Cesar's Ghost | The Nation


Cesar's Ghost

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What happens next? There was a feeling of optimism at the funeral. So many people together again, united by their respect for Chavez, pledging themselves to renewed effort. In her own fashion, Dolores Huerta, one of the founders of the union, expressed the hope of the crowd in her eulogy. "Cesar," she said, "died in peace, in good health, with a serene look on his face. It was as if he had chosen to die at this time...at this Easter time.... He died so that we would wake up. He died so that the union might live."

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In the several weeks since the funeral, I have pondered Dolores's image of Chavez as the U.F.W.'s Christ, dying so that we might live. In one way, it is perfect. All the talk of Alinsky and community organizing aside, Cesar Chavez was essentially a lay Catholic leader. His deepest origins were not in Alinsky's radical Community Service Organization but in the cursillos de Cristiandad movement, the intense encounters of Catholic lay people, first developed by the clergy in Franco's Spain and transplanted to the New World in the 1950s. The song they brought with them was "De Colores," and their ideology was a combination of anticommunism and personal commitment of ordinary lay people to the Gospel's version of social justice. Chavez, throughout his public life, remained true to that commitment. What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could newer understand was that all the fasts, the long marches, the insistence on personal sacrifice and the flirting with sainthood were not only publicity gimmicks, they were the essential Chavez.

Chavez died so that the union might live? What Dolores seems to have meant was that people, inspired by Chavez's life, would now rejoin the cause and rebuild the union. That might happen, but rebuilding the union among farmworkers will require a complete break with the recent past by the people who now control the U.F.W.

The U.F.W. is no longer the only group trying to organize in the fields of California. Teamster Local 890 in Salinas, with more than 7,000 field workers under contract, recently has been taken over by reformers with long experience in the Chicano and Mexican cannery worker movement. They would like to begin a new organizing drive in the Salinas Valley. In Stockton, Luis Magaiia and the Organizacíon Laboral Agricola de California have established close contacts with the newest migrant stream in California agriculture, the Mixtec and Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca. In many areas small community groups have gone beyond simply providing services to farmworkers and have helped them organize to fight for better housing, better schooling for their kids, and against violations of labor laws by farmworker contractors.

Up until now, these small beginnings have had an uneasy relationship with the U.F.W. Viewing them as competitive organizations, Chavez often tried to block their activities, even when the U.F.W. was not organizing in the same areas. Now that Chavez is gone, could the U.F.W. learn to cooperate with these other groups? Could people who were originally inspired by the heroic example of Chavez's life, and who now no longer have Cesar around to interfere with their work, make a hundred flowers bloom in the California fields?

Si se puede.

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