Mythologizing Cesar Chavez


President Barack Obama declared 105 of the 187 acres of Cesar Chavez’s union headquarters a National Monument this Columbus Day under 1906’s Antiquities Act. Last year the president named a cargo ship after the organizer who had spent two miserable years in the Navy. The body of the United Farm Workers (UFW) leader rests at the newly nationalized Keene, California compound.

“César Chávez gave a voice to poor and disenfranchised workers everywhere,” President Obama said at Monday’s dedication ceremony. “La Paz was at the center of some of the most significant civil rights moments in our nation’s history, and by designating it a national monument, Chávez’s legacy will be preserved and shared to inspire generations to come.”

Like the president who praises him, Chavez traces his activism ancestry to the Saul Alinsky family tree. And like the Chicago neighborhoods that Obama organized, the unskilled farm workers that Chavez unionized aren’t much better off today than when the organizer first encountered them. The “Si, se puede” rallying cry isn’t the pair’s only common denominator.

The views of the two Alinskyite organizers diverge as much as they converge. As Chavez has moved from man to icon, substance has yielded to symbolism. The parts of the organizer’s outlook that inconvenience his present-day admirers have been left in the past. In Cesar Chavez the monument, we lose Cesar Chavez the man.

The real Chavez regarded illegal aliens as strikebreakers who drove down the wages of American workers. He found the emergence of “brown power” groups problematic. “That’s why today we oppose some of this La Raza business so much,” Chavez explained to his biographer Jacques Levy. “We know what it does. When La Raza means or implies racism, we don’t support it. But if it means our struggle, our dignity, or our cultural roots, then we’re for it. I guess many times people don’t know what they mean by La Raza, but we can’t be against racism on the one hand and for it on the other.”

In pandering for votes, Obama played up Chavez’s role as a union leader and as an icon for Hispanic Americans. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reported: “Though White House officials said it was a process long in the making, the formal dedication came as Obama’s campaign shifts toward a more intensive get-out-the-vote phase of its operation, one that includes a major focus on the Latino vote and will be augmented by labor muscle.”

But Chavez’s faith, more than his ethnicity or his labor affiliations, informed his activism. Inspired by Christ’s example, Chavez became famous through fasting (and through boycotts of grapes). He held religious masses at the California state capitol in Sacramento. He even once used his union connections to keep a plane grounded so that he could make his flight to see the pope. Chavez told his biographer in the mid 1970s that “my need for religion has deepened. Today I don’t think that I could base my will to struggle on cold economics or on some political doctrine. I don’t think there would be enough to sustain me. For me the base must be faith.”

Fittingly, UFW’s headquarters bears a religious name. The president referred to Chavez’s Central Valley sanctuary as “La Paz.” Its full name is Nuestra Señora Reina de La Paz—Our Lady Queen of Peace. In making a national monument of a religious retreat named in honor of Jesus’s mother, the president risks irritating one constituency as he courts another. Surely the American Civil Liberties Union can’t be thrilled with a mystical Catholic, and his outpost named for Mary, receiving official recognition from the U.S. government.

Alas, there is an election to win. Disrupting the president’s fragile coalition over principles normally fiercely fought for on matters as unobtrusive as nondenominational graduation prayers and Christmastime nativity scenes just won’t do when it comes to nationalizing a religious leader’s religious retreat named for a religious saint. Here, activists, normally incapable of looking the other way, mute their objections.

“Cesar feels that liberals are liberal right up to the steps of the Catholic church,” explained Dorothy Huerta, co-founder of the UFW, during Chavez’s ’70s heyday. “Guys can be liberal about homosexuality, about dope, about capital punishment, about everything but the Catholic church. There the liberalism ends.”

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  • Renee Dorsey

    Thanks for this article; I just briefly perused through my 8 yr. old's Social Studies book and voila, a nice tribute to this "Cesar Chavez". Just as I suspected – a textbook turning my kid into a collectivist already! And this is a private school; got to keep an eye on all of them these days,

    • guest

      I think there's a Bolshevik under your bed too. Be very careful!

      • cjk

        I think there's a Bolshevik IN your bed.

  • EthanP

    Wait! After Obamas passing, he will undergo an even more massive deification.

  • infidel4life

    This is all such BS. Chavez was just another leftist radical union agitator who stirred up trouble. This is like deifying Jimmy Hoffa.

    • mlcblog

      I think that's the whole point of the article, and you're right!!

      • amused

        lol…the blind being led by the blind …..so blind you can't even recognize a good man ,who has done more to elevate the condition of fellow human beings , than you could even hope to do in three lifetimes . Brainwashed partisans ….pathetic

        • mlcblog

          Exactly! pathetic.

  • cynthia curran

    Chavez was against illlegal immirgation since it lowers wages, few on the left are today. The agri-busisnes were keeping down the wages and the taxpayers had to pay when the immirgants had kids,read Victor Hansen on this.

  • fanlad

    There have been many Christians and Jews that have sold their souls to the devil in the name of social justice, human dignity, and redistribution of wealth. Ideologies that make man the center of the universe will never work.

    • amused

      Ironic ntion coming from you , lol..".man the center of the universe " indeed , Romney , Koch Bros.and the rest of the oligarchy you suck up to …..but let a man try to get a higher wage and humane working conditions , and then that's called what ? " redistribution of wealth " ? You're nothing more than a little meme parrot with nothing on the cap .

  • cynthia curran

    Well since farmwork is hard to get these days. Lossen the housing requirments for guest workers and cut down on the vista overstay so immirgrated workers are not in the us long enough to have families.

    • amused

      yea , put'em in cages and sterilize'em ! Man , the ignorane you spew is jawdropping .

  • opinionatedhermit

    I grew up in Central California. My Grandfather had a little country store on the corner of Manning and McCall. Growing up, I worked in that little store. And, because of this, I knew Mr. Chavez. Let me just say, he always treated me very well. He even saved me once from a bar fight. He grabbed me and picked me up and took me outside. (I was 3 or 4 at the time.)

    I honestly think the problem with the history of Mr. Chavez is because he was a complicated guy. He changed over time. He went from a guy, who I honestly believe was trying to protect the innocent, to a drug addled, corrupt union thug.

    Deloris Huerta is who I target as the prime reason for the collapse of worker cause. (They used to be against illegal immigration) When she got involved with the Union movement, she brought the Mexican Mafia in with her…..

    • mlcblog

      Wow! finally I am hearing an informed opinion, or that is, an account of what would explain some of this. Thank you.

  • amused

    Boy oh boy , I knew t would only be a matter of time before the opinionated pundits of FPM would start ragging Chavez . That memorial was bound to do it . Don't worry though , those Mexicans picking your veggies dont eat that much , and after all , who else ya gonna get to do it dirt cheap . Man , as soon as I read about the dedication of that monument , I would have bet the farm it would turn up in one of FPM's classic character assassinations . Just keep in mind as noble human beings go it would take 1000 Mitt Romneys to even come close to one Caesar Chavez . Too bad Chavez didn't leave you in the middle of that bar fight, maybe a good knock in the head would have put some sense in you . BTW – where was your Dad or Mom or were you left unaccompanied in a bar at age 3 or 4 .

    • Russ P.

      "Ragging Chavez"? "Character assassination"? So pointing out that he was a faithful Catholic who opposed illegal immigration is "character assassination"? Only a mindless liberal could think such a thing.

      • amused

        Gonna play stupid Russ ? That's not the issue here . Only an imbecile would make a statement like yours .

        • Russ P.

          I just re-read the article to see if I missed something. I don't see much criticaism of Chavez except the part about Alinsky. Most of it is about his Catholic faith. I seriously doubt the author considers that derogatory. Is that what you call "character assassination"? Or are you just a troll trying to stink up this site? If so, you're doing a pretty good job.

      • mlcblog

        …mindless liberal….I don't waste my space on him/her/it.

        Just scroll on past….wheeee!!! Freedom!!

        • amused

          you just did brainwashed old man .. you should no better , but are perfetly satisfied being a sycophant to oligarchs .

          • amused

            and since when does one have tyo be a liberal to appreciate the life and accomplishments of a truly good man like Caesar Chavez ? You couldn't shine his shoes old man nor could you , in two life times ,better the conditions of your fellow man . "Mindless " ? LOL….you are the mindless one , for attacking a good man , not even knowing why , other than your hatred for Obama , because he dedicated a memorial for Chavez , so like a little robot , Flynn blows the dog whistle and fools like you and Russ bark and bite . Pitifull , pathetic .

          • amused

            You dont even know why you are attacking Chavez old man . And you call me mindless ?

  • amused

    opinionatedhermit , you should be ashamed of your slander – "drug addled union thug "? …you are a LIAR , and of the most cowardly kind . Not to worry, your fellow hatemongers here will sck it up , that's why Flynn put this garbage article up . If the "Arch Enemy " Obama didn't dedicate the monument , there'd be no article . But there no one conservatives wont shiiit on to get a shot at their enemy . You even threew your own parents under the bus with your little phony anecdotal story …WHERE were your parents ? Age 3 or 4 in a bar? ….Pathetic man , PATHETIC .

  • amused

    Drag a GOOD MAN'S NAME through the mud , for the sole sake of taking a shot at Obama . tsk,tsk ,tsk , how pathetic is that .

  • JOHN HERRICK

    They Chavez myth is in need of serious examination. The noraml leftist tactics of intimidation, physical assault, destruction of property were the ahllmark of the UFW unionization efforts; efforst which were universally inefective. Rather than ever getting enough votes to unionize, the UFW was only able to intimidate companies and famrs into agreeing to the union after rthe workers voted against the UFW AS for Chavez is the only person to have ever gained weight on a hunger stike. He was a perosn of weak character and completely unscrupulous. IF you want to really get into the meat of the UFW, looking at Delores Huerta will reveal one of the most base and dishoest people ever involved in California politics. SOmeone needs to interview those who weere involved in the UFW struggle before the truth is lost to history. JOHN

  • amused

    Why dont you guys just cut to the chase , you all know chavez was a good man , and the catholic religion has nothing to do with your gripes . This is all about Obama dedicating the monument . And you get another excuse to spin another yarn on how wrong that was …why ? because it was Obama .

    • Russ P.

      You keep repeating your nonsense as if that makes it true. It doesn't.

      • amused

        ur an A-hole , go study your history books u fool .

  • amused

    What's remarkable is the depths you will plumb ,and the people you smear to do it .