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Cesar Chavez: More than an Admirable Anachronism


Regardless of what the future holds for our union, regardless of what the future holds for farm workers, our accomplishment cannot be undone. The consciousness and pride that were raised by our union are alive and thriving inside millions of young Hispanics who will never work on a farm. -- Cesar Chavez in a 1984 speech to San Francisco's Commonwealth Club.

Iwas reluctant, initially, to join the chorus writing obituaries for farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.

The president of the AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Union was one of the country's best-known labor leaders, the nation's best-known Mexican-American and, in some circles, among the most admired men in the world. So when Mr. Chavez died April 23 at the age of 66, it was no surprise that tributes and remembrances flowed in not just from the powerful political and religious leaders he knew, but also from the weak and poor, especially the field laborers he spent the better part of his life trying to help.

I also expected that, somewhere amid the many interviews given and speeches delivered by Mr. Chavez during his more than 30 years of public life, he would have delivered his own most eloquent eulogy. He did, in the speech cited above.

UFW officials dug that speech out of the union's files a day after Mr. Chavez's death was announced. They cited it as evidence the union and its work will continue even though its founder and long-time president is gone. But it has more significance than that.

For while it's arguable whether the UFW will ever again have the influence it had in its heyday -- indeed, many of the obituaries have pointed out that both its membership rolls and the number of labor contracts it has negotiated have shrunk dramatically since the 1970s -- no one can dispute the fact that Cesar Chavez had a profound influence on literally millions of people, especially Mexican-Americans.

Consider the roster of Latino leaders who began their community activism working for UFW. Movie director Luis Valdez launched his career with El Teatro Campesino when it was UFW's agitprop arm, performing skits on picket lines and at union rallies. Ernesto Cortes, the community organizer who has helped create effective grass-roots citizens groups from East Los Angeles to San Antonio's West Side, began his career organizing the UFW grape boycott in his native Texas. Like a circular ripple in a pond, Mr. Chavez's influence lives on in people like that.

Just as important, the focus of Mr. Chavez's work -- lifting up the poor by helping them organize unions -- remains a challenge for the current generation of Latino leaders. But it is a widely misunderstood challenge, as it was when Mr. Chavez was alive.

Growers often criticized Mr. Chavez for trying to make the UFW more than just a union, for trying to turn it into a social cause, La Causa, and thereby drawing to the UFW an assortment of well-meaning volunteers who knew nothing about administering labor contracts. He replied by saying the UFW's volunteers would be gone once the union had enough members and contracts to support itself without them. If farm workers were given a living wage and decent working conditions, Mr. Chavez argued, they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves without do-gooders or, for that matter, the government.

But even some of Mr. Chavez's most ardent Latino admirers misunderstood that. He burst onto the scene in 1965 with the biggest, most successful unionization drive California's powerful agricultural industry had ever seen. In the process, he brought national attention, for the first time, to Mexican-Americans as a minority group with a unique history and problems.

Some Latinos became frustrated that, as the most visible Chicano leader in the world, Mr. Chavez didn't do more to help the 80 percent of Latinos who live in cities. Mr. Chavez replied that UFW could never afford to give up the rural focus of its work. So in recent years, a new generation of urban Latino leaders considered Mr. Chavez and his union quaint anachronisms.

Yet when one ponders the problems facing many urban Latinos, it is not unreasonable to conclude that they could be solved through unionization as effectively as the social needs of farm laborers.

As some researchers have pointed out, most recently in the aftermath of last year's Los Angeles riots, the problems facing inner-city Latinos are not those of people who are utterly destitute. They are the problems of the working poor: not a lack of jobs, but of jobs that pay enough; not a lack of housing, but of decent housing; not a lack of education, but of schools to prepare children for better jobs than their parents have.

Most Latinos, even the poorest, know what their problems are and want only the chance to strive for what is best for their families, unencumbered by the burdens of poverty. It is not insignificant, I think, that the most vibrant organizing going on right now among Latinos in the Los Angeles area is within labor unions like those representing janitors, hotel and restaurant workers and drywallers in the housing industry.

Mr. Chavez was not an admirable anachronism. Just as in the early '60s, he may well have been ahead of his time without anyone quite realizing it. The greatest tribute the current generation of Latinos can pay him is to continue his work, as the quote above clearly implies, not just on our farms but in our cities.

Frank del Olmo is deputy editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times, where this article appeared.

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