Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day: Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez: One man, one cause: Chavez and the UFW

By Cesar Chavez -
Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, September 3, 2007

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was the cofounder and president of what became the United Farm Workers. He delivered this address, excerpted here, to the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on Nov. 9, 1984:

All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings.

Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden -- to be used and discarded.

That dream was born in my youth. It was nurtured in my early days of organizing. It has flourished. It has been attacked.

I'm not very different from anyone else who has ever tried to accomplish something with his life. My motivation comes from my personal life -- from watching what my mother and father went through when I was growing up, from what we experienced as migrant farmworkers in California.

That dream, that vision grew from my own experience with racism, with hope, with the desire to be treated fairly and to see my people treated as human beings and not as chattel. It grew from anger and rage -- emotions I felt 40 years ago when people of my color were denied the right to see a movie or eat at a restaurant in many parts of California. It grew from the frustration and humiliation I felt as a boy who couldn't understand how the growers could abuse and exploit farmworkers when there were so many of us and so few of them.

Later, in the 1950s, I experienced a different kind of exploitation. In San Jose, in Los Angeles and in other urban communities, we -- the Mexican American people -- were dominated by a majority that was Anglo.

I began to realize what other minority people had discovered: that the only answer -- the only hope -- was in organizing. More of us had to become citizens. We had to register to vote. And people like me had to develop the skills it would take to organize, to educate, to help empower the Chicano people.

We experienced some successes in voter registration, in politics, in battling racial discrimination -- successes in an era when black Americans were just beginning to assert their civil rights and when political awareness among Hispanics was almost nonexistent. Deep in my heart, I knew I could never be happy unless I tried organizing the farmworkers. I didn't know if I would succeed. But I had to try.

All Hispanics -- urban and rural, young and old -- are connected to the farmworkers' experience. We had all lived through the fields -- or our parents had. We shared that common humiliation.

How could we progress as a people, even if we lived in the cities, while the farmworkers -- men and women of our color -- were condemned to a life without pride?

How could we progress as a people while the farmworkers -- who symbolized our history in this land -- were denied self-respect?

How could our people believe that their children could become lawyers and doctors and judges and business people while this shame, this injustice was permitted to continue?

Those who attack our union often say, "It's not really a union. It's something else: a social movement, a civil rights movement. It's something dangerous." They're half-right. The United Farm Workers is first and foremost a union. A union like any other. A union that either produces for its members on the bread and butter issues or doesn't survive.

But the UFW has always been something more than a union -- although it's never been dangerous if you believe in the Bill of Rights.

The UFW was the beginning! We attacked that historical source of shame and infamy that our people in this country lived with. We attacked that injustice, not by complaining, not by seeking handouts. We organized.

Farmworkers acknowledged we had allowed ourselves to become victims in a democratic society -- a society where majority rule and collective bargaining are supposed to be more than academic theories or political rhetoric. And by addressing this historical problem, we created confidence and pride and hope in an entire people's ability to create the future.

The UFW's survival -- its existence -- was not in doubt in my mind when the time began to come -- after the union became visible, when Chicanos started entering college in greater numbers, when Hispanics began running for public office in greater numbers, when our people started asserting their rights on a broad range of issues and in many communities across the country.

The union's survival -- its very existence -- sent out a signal to all Hispanics that we were fighting for our dignity, that we were challenging and overcoming injustice, that we were empowering the least educated among us, the poorest among us. The message was clear: If it could happen in the fields, it could happen anywhere -- in the cities, in the courts, in the city councils, in the state legislatures.

I didn't really appreciate it at the time, but the coming of our union signaled the start of great changes among Hispanics that are only now beginning to be seen.
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