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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