How One Flag Went From Representing Farmworkers to Flying for the Entire Latino Community

The cultural history of the United Farm Workers' black eagle.

(Photo: Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

Ed Fuentes writes about murals and public art in the Los Angeles region in his KCET column, Writing on the Wall.

The black eagle rose from the fertile dust of California’s farmland, hoisted on poles and carried with dignity. It flies on a red banner, standing out against a blue sky. When a breeze catches it, the wings of the eagle flutter over the marchers below.

It doesn’t matter if the image is painted, sewn, or patched on—the bold, simple graphic can be re-created by anyone who supports La Causa, the cause, of the United Farm Workers. It’s the symbol of a workforce that made its first marches along the same fields it labored in.

Anyone with Mexican American heritage knows how and why it was created. I already knew the backstory of the mark in 1983, when I was a 23-year-old budding graphic designer working as a community arts enabler for a United Way–funded agency in Casa Blanca, my hometown barrio in Riverside, Calif. But that was the year I had the chance to hear about the cultural identifier from its maker.

César E. Chávez was in town for a meeting with Al Kovar, then-director of the Home of Neighborly Service. After they met, I walked up to Chávez to shake his hand and began: “The flag. It’s a story we all should know, and how it happened....”

Chávez quietly nodded, gracefully treating the question like it was the first time someone brought it up. “I asked my brother, Richard, to make something up,” Chávez said. “It had to be easy for anyone to make.” After some small talk, I thanked him for taking a moment to address our shared history, though I already knew it. He kindly said, “It’s important.”

The image on that flag is still a banner for worker rights, but it’s also grown into a symbol of cultural pluralism. Under the eagle, a labor movement was galvanized into a working-class community, and it helped introduce that community to a country that may or may not have been happy to count its members as compatriots. It’s a national flag within a nation.

Cesar Chavez (Photo: Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

The flag was conceived in 1962, when Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farmworkers Union, the predecessor of the United Farm Workers. A symbol was needed for the marches being planned, so César’s brother, Richard, and his cousin, Manuel, begin working on flag designs, borrowing the symbol of the eagle from the Aztecs, the indigenous people so many Mexican Americans identify with. On a brown paper wrapper, as the legend goes, the first initial designs of an eagle with squared-off wings were created, and chosen, as has been recounted into UFW labor lore. Andrew Zermeño, a graphic-artist friend of the family, interpreted the wings as an inverted pyramid.

As a communication symbol used for posters and fliers, the mark wasn't compromised by limited resources. When it needed to be printed, there would always be shops with PMS 185, a standard red, on hand. The lines were so definite and simple that the skills of volunteer nonartists or trained printers working in art centers around the West could shape the symbol of their identity with a nationalistic vigor. When the UFW began organizing lettuce and strawberry pickers in and around Salinas in the 1970s, women living in company housing turned their quarters into fabricas de banderas, or flag factories, to manufacture banners for the coming strike.

The red, white, and black flag was unveiled at the NFWA's first convention in 1962, in a theater in Fresno, Calif.  “A symbol is an important thing. That is why we choose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride,” said Chávez, according to the UFW. “When people see it, they know it means dignity. To me, it looks like a strong, beautiful sign of hope.”

The black eagle would be present at every meeting, every march, and every strike. It was worn on hats protecting marchers from the sun, used on picket signs, or stenciled on homemade serapes. Everyone understood the meaning of the colors picked by Chávez, who according to UFW lore picked black to represent the darkness of the farmworker’s plight and the white to mean hope, all set against a red that signified the sacrifice expected from union workers.

The flag moved out of rural staging areas to the urban centers of the West like a Mexican meme. The eagle’s head faces to the right, looking to the future. Under wings that mirror the architecture of Mesoamerican temples, the image is anchored in the past, and the base replaces talons, giving it a peaceful stability. This eagle is no urgent survivalist sweeping in to catch its prey.

Zermeño was shown the initial drawings and was asked to fix the eagle’s long neck, which looked “a little bit like a turkey,” he said during a 2012 interview. “All I’m going to do is work with the head so you can have that real graphic thing,” he recalls saying. Zermeño also illustrated the poster Huelga! (1965), an offset lithograph showing a striker in a T-shirt and a sombrero—also adorned with the eagle—carrying a flag while leaping over the word “HUELGA!,” or "strike." Drawn in accessible comic-illustration style, the poster helped set the tone of the Delano grape strike, which became a turning point for the nascent union. “They were eager to do something for themselves. That’s what impressed me,” said Zermeño, who was asked by Chávez for more comic strips that could be used to reach strikers. “The reason for that is 50 percent of our people can’t read or write. We have to draw it for them,” Zermeño remembers Chávez saying, recalling why cartoon figures were needed to communicate the intent and purpose of the movement.

In what’s considered the first Chicano mural, Antonio Bermal’s Del Rey Mural at Teatro Campesino (1968), the UFW flag is at the center, waving just above the heads of civil rights figures. When San Diego Gas & Electric ran a derogatory ad stereotyping Mexicans in Life magazine in 1969, Salvador Roberto Torres painted Viva La Raza, Long Live Humanity (1969), using oil on canvas to unify the eagle as a red abstraction with the Spanish words of the painting's title. The movement symbol was harvested as a universal symbol. Such paintings heralded countless black eagles brushed on walls throughout California and the American Southwest, the flag of an agrarian society becoming a key icon of urban Chicano mural painting.

(Photo: Chicano Batman/Facebook)

The logo is still a standard-bearer, and like those murals, a statue or any other depiction of the UFW leader without the union's logo is rare. A bronze sculpture of Chávez by Ignacio Gomez was unveiled in Riverside in 2013. Chávez is shown walking, and behind him are a line of field workers decked out with flags, buttons, and shirt patches all bearing the eagle rendered in delicate detail. The sculpture sits on an earth-toned base, where the eagle provides the backdrop to an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a reminder that the agitprop is part of a broader cultural spirituality.

The Virgin Mother may be the only figure the eagle will surrender to. Following in the tradition of Alberto Korda’s photo of Che Guevara reproduced on T-shirts and the political aesthetic of Shepard Fairey’s social and business propaganda, retailers were stocking up on shirts with the very slight revision of the eagle just last year—yet another culturally and politically rich symbol hollowed out for profit. A series of online petitions and social networking campaigns, however, helped to stop the eagle from being sold as retail ephemera; the revolution won’t be compromised.  

(Photo: Etsy)

The mark has moved into the postmodern realm, thanks to the indie band Chicano Batman. Its logo reimagines the eagle as Bruce Wayne's bat, the comic culture–imbued wings of the UFW symbol representing the band's sound, which pulls from both American rock and the different Latino musical experiences of the Southland. The head of the eagle is swapped out with the Batman mask, giving its social-protest pedigree the status of a heroic alter ego. Similarly, the band’s name places the word "Chicano" into the shifting realities of the now—a majority status in California, increased voting power, and a well-established place in the tapestry of American demographics—moving it away from its political folklore. “The whole point is combining a pop-cultural symbol and a cultural-political symbol,” said Bardo Martínez, the band's lead singer, in an interview with KCET. “It's like a play on words."

Just last week, the black eagle was hung from the high-up colonnade of Los Angeles’ City Hall, the same way the U.S. flag is draped during other ceremonies. The idea was instigated by Richard Montoya, who shared his idea with director Diego Luna and Council Member Gilbert Cedillo, saying that the UFW logo could work like the Bat-Signal, prompting people to see the Cesar Chavez biopic.

Less playful is the adoption of the UFW flag as a symbol for the Norteños, a Mexican American gang in Northern California. A local TV news report about a series of gang shootings in East Palo Alto presented the flag as a gang symbol, full-stop, failing to give it the context it deserved. 

Throughout the years I’ve picked up cultural notes about the eagle in the same manner my uncles picked oranges in Southern California. And I see how the mark still grows, like a winding vine, inspiring art, theater, music, and film. The eagle with wings of a temple is still leading a cultural march.

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