Five Things You Need to Know: César Chávez

For starters, the farmworker activist was American born and bred.
Ethel Kennedy playfully whispers her family recipe for corned beef and cabbage to César Chávez during the labor leader's hunger strike in protest of toxic pesticides on grapes. (Photo: Getty)
Mar 31, 2011
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Thursday, March 31, was César Chávez Day, an official holiday in eight out of the 50 United States. That 16 percent holiday approval rating is perhaps indicative of how America at large views the legacy of one of this country’s greatest campaigners for workers rights—a lot of people here seem to dislike unions (see Wisconsin, Ohio) and Hispanics (see Arizona) lately.

In the 1960s, along with Dolores Huerta, Chávez cofounded the United Farm Workers, an influential and groundbreaking agricultural union that claimed senators Robert Kennedy and Walter Mondale among its fans.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., Chávez has a boulevard named after him running through some downtrodden section of many urban areas throughout the land of the free. However, it seems that Chávez Boulevard crosses a part of town that many citizens prefer to not visit.

To honor Chávez’s special day, TakePart’s Food, Inc. Facebook page posted this status update:  “César Chávez committed his life to farm workers. Show your support by donating your Facebook status today!”

Comments included:

“I do for legal workers only not Illegals why woudl I support people who are stealing from us americans”

“To all the posters w/the hispanic surnames posting. I'm going to assume that either YOU or your family members are most likely ILLEGAL... ILLEGAL workers don't DESERVE fair wages or working conditions. Why ? Because they SHOULDN'T BE HERE TO BEGIN WITH.”

“to give these illegals fair wages is a joke..thats why they do these jobs they say americans wont do because they work for garbage”

Apparently, some portion of the well-informed populace upon which our democracy depends is laboring under a suite of misconceptions.

Here are five things that every illegal-hater should know about César Chávez:

1. César Estrada Chávez was an American, from start to finish. Born on March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Arizona, United States of America. Died April 23, 1993, San Luis, Arizona, USA.

2. César Chávez originated the slogan, “Si, se peude,” which roughly translates to, “Yes, it can be done,” and is very close to “yes, we can,” the campaign cry of a certain Barack Obama.

3. César Chávez was a veteran of the United States armed services. At the age of 17, Chavez joined the wartime Navy. He later described the experience as “the worst two years of my life.”

4. César Chávez was a pickier eater than many modern day vegans. In 1968, he fasted for 25 days, promoting the principle of nonviolence. In 1970, he underwent a fast of “thanksgiving and hope” to support civil disobedience by farm workers. In 1972, an Arizona law that prohibited boycotts and strikes by farm workers during the harvest seasons was countered with a Chávez hunger strike.

5. César Chávez was tough on undocumented (some call these people “illegal”) farmworkers. Chávez's UFW believed that unrestricted immigration undermined U.S. workers, and that the undocumented laborers were exploited. In 1969, Chávez and the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of undocumented immigrants as strikebreakers. In 1973, the United Farm Workers set up a "wet line" along the United States-Mexico border to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the United States illegally and undermining the UFW's efforts.

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