Sacramento Bee: Viewpoints: Chavez backed hard workers regardless of immigrant status
Viewpoints: Chavez backed hard workers regardless of immigrant status
By Marc Grossman Special to The Bee
Enactment of Arizona's anti-immigrant law sparked a wave of racist sentiment from some supporters of the statute. Many are members of the tea party movement. A number are citing Cesar Chavez, either in the mistaken notion that he would agree with their views, or as a symbol of their contempt toward anyone with brown skin. Both perceptions are wrong.
I was Cesar's longtime press secretary, speechwriter and personal aide, am the husband of a Latina and the father of three sons who are half Latino and half Jewish.
Shaken, Monica, a native Californian, local high school and college graduate, Morgan Hill city administrative analyst and one of Cesar's granddaughters, parked and bravely confronted the crowd.
Reacting to the incident a few days later, a commenter named "Don't Ask" on the Contra Costa Times website wrote, "Let's deport all of 'em. We should deport Cesar Chavez's body too. That would be ironic! They are just taking all the excellent jobs from GOOD Americans."
What's ironic is that the Chavez family has been in this country longer than many Anglos. Such racial insults aren't new.
In 1979, Cesar and I were flying out of San Jose airport in the midst of a bitter strike by vegetable workers in the nearby Salinas Valley. A middle-aged Anglo woman recognized the United Farm Workers president and remarked, "Why don't you go back to Mexico?" I was angry. Cesar ignored her.
Cesario Chavez immigrated from the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the early 1880s, leading a wagon train of families escaping servitude in the Mexican haciendas.
In the late 1800s, Cesar's grandfather ran a business cutting wood, hauling it in wagons pulled by mule teams, that built the mines and railroads of central and southern Arizona, the backbone of the pre-statehood economy.
He also farmed, was local postmaster and ran a country store, the gathering place for Anglos and Latinos in this little valley, until the family lost the homestead during the Depression and became migrant farmworkers in California. One of Cesar's uncles by marriage, Andres Arias, witnessed the legendary 1881 gunfight between the Earp brothers and the Clanton and McLaury clans at the OK Corral in Tombstone. The Chavez family helped build the Old West.
So much for irony. There are also those who falsely claim Cesar and the UFW opposed undocumented workers and immigration reform.
In the 1950s and '60s, Cesar resisted the infamous bracero program, which exploited farmworkers from both sides of the border. In 1973, decades before most labor organizations acted similarly, the UFW was one of the first unions to oppose the federal law making it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers. UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta helped craft provisions of the 1986 U.S. immigration law enabling 1 million workers to become legal residents. The UFW recently negotiated the historic bipartisan AgJobs bill with the nation's growers, letting undocumented U.S. farmworkers earn the right to stay here by continuing to work in agriculture.
The UFW has always organized undocumented workers, accepting the work force as it exists. When there were calls in the early '70s for the union to check the legal status of workers at ranches under UFW contract, Cesar refused. "Our job," he said, "is to represent good, hard-working people whoever they are."
It is no longer acceptable in our society to denigrate African Americans with racial epithets or stereotyping. Cesar Chavez's example shows why we shouldn't tolerate such behavior against Latinos, either.