Wednesday, October 17, 2012

President Obama's Recent Dedication of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument

In the commentary below, historian Roger Bruns reflects on President Barack Obama's recent dedication of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument. Notably, Bruns draws out parallels between Chavez's activism on behalf of farm workers and President Obama's work as a community organizer—both of which had roots in Chicago's South Side—as evidence of the labor leader's continuing and inspiring legacy.

On October 8, 2012, President Barack Obama dedicated a new national memorial—the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California, at La Paz, the headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and final resting place of Chavez, who passed away in 1993. At the dedication ceremony, President Obama said that when Chavez began his farm worker movement, "no one seemed to care about the invisible farm workers who picked the nation's food—bent down in the beating sun, living in poverty, cheated by growers, abandoned in old age, unable to demand even the most basic rights." The president said, "Cesar cared. . . . In his own peaceful and eloquent way he made other people care too." President Obama has an abiding respect for Chavez. The president also shares with Chavez common historical roots.

In the early 1950s, Chavez, a farm worker and Navy veteran, began work with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Latino civic-action and self-help group that became highly successful in registering new voters and establishing citizen involvement in social issues. The CSO traced its founding to the work of Saul Alinsky, called by many the "Father of Community Organizing." In Chicago's tough neighborhoods of the 1930s, Alinsky, a graduate of the University of Chicago and a man who had grown up in the city's Jewish ghetto, began his life's work of helping ethnic groups, unions, and others organize themselves to take on governments and corporate interests that had wielded power over them. In 1939, Alinsky established in South Side Chicago the Industrial Areas Foundation to help reform declining urban neighborhoods. His approach was to unite and organize ordinary, struggling citizens. He taught such techniques as house meetings, marches, and communication strategies to help them become effective forces for change.

Fred Ross, one of Alinsky's protégés, became the leader of CSO, and it was Ross who became Chavez's mentor. By building Mexican American economic power and voter strength, Ross sought to improve living and working conditions; to promote educational and youth programs and community outreach; and to protest violations of human and civil rights. It was under Ross's tutelage that Chavez learned the techniques of community organizing.

When Chavez decided in the early 1960s to found a labor union to help Mexican American farm workers in California, it was these methods that he used to organize a group of workers long deprived of fair wages and working conditions and even human dignity. His cofounder of what eventually became the UFW was Dolores Huerta, another of Ross's CSO workers.

Although the UFW never ultimately achieved great lasting gains as measured by traditional labor unions, it did, for a time, attract much international recognition for its struggle against agribusiness interests to win union contracts. It helped win the first state law in the country granting agricultural workers the right to organize. It taught organizational techniques and led many Latino voter registration drives and other actions to gain empowerment.

Chavez and his lieutenants struck away at the defeatism and convinced large numbers of people that they could fight back. Not only for farm workers but for other Mexican Americans, the movement became an exciting struggle. People for the first time in their lives joined picket lines in front of grocery stores, passed out leaflets, registered others to vote, sang songs and chants of protest, and gained a new awareness that they could actually make a difference.

The farmworker movement contributed to a more general drive for civil rights among Mexican Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. It helped inspire a new generation of urban Mexican American youths to organize their communities and become active in social and political programs. As the Chicano movement grew, the picture of Cesar Chavez became one that hung on the walls of Latino homes.

In 1985, at a time when the UFW was engaging in boycotts and launching various campaigns to help farm workers, 23-year old Barack Obama took a job in Chicago as a community organizer in a neighborhood in South Side Chicago, the general area that had been a proving grounds for Saul Alinsky's community organizing methods. Obama worked with the Calumet Community Religious Conference, created by several local Catholic churches to combat the poverty and dislocation resulting from the closing of Wisconsin Steel and other industries. He helped build the Developing Communities Project, an organization devoted to after-school programs, drug prevention, and voter registration.

In his three years as a community organizer, Obama, in these distressed Chicago neighborhoods, adopted the same methods used by Chavez in the harvest fields of California—the house meetings and other organizational structures that stirred local collaboration and political participation. He taught empowerment techniques to help grapple with problems stemming from racial and religious bigotry, poverty, and homelessness.

Looking back, Obama credits the three years of work in the neighborhoods of South Side Chicago as important as any educational experience in his life. It taught him, he said, to put aside predetermined agendas, to listen to people, and to understand their struggles. Cesar Chavez had often expressed the same feeling.

Unlike Chavez, Obama went on to pursue a career in politics. In 2008, when Obama decided to run for President, he enlisted some individuals with whom he had worked in his days as a community organizer. They taught new campaign workers and volunteers techniques they had used years before in Chicago. Those new team members would form the nucleus of what became the most powerful grassroots organizing group in the history of American politics: Organizing for America. Its members continue to use, along with increasingly sophisticated computer and social media tools, the same basic methods that both Chavez and Obama used as community organizers. And when his presidential campaign of 2008 needed a rallying slogan, Obama looked to the history of the UFW.

In 1972, during a campaign in Phoenix, Arizona, to rally Mexican Americans to fight against Republican legislation denying farm workers the right to organize, Cesar Chavez and his UFW forces had waged a relentless voter registration drive that helped Latinos for the first time to gain a degree of political power in the state. On makeshift tables and even ironing boards, volunteers set up registration sites in heavily trafficked areas across Arizona, especially shopping centers. They marched from door to door. In only four months, 100,000 new voters had put their names on recall petitions and, most importantly, registered to vote. It was during that 1972 campaign that, in response to some who said no se puede ("it cannot be done"), Dolores Huerta insisted that from now on they would never say it could not be done. From now on, they would say si se puede ("yes we can do it"). Si se puede became a battle cry for the Arizona fight and others that followed. In 2008, candidate Obama used that same battle cry in his presidential campaign: "Yes, we can!"

In 2010, President Obama declared March 10 to be Cesar Chavez Day. He mentioned the rallying cry: Si, se puede or "Yes, we can," inspires hope and a spirit of possibility in people around the world. His movement strengthened our country, and his vision lives on in the organizers and social entrepreneurs who still empower their neighbors to improve their communities.

In May 2012, President Obama presented Dolores Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the East Room of the White House, the president again mentioned the slogan, quipping, "Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, Si, se puede—'Yes, we can.' Knowing her, I'm pleased that she let me off easy. Because Dolores does not play."

And so, in 2012, as President Obama dedicated the Chavez Memorial, he reflected upon the power of organizing that had meant so much to Chavez and to him: "Every time somebody's son or daughter comes and learns about the history of this movement, I want them to know that our journey is never hopeless. Our work is never done. . . . I want them to remember that true courage is revealed when the night is darkest and the resistance is strongest and we somehow find it within ourselves to stand up for what we believe in."

Roger Bruns is a historian and former deputy executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He is the author of many books, including Negro Leagues Baseball (Greenwood, 2012) and Icons of Latino America: Latino Contributions to American Culture (Greenwood, 2008). He is the author of the forthcoming Encyclopediaof Cesar Chavez: The Farm Workers' Fight for Rights and Justice (Greenwood, March 2013).

No comments:

Post a Comment