Cesar Chavez Reconsidered

July 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s never nice to realise that our heroes aren’t all we want them to be. This piece in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan reveals what happened to California farm worker organiser Cesar Chavez after the great victory of the grape-pickers in the sixties. Particularly of interest is the binding of social justice organising with a fervent religiosity.

To understand Chavez, you have to understand that he was grafting together two life philosophies that were, at best, an idiosyncratic pairing. One was grounded in union-organizing techniques that go back to the Wobblies; the other emanated directly from the mystical Roman Catholicism that flourishes in Mexico and Central America and that Chavez ardently followed. He didn’t conduct “hunger strikes”; he fasted penitentially. He didn’t lead “protest marches”; he organized peregrinations in which his followers—some crawling on their knees—arrayed themselves behind the crucifix and effigies of the Virgin of Guadalupe. His desire was not to lift workers into the middle class, but to bind them to one another in the decency of sacrificial poverty. He envisioned the little patch of dirt in Delano—the “Forty Acres” that the UFW had acquired in 1966 and that is now a National Historic Landmark—as a place where workers could build shrines, pray, and rest in the shade of the saplings they had tended together while singing. Like most ’60s radicals—of whatever stripe—he vastly overestimated the appeal of hard times and simple living; he was not the only Californian of the time to promote the idea of a Poor People’s Union, but as everyone from the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Black Panthers would discover, nobody actually wants to be poor.

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