Jan 1 12

Cesar Chavez

by Emily Benjamin

I knew nothing about who Cesar Chavez was, or what he was about, until today. With each of these reflections, I’ve known at least something about the subject before I researched them. But with Chavez, I knew only that there was a street named after him in San Francisco, that my bus goes past every day as I make my way to college.

The source text I chose is the United Farm Worker’s website, which is the group Chavez founded in 1962. The site provides a background on Chavez, from where he was born and brought up, to where how he was educated, to how he spent his later years. Chavez was born in Arizona and from very early on, he understood injustice. His family had their home taken from them, when deeds were broken by dishonest white land owners. The Chavez’s had no options, but to take a loan that inevitably they were unable to pay interest on, and the house was lost. This began the cycle of debt for Chavez and his family.

Recognizing this cycle, Chavez worked towards getting himself and his family out of it. Education, he thought, would be the key. But being in school during the 1930’s and 40’s meant racism was rife – you either suffered through it in the integrated schools, or chose a segregated school. Chavez and his brother ended up at thirty-seven different schools before Cesar left school in eighth grade, in 1942. Despite this early graduation, Chavez pursued his belief in and love of education, collecting and reading an amazing array of book throughout his life.

In 1948, Cesar Chavez married Helen Fabela and together they moved to Delano to start a family. The time that Chavez spent with ministers, priests and in missions led him to pursue a life seeking justice for his family, friends and co-workers, through nonviolent measures. In 1962, the United Farm Worker’s group was formed to protect the rights of farm worker’s in California. Through Chavez’s leadership, the group helped lift the lives of thousands of worker’s across the state, ensuring better pay, better work conditions, and protection from racial and economic injustice.

What really stands out to me about Chavez was the success he had with non-violent measures. He pursued his beliefs and the UFW’s interests without aggression, choosing picketing, protests and strikes over more forceful options. Chavez also went on a lot of fasts, often as a protest to the unsafe use of pesticides on farms, which put the health of worker’s and their families at risk. While I have always agreed with the non-violent approach, in any situation, the idea of fasting has me confused. In Chavez’s case, and in many other cases, I understand it is about awareness. And if it wasn’t for the attention given to Chavez’s public fast in 1988, where actors, entertainers, politicians and celebrities fasted with Chavez, perhaps the issues for farm worker’s wouldn’t have been addressed.

But it has always seemed too passive to me. I think about the 40 Hour Famine that my primary school used to run once a year, for those that wished to take part, to raise money and awareness for World Vision. In this instance, the money gave this initiative a tangible result – at the time, just $1 a day raised or donated could feed an entire family in Africa, World Vision said. The program, from my understanding, has now switched from abstinence from food to abstinence from something – because fasting may not be so ideal in children and teenagers. It also makes me think about the breast cancer awareness campaigns that filter through Facebook each year. The first one I remember was with people updating their status to share what color underwear they wore. When people started asking why so many people were on Facebook declaring ‘Red!’, ‘White!’ or ‘Black!’, it was revealed as a campaign to increase awareness of breast cancer. How, exactly? No one could answer it. Their latest campaign involved changing your profile photo to a pink one, again for breast cancer awareness. True, the symbol of breast cancer awareness is a pink ribbon, and thus seeing this color pink might remind people of the ribbon they’ve seen elsewhere – but what does changing a profile photo actually do for the number of regular check ups, and the push for early detection? I don’t think it does very much at all.

Irrespective of my thoughts on fasting as a form of activism or protest, Chavez’s fasting produced results. Through his non-violent actions, perseverance and willingness to stand up for himself and others, he was and still is the face of civil rights activism for many Mexican Americans.

References: [URL] United Farm Workers Website http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?inc=history/07.html&menu=research

Photo from [URL] http://www.chavezfoundation.org/uploads/001006000000000/FL12057613330.jpg

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