As a fourth-grader, I was an involuntary participant in a social justice movement. My mother informed me one day that “we” would be contributing twenty-five cents from my weekly allowance to Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers union. When I pointed out that I didn’t know any farm workers, my mother ignored me.
Then I had a brilliant idea. If I had to give up twenty-five cents from my allowance for this Chavez person, could I have a twenty-five cent raise in my allowance?
My mother said No.
Starting that weekend, my brothers and I each handed over a quarter to Mom for Chavez. My mother kept the money in a jar and then periodically wrote out a check, (which included a donation from her and my dad) to the United Farm Workers.
Back in the 1970s, Chavez loomed large over Mexican-American families like mine in California.
My parents spoke about him with great admiration, and our entire family participated in his consumer boycotts of grapes and lettuce. We went years without eating grapes. I used to enjoy visiting an Asian classmate because his parents were from Japan and hadn’t heard about the boycott, so I was able to (secretly) eat some grapes at his house. If my mother set out a salad at dinner, my aunts wouldn’t eat it until my mother swore that it was from an out-of-state lettuce grower.
In a way it was a heady feeling for a kid, to feel like I was helping fight for justice. But when I watched Chavez on the evening news, he seemed too ordinary. He wasn’t handsome or dynamic, like a Kennedy or a movie star. He was small and dark-skinned, with tired eyes and a hoarse voice. I secretly wished he could be more like the heroes in comic books. Chavez might have been described as a humble man going up against huge corporations and winning, but that wasn’t enough for my nine-year-old self.
It took many years to realize what I once considered Chavez’s inadequacies were what made him so important to those around me.
As an adult, I find it amazing now to think of how Chavez united so many people – from Hollywood liberals to suburban homemakers to college students – in support of his cause. His message, though was simple and effective - all people deserved to live and work with dignity. When my mother told me and my brothers that the farm workers toiled all day under the hot sun with no bathrooms, no clean drinking water and no breaks, that was a shock. That sunk in.
Sometimes, when we passed the strikers in front of our local supermarket, my mother would honk the car horn to show her support and the picketers would wave their signs in return.
That made me feel empowered, before I knew what empowered meant.
Now, I find it quite inspiring to think how Chavez created a huge movement out of basically nothing. It’s almost funny that the first members of the United Farm Workers were Chavez, his wife, and their eight young children. When he rose to prominence, it meant the world to families like mine. It meant that we mattered, that we had a place in the national conversation. Remember, this was a time when there were virtually no Latino politicians, no Latinos on TV, and the idea of a Latina on the Supreme Court was beyond unimaginable.
Looking back, it also strikes me how my parents and extended family all referred to “Cesar” like they knew him. His name was mentioned a lot at the dinner table, as though he were a relative. When he made the cover of Time Magazine, everyone was so proud.
Of course, I know Chavez was not perfect. He often neglected his own family in favor of his farm workers, and his union had plenty of problems in later years. To me, these missteps don’t make Chavez less of a hero. They just show that he was human, like all of us. Chavez’s failings make him more of a real person, in my eyes.
All these years later, part of me still thinks of Chavez as familia. His lifelong crusade for justice showed my family that a person doesn’t have to be a superhero to accomplish superhuman things. And that’s a lesson even a fourth-grader can understand.