Who Cesar Chavez was, and why we celebrate him

Daily Sundial

This story is about Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American, but in these simultaneously polarized and homogenized days, it is intended for all.

The problem with Chavez and other great civil rights leaders is that, if we celebrate their lives at all, it is often done from a distance and with messianic-like reverence.

They faced monumental obstacles and achieved breathtaking victories, things we mere mortals could never attain, so why bother? Even if we wanted to emulate their lives, where would we begin?

Chavez’s life would suggest we start by sweating the small stuff.

Que viva la raza! (Long live the race!)

Chavez didn’t like the term “la raza” (the race), a saying made popular during the civil rights and farm workers’ movements in the late 60s. Specifically, he found it racist because in its purest form, la raza referred only to Mexicans or Chicanos.

In Peter Mathison’s 1969 book, “Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can), Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution,” Chavez is quoted as saying, “I hear about la raza more and more. (Some) people don’t look at it as racism, but when you say la raza, you are saying an anti-gringo (white) thing, and our fear is that it won’t stop there. Today it’s anti-gringo, tomorrow it will be anti-Negro, and the day after it will be anti-Filipino, anti-Puerto Rican. And then it will be anti-poor Mexican, and anti-darker-skinned Mexican.”

Many would argue “Que viva la raza” is no more racist than the self-affirming “Black is beautiful,” and in most instances, they would be right.

It appears Chavez wanted to protect against, even at the most microscopic level, the unfair treatment of any person.

In Mathison’s book, Chavez, is quoted as saying to a diverse group of students about some Chicanos in his United Farm Workers union who wanted to kick out Filipino members, “You don’t take a vote on those things, whether to discriminate or not. You don’t ask people whether they want to do that or not — you just don’t do it.”

We celebrate what is unique about ourselves because for many of us, we could not for many years.

Healthy pride and the celebration of culture is a beautiful thing. Chavez wasn’t putting this down. In that same speech, he told the students it was great they felt pride in themselves.

But he was reminding those students, and us, to live with grace and dignity.

Yet it is necessary to bang on the door of justice and demand to be let in.

And if you think everything is great because we are walking around campus with our I-pods in our ears and “Sean John’s” on our backs, you might want to look at the recent Harvard study that showed the high school graduation rate of Latinos and blacks in California is at an absolutely dismal level, and the fact that more and more people (of all backgrounds) can not afford to live here.

Much has changed, but much of it still remains the same, and we should act on righting wrongs.

Chavez teaches us we don’t need to trample on other people’s dignity, to maintain our own.

We could start there, couldn’t we? Asian, black, Latino, Native American, white, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, we could refuse to participate in any discussion, no matter how trivial, that unfairly disparages any person, ethnic or religious group, no matter what the gain, large or small, would be for us.

We could, couldn’t we?

Que viva la raza humana! (Long live the human race!)

Cesar Chavez would not have it any other way.