¡Sí Se Puede! - Lessons From Cesar Chávez

Senator Robert F. Kennedy with Cesar Chávez and his wife, Helen Chávez after he broke his fast in 1968 at a mass attended by 8,000 people.

April 18, 2007

¡Sí se puede!
("Yes, it can be done!" or "Yes we can!") was the slogan of the United Farm Workers that was adopted in 1972 by Cesar Chávez and Dolores Fuertes co-founders of the farm workers' union. The phrase was shouted from the fields, vineyards, and orchards across America, and it was written on thousands of placards and banners carried proudly in demonstrations on the streets in the 1970's. It was revived by leaders of the recent immigration marches, and was most recently adopted by Barrack Obama's presidential election campaign.

An America Hero
Cesar Estrada Chávez was the son of Mexican-American parents and was born in March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona. During the Great Depression his family lost their farm and moved to California where they became migrant farm workers. When he was 15 years old he began working in the fields picking lettuce and beets to help support his family.

In 1952 he joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), a civil rights organization which fought for racial and economic equality. Ten years later he and Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Cesar Chávez worked for decades for political, civil, and social rights for foreign born laborers and migrant workers who toiled on American soil, and for social justice and equality for every person.

In 1965 Cesar Chávez threw his support behind Filipino-American farm workers who had organized the Delano grape strike to protest for higher wages. He led the grape pickers in a strike and march and called upon the nation to boycott grapes. That successful boycott lasted five years, with 17 million adult Americans participating in it. It was hailed as the first of many labor victories for the farm workers. In 1970 Cesar Chávez led a boycott against California lettuce growers, and over 10,000 farm workers went on strike. He was jailed for 14 days refusing to stop the boycott.

Cesar Chávez was also an environmentalist who fought for regulations of pesticides that were used in the fields causing illness and death to farm workers.

Chávez was a human rights and civil rights activist. He followed the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, pushing the cause through boycotts, peaceful marches, demonstrations, and fasts. He fasted in 1968, 1972 and 1988 to put a spotlight on "La Causa" and to protest the use of dangerous pesticides.

On April 23, 1993, Cesar Chávez died in his sleep in Arizona, very close to the place he was born. Over 50,000 people attended his funeral in Delano, California where the cause was born. Cesar Chávez Day (March 31) is celebrated as a state holiday in eight states. In other states where it is not recognized, students and service learning teachers celebrate his legacy by performing service learning projects in his memory.

An estimated 50,000 mourners walked in Cesar Chavez's funeral procession

Cesar E. Chávez Foundation
In 1993, The Cesar E. Chávez Foundation was established by members of Cesar Chávez's family and officers of the United Farm Workers to promote his legacy, and to encourage all people to carry on his work for social justice in the world. Several years ago I was selected to be trained as a Cesar Chávez trainer. Cesar Chávez 's granddaughter, Julie Chávez Rodriquez, Program Director of the Cesar Chávez Foundation, led the training in Miami, Florida. The experience reinforced my beliefs about social justice, and gave me personal first-hand glimpses into the life of one of my heroes.

Julie Chavez Rodriquez, Minneapolis, MN
W.L. Doromal ©2008

Julie Chávez Rodriquez is a gentle and humble lady who personifies the attributes of her grandfather. (She reminds me of Tina Sablan.) Julie told a story about her grandfather's last fast in Delano California. She was a young girl at that time, and was worried because she thought her weak grandfather was going to die.

During those days she joined some farm workers in Fresno to hand out leaflets at a supermarket. A woman took a leaflet from her, and remarked to Julie, "I hope he dies this time."

Julie said she was shocked and deeply wounded by the hateful remarks. She decided to go to her grandfather and tell him what had happened. He just smiled at her and told her if someone ever says something like that again just say to that person, "I am sure you are in his prayers too." Cesar Chávez taught the lesson that we should love and pray for our enemies.

Julie shared this poem written by her grandfather which demonstrates another role he took as a spiritual leader:

Poem of the Farm Workers' Struggle
by Cesar E. Chávez

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people's plight.

Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
So that I may be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the spirit will be alive among us.

Let the spirit flourish and grow;
So we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.

Julie also shared with us this telegram that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent to her grandfather during his first fast in 1968. It shows the bond and interconnectedness between the civil rights and labor rights movements in their fight for social justice.

Lessons From Cesar Chávez
¡Sí se puede! This phrase also applies to the struggle of the guest workers in the CNMI. Many of the lessons from Cesar Chávez can be applied to the guest workers' struggle for social justice and political rights. Cesar Chavez's 10 Core Values serve as the foundation for promoting social justice: service to others; sacrifice; a preference to help the most needy; determination; non-violence; acceptance of all people; respect for life; celebrating community; knowledge; and innovation. These values can be used by any movement, or could serve as a road map for an individual's journey through life.

Cesar Chávez stressed the unity of the workers, knowing that was the strongest thread that determined the strength of the movement. The farm workers prevailed because of the strength of their commitment to each other and to their fight for rights. Though they were disenfranchised and represented some of the poorest people in America, they became a powerful political voice when they joined hands in a union that could not be broken. Cesar Chávez said, "The people united will never be defeated."

Some Quotes from Cesar Chávez

"When you have people together who believe in something very strongly - whether it's religion or politics or unions - things happen."

"A movement with some lasting organization is a lot less dramatic than a movement with a lot of demonstrations and a lot of marching and so forth. The more dramatic organization does catch attention quicker. Over the long haul, however, it's a lot more difficult to keep together because you're not building solid...A lasting organization is one in which people will continue to build, develop and move when you are not there."

"We are confident. We have ourselves. We know how to sacrifice. We know how to work. We know how to combat the forces that oppose us. But even more than that, we are true believers in the whole idea of justice."

"From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength."

"The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people. "

"Society is made up of groups, and as long as the smaller groups do not have the same rights and the same protection as others - I don't care whether you call it capitalism or communism -it is not going to work. Somehow, the guys in power have to be reached by counter power, or through a change in their hearts and minds, or change will not come."

"It is not good enough to know why we are oppressed and by whom. We must join the struggle for what is right and just. Jesus does not promise that it will be an easy way to live life and His own life certainly points in a hard direction; but it does promise that we will be "satisfied" (not stuffed; but satisfied). He promises that by giving life we will find life - full, meaningful life as God meant it."

"Until the chance for political participation is there, we who are poor will continue to attack the soft part of the American system - its economic structure. We will build power through boycotts, strikes, new union - whatever techniques we can develop. These attacks on the status quo will come, not because we hate, but because we know America can construct a humane society for all its citizens - and that if it does not, there will chaos."

Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons. When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit that our lives are all that really belong to us. So, it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are.

“Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak... Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.”

"(Farm workers) are involved in the planting and the cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in this society. They bring in so much food to feed you and me and the whole country and enough food to export to other places. The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they make this tremendous contribution, they don't have any money or any food left for themselves."

"The consumer boycott is the only open door in the dark corridor of nothingness down which farm workers have had to walk for many years. It is a gate of hope through which they expect to find the sunlight of a better life for themselves and their families."

"It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity."

"Because we have suffered, and we are not afraid to suffer in order to survive, we are ready to give up everything - even our lives - in our struggle for justice."

May you be inspired by this short video highlighting the accomplishments of Cesar Chávez: