There is an old saying that “to speak the name of our ancestors is to keep them alive.” Today I speak the name of labor leader and environmentalist, César Estrada Chávez. He was a man who died prematurely at 66, a life worn out by dedicated service, personal sacrifice, constant threats to his and his family’s life; and the formidable efforts of agribusiness, Teamsters, and government agents to derail everything he tried to accomplish.
Those of us who lived during the tenure of his time on this earth have a special obligation to speak his name today and to find enduring ways to remind our children and ourselves of his legacy.
In 1960, CBS produced a documentary, narrated by the celebrated journalist Edwin R. Murrow, called “Harvest of Shame.” It was a jolt at the time, but seeing it today one is struck by the pathetic pace of change, and by what can only be regarded as the heroic patience of those who are stuck in the inertia.
Over all these years, César Chávez, more than any other person, was able to bring light, energy and forward movement to the struggle of farm workers in this country. He tirelessly brought attention to a societal detachment from the source of our nourishment, and attention to faceless farm workers who labor in the fields to put food on our tables, and who suffer the vicissitudes of a yearly harvest.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Chávez set an example for the nation in his non-violent leadership. He used Gandhi’s notion of “moral jujitsu” to describe its effect on the opposition. He fasted for enlightenment as well as publicity, putting his life at risk to protest against intransigent growers or grocery chains, or to restrain his own followers when the impulse to violence reared its ugly head.
Chávez’ successes were many, including the signing of the first agricultural worker agreements, passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, banning use of the dreaded and disabling short-handled hoe, and raising the public’s awareness about the dangers of chemicals and pesticides used in modern farming.
Dolores Huerta, herself such a looming figure in this struggle, pinpointed his gift: “César's life is the lucero, the light, the morning star, that provides vision to the path, with the glow of energy generated by the struggle.”
César combined a unique set of virtues to sustain the struggle he led, to relentlessly champion those who have no voice, and to resist the seductive temptations of a society propelled by a consumer definition of happiness.
As Filipino labor organizer Pet Velasco put it, “César taught us how to walk in the jungle and not be afraid.”
In the vernacular of my youthful street self and the many Chicanos who grew up in the barrios of California and the Southwest, César was “The Vato” the man who stood up to the Man, the one who met danger without giving way to fear. He was courageous and it gave us courage. He was determined and it made us determined. He practiced tolerance and non-violence and it made us more tolerant and non-violent. And he was persistently hopeful, and it gave us hope. Though he rejected the rhetoric of the defiant Raza Movement, he was still ours and he made us proud.
So how do we perpetuate the speaking of his name, to perpetuate his virtues—determination, courage, tolerance, and hope? And how do we adapt them to the challenges of the future as César might have?
In Berkeley, the César Chávez Memorial Solar Calendar Project has chosen a dual approach with an educational curriculum (K-12) integrated into a unique memorial that would serve as a field classroom.
The project, more than five years in the making, aims to create a major work of “site-specific” public art in the form of an ancient solar calendar, a fitting one to a man who devoted his life to the earth and to farm workers who have always lived by understanding the cycle of the seasons. Think of Stonehenge if you are searching for an image, or check the website: www.solarcalendar.org. The project connects art, science, culture and history in a form that is unique for a memorial. When the memorial is completed it will be both contemplative and educational. The Berkeley City Council has provisionally reserved 1.5 acres at César Chávez Park for the memorial, a site with a sensational 360-degree panoramic view of the horizon, and a perfect place for reflection.
The companion educational curriculum links the legacy of César Chávez with the pressing need for environmental stewardship and service to the community. The memorial calendar will incorporate four of the virtues of Chávez into the four cardinal directions of the site. The subtitle of the curriculum is “the seed of the soul is service.” The four selected virtues will serve as the seeds.
Though some may argue for an official Chávez holiday, the memorial solar calendar project advocates engaging school children in service learning projects to celebrate Chávez’ life. All lessons will radiate from the four virtues, which will help keep our youth fully engaged in education by serving their community.
There are many ways to honor an exceptional leader. One is to speak his name and to tell his story. The César Chávez Memorial Solar Calendar and educational curriculum will ensure that we speak his name, reflect on his life and serve his legacy through service to our community. Arguably there are no major memorials to Latinos in this country. May the first one be for César, and may it be right here in the Bay Area.
Santiago Casal is the director of the Chávez Memorial Solar Calendar Project and the Rhythm of the Seasons Curriculum.