Most Americans today don’t think about where their food comes from—except that it better be cheap and convenient to buy. But the brilliance of the farmworker movement launched by Cesar Chavez more than 50 years ago is that he put a human face on our food. Suddenly, Americans became aware that getting those grapes, lettuce or strawberries had a human cost.
As he famously put it, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”
The American farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist with only an eighth-grade education, was a voracious reader and believer in nonviolence; he admired and was influenced by the principals of Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Eleven years after his death, his legacy is alive and well. A new biopic on Chavez is in the works, starring Michael Pena as Chavez.
Saturday will mark the United States’ first official national Cesar Chavez Day in recognition of the union leader who successfully unionized farm workers. But Chavez was more than a union leader, he captured the sentiment of the era where civil rights and human dignity became a talking point among presidential candidates, such as Robert Kennedy. For many Mexican Americans, Chavez became a civil rights leader who inspired a whole class of people to strive for a better life, in the vein of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Cesar Chavez saw the promise of change—the unlimited potential of a community organized around a common purpose,” President Barack Obama said earlier this month, as quoted in Latina Lista. “We celebrate his courage, reflect on his lifetime of advocacy, and recognize the power in each of us to lift up lives and pursue social justice.”
A leader of his magnitude today would likely have landed a six-figure book deal, plus the television movie rights. But Chavez died in 1993 without ever owning a car or a home and never made more than $6,000 a year. His black nylon union jacket, emblazoned with the red circle and black Aztec eagle, was donated by his widow to the National Museum of American History.
The Obama administration has designated a Forty Acres site in Delano, California, the birthplace of the United Farmworkers Union, as a National Historical Landmark. In May 2011, the United States Navy named the USNS Cesar Chavez in recognition of his service during World War II. Throughout March, ten Americans were honored as “Champions of Change” for their commitment to realizing Cesar Chavez’s dream.
And yet, visiting the farming towns of Delano, or Fresno or the Salinas Valley today, it is easy to see that conditions have not improved dramatically. The union has successfully signed contracts with some major growers and improved the wages and benefits of some farmworkers. But it has also suffered many setbacks, including the hesitancy of many undocumented farmworkers to join. Farmworkers are still dying from the heat, getting paid very little and are exposed to dangerous pesticides.
Much of the attention about our food consumption has now been taken up by the slow and organic food movement which has shed a light on the abuses of AgriBusiness with such books and films as Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation. It has pushed beyond the fields of agriculture into the caged pens and unsanitary stables of the meat industry and its main focus is on food safety rather than farmworker conditions.
And yet, Cesar Chavez’s legacy remains a touchstone, reminding us how we are all connected.
“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community,” he said. “Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
Read more of Cesar Chavez’s wise words at Brainy Quote.