|The Truth About a Mexican Hero
Cesar Chavez was no hero to revolutionary change
It’s not a coincidence when governments choose and pick certain men as icons, name buildings and streets after
them, or elevate them to holiday status. These people, in some cases, are seen as prime examples of what the
rulers want us to emulate; the kind of behavior they hope the masses will follow blindly and accept as heroes of
change. But, in fact, these figures are most likely helping to promote and maintain the status quo. In the case of
Cesar Chavez, it included activities such as assisting the government in keeping “wetbacks” out of America’s
work force and the exclusion of immigrants in the struggle to participate in becoming unionized.
For those of us that walked the picket lines with Cesar Chavez and UFW members in the 1970’s, particularly the
Safeway markets in East Los Angeles, the following facts will tend to dampen the nostalgia of our youth. But as
adults, we must now decipher the past and create wisdom for new generations to learn from Cesar Chavez’
shortcomings and the errors about the mistreatment of vulnerable immigrant workers. Chavez, like many before
him, is not a symbol of drastic change as much as he is a protector of keeping the system the same.
Today we see the Minutemen on the US/Mexico border in the states of Arizona and California. Their purpose is to
keep out illegal aliens, not spacemen but immigrant workers, from crossing the border. We can not overlook the
new hysteria of racism, nor can we accept that which discriminates against immigrant workers based on
ethnicity and poverty. Can you imagine Cesar Chavez helping them? You should, because that is what was going
on in 1979 when Chavez and the United Farm Workers launched a campaign on the Arizona border to keep
Mexican workers from entering America. There was a 100-mile long stretch of land called the “wet line” that
turned into a dangerous place for undocumented immigrant workers. They only searched for something
humankind has been looking for since the beginning of time – a warm place to sleep, a meal, a job, a place to raise
a family, a place that welcomes them with compassion, and not the gun-toting Minutemen of today or like the UFW
in 1979 who beat them as they attempted to cross. (New York Times, February 7, 1979)
The acceptance of the illegal status of some immigrant workers plays into the hands of those who wish to keep
workers divided and perpetuate the scapegoat theories that persist in newspapers across the country. The
working class remains divided on the issue, placing greater tensions among Mexicans and other Latinos against
native-born Chicanos and African-Americans in the workplace. It is unfortunate that Chavez pursued and
contributed to that line of thinking and his legacy haunted him then, as it does us today.
“Most all California farm workers have people in their families who have trouble with their legal status, so any
union trying to organize them cannot risk taking the side of the I.N.S., the hated migra. Yet the UFW sometimes
supported the use of the migra against scabs, sacrificing long-term respect for a possible short-term gain.” (The
Nation, Cesar Chavez Ghost: The Decline and Fall of the UFW, Frank Bardacke)
Even the greatest labor activist of our time, Bert Corona, spoke out against the anti-immigrant tactics of Cesar
Chavez and the UFW.
“Later in the 1960’s, when I began to organize undocumented immigrants full-time in the Hermandad Mexicana
Nacional, I did have an important difference with Cesar. This involved his, and the union’s, position on the need to
apprehend and deport undocumented Mexican immigrants who were being used as scabs by the growers…We
supported an open immigration policy, as far as Mexico was concerned, that did not victimize Mexicanos because
they did not have documents. We did not support deportation of people.” (Mario T. Garcia, Memories of Chicano
History, The life and narrative of Bert Corona, UC press, 1994)
What Cesar Chavez and those in the Minutemen Project failed to see is that immigration is the foundation of our
society. Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed it this way, “Remember, remember always that all of us…are descended
from immigrants and revolutionists.”
Harvard economist George J. Borjas explains, “We should keep in mind that someone who decides to leave their
country in search of better opportunities will be especially ready to make an effort and utilize all of their resources
and talents to move ahead.” (Migration, a Positive Balance) Borjas’ question of the day: “Why does the host
country benefit? Because the market wage equals the productivity of the last immigrant hired. As a result,
immigrants increase national income by more than what it costs to employ them. Put differently, all the
immigrants hired except for the last one contribute more to the economy than they get paid.” (Economics of
Migration) This gives good capitalists a reason to allow the flow of immigrants from Mexico. So it is easy to see
why even President Gorge Bush said of the Minutemen, “I’m against vigilantes in the United States of America.”
Bush wants immigrants so corporations can exploit them for cheap labor. Chavez wanted them out to protect the
UFW, instead of including them and making them part of the labor struggle. And the Minutemen do not want
Spanish-speaking immigrant workers doing work nobody else wants, in schools sitting next to their children or
see them at the local doctor’s office when they are sick.
Cesar Chavez, like the Minutemen, needed to see the human value and advantage of helping immigrant workers
become part of the fabric of society, rather than excluding them for their plight.
The frame work for keeping immigrants out of America is against the natural historical tendencies to seek out a
better life. We must reject accepting the randomness of being born anywhere on Earth as our only home, as an
absolute determinate for defining legitimacy or legality. The mosaic of civilization lies in the great migrations of
people. Human movements and their cultures cannot be dictated by governments, as much as they would like us
to believe it. The Berlin Wall could not separate us; The Great Wall of China was not long enough; Palestinians and
Israelis continue fighting to end this separation, because history is about where we have been, where we are
going and what happens when we arrive.
As long as our children are taught in school that the heroes of governments, whose names are on buildings and
streets, are examples they should follow, the longer it will take to make revolutionary change. The changes must
come by breaking down how the state apparatus promotes these international antagonisms through nationalistic
fervor, which leads to each state believing that they are more superior, leading to arrogant and false images over
We need change that welcomes all immigrants to a new land. What Chavez missed was that a revolution fights for
all people’s rights, regardless of how a government or union chooses to label them, and that all workers are
entitled to justice.
Thank you to Chuck O'Connell for pointing out a few of the conflicting positions that Chavez embraced.