New York Daily News, October 13, 1845.

This excerpt from an editorial printed in the New York Daily News opines on the recent annexation of Texas by the US, an act agreed to by the “citizens” of the “Republic of Texas” just that month.  Texas, which had been part of the Mexican Republic, was seized by a group of US Americans and, in 1836 controlled by them after they defeated the Mexican army.   For the better part of the next decade, most of them sought annexation by the US, with the full support of expansionist allies in the Congress and White House.  With the election of the expansionist Polk in 1844, their efforts finally came to fruition.  Outgoing President Tyler helped assure the passage of a resolution annexing Texas in the spring of 1845.

The author’s perspective here is reflective of the kinds of interpretations common among elites of his day, in particular those who were in favor of expansion.  Notice how the “acquisition” of Texas is contrasted with European imperialism.  Also notice how the writer views the land into which the US is moving, and by his mind, to which it intends to move.  The idea that their spread was destined to be is a powerful feature of expansionist thought, as is the contention that it is conquest for the betterment of mankind.

It is looked upon as aggression, and all the bad and odious features which the habits of thought of Europeans associate with aggressive deeds, are attributed to it. . . But what has Belgium, Silesia, Poland or Bengal in common with Texas? It is surely not necessary to insist that acquisitions of territory in America, even if accomplished by force of arms, are not to be viewed in the same light as the invasions and conquests of the States of the old world. . . our way lies, not over trampled nations, but through desert wastes, to be brought by our industry and energy within the domain of art and civilization. We are contiguous to a vast portion of the globe, untrodden save by the savage and the beast, and we are conscious of our power to render it tributary to man. This is a position which must give existence to a public law, the axioms of which a Pufendorf [Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694), German political philosopher] or Vattel [Emer de Vattel (1714-1767, Swiss political philosopher and diplomat] had no occasion to discuss. . .

It has been laid down and acted upon, that the solitudes of America are the property of the immigrant children of Europe and their offspring. Not only has this been said and reiterated, but it is actually, although perhaps, not heretofore dwelt upon with sufficient distinctness, the basis of public law in America. Public sentiment with us repudiates possession without use, and this sentiment is gradually acquiring the force of established public law. It has sent our adventurous pioneers to the plains of Texas, will carry them to the Rio del Norte, and even that boundary, purely nominal and conventional as it is, will not stay them on their march to the Pacific, the limit which nature has provided. In like manner it will come to pass that the confederate democracies of the Anglo American race will give this great continent as an inheritance to man. . . We take from no man; the reverse rather—we give to man.

Mexicans after the U.S.-Mexican War

Beginning in spring 1846, after various diplomatic, informal economic, and unofficial militaristic attempts to take and occupy part of Mexico’s northern frontier, the U.S. declared war on its southern neighbor.  A decade after their politically unresolved dispute over Tejas, this war lasted for about one and a half years and resulted in the transfer of almost half of Mexico’s territory to the United States.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848 and ratified by both nations the subsequent spring, agreed to a payment of $15 million for the lost territory; settled the dispute over Texas in the favor of the United States; made stipulations about the land transfer; and detailed responsibilities and obligations regarding the actions of the Native Americans living on much of that land (many of whom never recognized a “foreign” power sovereignty over them and, accordingly, were hostile to Mexico and the United States).  The Treaty also detailed what was to become of the Mexicans living in the newly conquered territories.

Mexicans in the now occupied lands were to be protected under the laws of the United States and the Treaty.  They retained the right to their language, religion, and culture.  Their property and land was protected by the law.  As for citizenship, they were offered one of three options: 1) declare their intent to retain Mexican citizenship; 2) leave to Mexico; or 3) become U.S. citizens by declaration or by doing nothing.

This was the first time in U.S. history that citizenship was extended to a population that was not formally recognized as “white” by the federal government.

Two generations later, most Mexicans living in the U.S. no longer held title to their lands and found their cultural way of life increasingly under attack as U.S. white supremacy came to predominate.  In California, as land transferred from Mexican to Euro-American hands, a very racially-motivated Workingman’s Party dominated the call for a Constitutional Convention.  In 1879, that new Constitution not only made Chinese immigration illegal (the primary cause of the Party), but it also destroyed the legal protections Mexicans once enjoyed, rights promised to them in the 1848 Treaty.  California once required Spanish and English as the languages of it official business.  Now the new Constitution followed the already common practice of an English language state.

The “nation of laws” violated international and domestic laws in order to secure a democracy for some (white, European, male) at the expense of others (Mexican and nonwhite).

For more information, see:
Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Almaguer);
Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (Gomez); and
Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Meeks)

For more details on life for Mexicans in California after the war, see the classic Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californias, 1846-1890 (Pitts).  The newer Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Chavez-Garcia), which pays particular attention to issues of gender and sexuality, is also an excellent source.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

César Chávez Day (2009)

March 31st marks the observance of César Chávez Day.  To commemorate the occasion, I’d like to offer a few words about who the man was, why we mark his life, and the dangers involved in so doing.

Who was Chávez?
Born March 31, 1927, the holiday is meant to coincide with the birthday of this legendary union organizer.  Chávez, who founded the United Farm Workers (UFW)–a union representing the labor rights of agricultural workers–died in April 1993.  Legislation creating a day in honor of his life and legacy first came into law in California in 2000.  Today, César Chávez Day is an official holiday in eight states (California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Michigan) and a supported day of recognition in countless towns and cities.

Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona, the son of two land-owning Mexicans.  For the first ten years of his life, he lived on his family’s farm as they made a simple living off what they produced.  As a child in school, he encountered the kinds of discrimination typical of most Mexicans of his generation: he was called racist and derogatory names by white children and teachers, and he was reprimanded for speaking Spanish.  As he remembered, “When we spoke Spanish, the teacher swooped down on us. I remember the ruler whistling through the air as its edge came down sharply across my knuckles.”

In 1937, after having been evicted from their land, the Chávez family survived the Depression by packing up their things in a car and joining the ranks of the hundreds of thousands who became migrant laborers.  Finding a new home in California, the young Chávez and his family worked in the fields as migrants, waking before dawn to work stooped over in the dirt and moving with the seasons to a new place and a new crop.

After serving in the Navy during WWII, Chavez returned to the mainland to marry his sweetheart and begin the transition from field worker to advocate. After working for some years in the fields surrounding San Jose, in 1952 he began working with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a community-based movement seeking to empower Mexican Americans through voting and community mobilization.  Working on electoral issues, police brutality, and education, the CSO formed under the guidance of legendary organizer Fred Ross.  Feeling a strong pull toward migrant workers in the fields, after a decade, Chávez left the CSO in order to devote his full attention to the agricultural worker.

Then as now, agricultural workers were exempt from the standards of the National Labor Relations Board, federally-mandated regulations which protected workers’ rights to unionize.  Thus, before working on solutions to the many problems farmworkers faced (low pay, discrimination, physical abuse, exposure to toxins, etc.), Chávez had to first secure their right to form a union.  This drove him to apply his CSO skills in creating the National Farm Workers Association.  After years of hard work, Chávez and his fellow organizations Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Medina, could boast a fledgling union of representing some 1200 Mexican American families.  Still, no formal contracts with employers existed.

In 1965, the mostly Filipino union of farmworkers–the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC)–decided to strike in Delano, California, where they worked picking grapes.  Timing their grape strike at the time of harvest–September–Chávez’ NFWA had to make the decision to support it or act as scab labor.  The result was the merging of the two unions into the United Farm Workers (UFW). Chávez became the union’s president, a position he held for the rest of his life.  And, in those first days at the helm, the famous Delano Grape Strike began.  It lasted for some five years.

The story of the strike is as legendary as the man himself, who by the late sixties had become the most widely recognized face of Mexican America.  After winning contracts from most of the employers in the industry, Chávez and the union tackled other sectors of agricultural production–melons, lettuce, berries, to name a few.  Winning ontracts that last only for a few years, the union found itself constantly fighting to preserve their gains.

Sometimes they were helped by government leaders.  Most often, they were not.  When Democrat Jerry Brown became governor of California, he helped protect the rights of farmworkers to organize into unions of their choosing, and fought for the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.  In 1982, when the governorship went Republican with the election of George Deukmejian, the various elements of enforcing those rights were diluted.  And so it goes up to the present day, only as strong as the interests behind the governor’s appointees.

The UFW grew to about 40,000 union members at its height.  Chávez was an effective leader, making the movement about moral justice as much as anything else.  His campaigns were nonviolent, though the farmworkers faced violence at every turn.  While the UFW stood for labor rights, they were never far from the broader movement for civil and human rights.  Representing people by their location in the workforce, Chávez also made heavy use of religious and cultural symbols making the UFW very much a Mexican union.

He was not perfect.  In their first decades, the UFW vigorously opposed undocumented labor, seeing it (rightly) as a mechanism to break strikes and undermine the position of the union.  Under this perception, the union called immigration officers to round up and deport laborers at various times.  By the 1980s, the UFW had changed its tune, recognizing the mutual and shared cause for human rights stood as a morally more significant matter than legal distinctions.

Chávez fought for the rights of workers with his very body and soul.  He used the Gandhian tactic of the fast to bring both attention and moral focus to the movement.  As he said, “When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So, it how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are. It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life.”

Due to his repeated use of the technique, his work in the fields, and his unyielding work on behalf of others, he died in 1993.

Why a day for him?
Chávez is more than a labor leader.  Formal, organized labor often opposed his efforts, seeing the unionization of the agricultural sector and of the Mexican and Filipino worker as inconsequential.  Chávez did not.  He saw it as the height of service.  He struggle to improve the lives of the most oppressed, to make them better, more just, more human and humane.  For those reasons alone, a day for his is a worthwhile effort.

He is also, arguably, the most high-profile Latino in U.S. history.  In a time of racial progress and change, he became the embodiment of the kinds of forward-looking struggles for basic economic rights people associated with the most favorable of movements.  For these reasons, he deserves his day.

But that doesn’t mean his holiday is the most fitting-way to pay tribute to his life, legacy, and memory.  His work and position within history led to the movement to secure a holiday in his name.  The UFW did not support this effort at first.  They knew Chávez would have been the last person to be in favor of a day commemorating his life.  It eclipses the farmworkers for whom he gave his life.  It marginalizes their struggle in the name of his own.  It is also a gross contradiction.  The official holiday (March 31st) will be a day off from work for State employees in eight states.  But what about farmworkers?

A more fitting tribute to Chávez would have been the passage of legislation making the lives of farmworkers better.  It could have been about securing the federal protection for them (and domestic workers) to form unions–the only two sectors of the economy left beyond the reach of the NLRB.  It could have been more workplace and health security for workers.  It could have been a lot.

What can we do?
There is always a danger in formalizing commemoration for a person whose movement demanded a major change in the status quo.  They risk creating a distance between the fight “then” and the real life lived “now.”  As is the case with the holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it creates a false sense of accomplishment, when, in reality, the fight they inspired is still very much unresolved.

I will celebrate this day by doing what I do, reading and writing about the causes of human social justice.  I will do something to help others think about the struggles to which Chávez gave his life.  I will stop before I eat today and remember, eat time I chew, there is a pair of hands, an aching back, a name, a life, a human body filled with dreams that brought this food from the dirt to my mouth.

I will also do something to bring attention to the ongoing struggles of workers.  I hope you do the same.