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A Flawed Hero

The Complex Legacy of César Chávez

 By Francisco Valladares Athletics Editor and Alejandro Ramos Contributor

In 1962, César Chávez kicked off what is now one of the most historic movements in Chicano history: La Causa. He began by forming what would later be known as the United Farm Workers of America, then organizing strikes to bring awareness to the struggles of farm workers. Chávez fought endlessly to get farm workers better pay and safer working conditions, which is why he is held in such high regard among the Latinx community.

While his impact on the Latinx community, particularly Mexican-origin Latinx, will never be forgotten, there is an aspect of Chávez’s work that, for some, puts his legacy into question.

He was an advocate for strong border security because he felt that undocumented immigrants were breaking his strikes. He went to great lengths to make sure immigrants couldn’t get into the country by creating what the UFW called “wet lines.”

The “wet lines” initiative consisted of UFW members who would stop people from crossing the border between Yuma, Arizona and San Luis, Mexico. Led by Chávez’s cousin Manuel, UFW members would even brutally beat border crossers and rob them of their possessions, according to Marian Pawel, author of “The Crusades of Cesar Chávez.”

Chávez also started the “Illegals Campaign,” which was created to direct UFW members to report the presence of undocumented field workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to Latin Times.

"Considering the lack of representation of Latinx leaders and idols, should Chávez’s legacy be more closely scrutinized?"

In addition to his actions against immigrants, Chávez went on record to say that those breaking his strikes were “wetbacks” and “illegals.” With the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status programs being salient issues recently, it’s likely his words would be met with enormous criticism today.

Nonetheless, proponents of Chávez’s ideologies claim that his stance on illegal immigration was warranted, as Chávez had to deal with the lives of farm workers in the United States above anything else.

With all this controversy surrounding one of the most notable civil rights leaders in Latin American history, some might question why this part of his legacy is often left out. Considering the lack of representation of Latinx leaders and idols, should Chávez’s legacy be more closely scrutinized?


Making Sense of a Complicated History

Chávez is remembered for his work as a labor rights leader and organizer for farm workers. He galvanized workers across California to protest the oppressive conditions they were subjected to, from the threat of pesticide exposure to long hours and low pay. He protested by fasting, a choice driven by his commitment to nonviolent resistance.

“What he actually accomplished [...] just gathering all the people, up and down the state,” said history major Irvin Gomez. “I mean, who can really do that now?”

There are many, like Gomez, that appreciate Chávez’s contributions to society. He certainly should be honored for the work he did to improve the quality of life for farm workers.

For the most part, discussions about Chávez’s life tend to stick to a positive angle. They focus on his contributions to labor rights and his dedication to the cause. There is a lack of criticism of his problematic actions and ideas, both in mass media and academia.

The lack of transparency on this issue creates an environment where the littlest details can spark a blaze of reactions. As political activist Frank Bardacke put it, “so much of what is being said now is either wrong or so ripped out of its historical context as to be incomprehensible.”

"...this isn’t about questioning Chávez’s work as an organizer and leader for the farm workers in California. Those contributions are real and can’t be disputed."

Bardacke tackled the issue of Chávez’s stance on immigration in a 2013 essay which he infused with the historical context that is lacking in many of today’s articles. He tells the story of workers from all walks of life — whether they were Latinx or not — that felt threatened by the influx of immigrants entering the U. S. and taking jobs in the fields. Factors such as the Bracero Program and the INS contributed to the steady flow of immigrants that caused unrest among workers. This led to the United Farm Workers’ anti-immigrant actions, from petitions for the government to enforce immigration laws to a de facto border patrol made of UFW members.

In short, Bardacke tells the story that others won’t. Many overlook it, perhaps to keep Chávez’s legacy intact; others, however, zero in on it to tear Chávez down. A quick Google search leads to incendiary headlines on the matter: “Cesar Chavez vs. La Raza,” "Cesar Chavez: Anti-Immigration to His Union Core,” “Cesar Chavez Used Terms ‘Wetbacks,’ ‘Illegals’ To Describe Immigrants.”

Our current social and political climate revolves around discussions of topics that were ignored before. From Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, our society is beginning to challenge racist and sexist norms that have been in place for a long time. It may be time to start discussing Chávez’s complicated place in history as well.

The issue has been picked apart and discussed for years, but the times demand a more thorough and open discussion. President Trump kicked off his campaign claiming that Mexicans are “drug dealers” and “rapists.” He’s continued to expand on his stance by calling for stronger anti-immigration policies. He claims that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs from American workers, a claim that Chávez himself made in the 1970s.

Just to reiterate: this isn’t about questioning Chávez’s work as an organizer and leader for the farm workers in California. Those contributions are real and can’t be disputed. The question is whether Chávez should continue to be the main representative for Latinx people.

The Latinx population is far different from what it was when Chávez rose to prominence as an activist. According to PewHispanic, there were 1.8 million foreign-born Hispanic people in the U.S. in 1970, the year the first major UFW strike ended. In contrast, there were 19.4 million foreign-born Latinx people in the U.S. in 2015.

Additionally, the ethnic makeup of the Latinx immigrant population in the U.S. has shifted over the past couple of years. Immigration from Mexico decreased 6 percent from 2007 to 2015 due to the Great Recession. At the same time, immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased 25 percent overall. Immigrants from these countries lack proper visibility and representation in the U.S., as they are often overlooked or assumed to be from Mexico. There is a need for more inclusive representation beyond Cesar Chávez.

“He wasn’t that big of a deal to me because I’m not Mexican-American,” said Cal State Long Beach Chicano and Latino studies major Rosa Rodriguez.

Rodriguez admits that Chávez’s work building up the UFW is important, but that it doesn’t negate his anti-immigrant views. She was especially against Chávez because her own parents are immigrants.

The future of immigrants in the U.S. is up in the air. Trump moved to end DACA and TPS, effectively taking away hundreds of thousands of immigrants’ ability to work or study in the country. In addition, the move removes protections that keep them from being deported.

All this considered, it’s time to reflect on Chávez and his complicated history.

The Case for Representation

In terms of making Latinx issues more well known in the U.S., Chávez is certainly one of the most influential. He is undoubtedly one of the most respected representatives of the community, with photos and murals of his face plastered across the pages of many U.S. textbooks.

When considering the lack of high-profile Latin American figures like Chávez, criticizing such a valued hero is difficult, and perhaps not fully warranted when the time period and context for his choices are considered.

“He needed to first focus on the farm workers that were here first,” said Irvin Gomez, a history major at Cal State Long Beach. “He couldn't fight the battle for Mexico and the battle for the United States. He first had to fight the battle in the United States.”

Gomez also said that it wouldn’t have been possible for Chávez to cover every aspect of farm worker issues, and that the civil rights leader was justified in focusing on one area, especially when his total impact is taken into consideration.

In his journal “The UFW and the Undocumented,” Bardacke writes that because the UFW organized around first-generation immigrants, most union members were frightened by the influx of undocumented farm workers.

“These first members of the UFW felt threatened by the open border and by the large number of green carders and illegals who lived in Mexicali and were beginning to work in the table grapes,” said Bardacke. “Many felt they were going to be replaced by this new, cheap labor from Mexico.”

Chávez ultimately believed he needed to do what was best for farm workers, which would give the union the power it needed to succeed in its strikes. With the UFW beginning to falter in the mid-1970s and documented farm workers starting to lose strikes, Bardacke said that Chávez felt he could only blame undocumented workers for the union’s shortcomings.

So does Chávez, the apparent pinnacle of Latinx representation, deserve to have his legacy criticized?

CSULB Student Development in Higher Education student Cyndy Garcia says that while Chávez shouldn’t go unchecked, it is difficult to fully condemn him when he’s one of the only prominent representatives of the Latinx community.

“I didn’t really have any representation in terms of someone to look up to,” said Garcia, who is coordinating the inaugural “Cesar Chavez Day of Service” on campus. “I don’t know if knowing [Chávez’s] reputation would have made a difference because it’s not like I had someone else to look up to.”

Lack of representation has been an issue in Latinx communities for some time, giving them a short list of people to look up to.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013, when Latinx people were asked to name a national leader, 65 percent of participants of Mexican descent answered, “don’t know.”

The study also states that only 25 percent of Hispanics of Mexican background were able to name a leader, which is indicative of a lack of representation.

This is what seemingly makes Chávez such an important figure to many. While he may not be perfect, he’s often seen as the Latinx Martin Luther King Jr.

“He does represent us, but I don’t think we should be accepting without being critical,” she said. “[We] need to be cognizant that he did have problematic viewpoints on immigration.”

Because of all of this national acclaim, Chávez has ascended into idol status among many Latinx, making him the most historically important figure in the community. Regardless of his status, Garcia believes that this shouldn’t deter people from being critical of the activist.

“He does represent us, but I don’t think we should be accepting without being critical,” she said. “[We] need to be cognizant that he did have problematic viewpoints on immigration.”

Garcia believes that these problematic views, coupled with Chávez’s accomplishments, should all be taken into consideration when discussing his legacy in full.

While it may be difficult to criticize such an important Latinx idol, many feel like Chávez’s legacy should encompass every aspect of who he was: a flawed hero.