According to a pew research poll, Mexicans are the largest population of Hispanic origin living in the United States. They account for 62% of the U.S. Hispanic population.
There was one man, in particular, who worked tirelessly to make a better life for not only those of Mexican descent but also for the nearly 16 million Americans currently represented by a union.
American stories are complex. So was Cesar Chavez. Paul Chavez says his father’s work was never about wages and conditions. It was, first and foremost, about respect.
Chavez remembers following his dad to marches and boycotts. In the 60s and 70s, his father was a leader for farmworkers, establishing a union, organizing strikes and protests, and fighting for rights for those who had been denied them.
“People would work their entire lives, and when their bodies broke down and they were no longer able to work, they had nothing to fall back on,” Chavez said. “He gave hope and inspiration to people that were in short supply of it.”
Cesar Chavez became synonymous with a movement. He followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s example and preached nonviolence. He amplified the voices of his community, both professionally and culturally. This is the Chavez who is amplified today in monuments and museums.
Eladio Bobadilla is a history professor in Kentucky and one of a growing set of voices urging Americans to see a more complicated version of Chavez, beginning with his stance against undocumented immigrants. Bobadilla said he grew up thinking of Cesar Chavez as a hero. However, he says there is also a lot to critique.
“Things got really ugly. I mean, at one point, Cesar Chavez and his union created their own Border Patrol and the so-called “wet line” in 1973. Immigrants were being beaten. They were being turned over to immigration authorities. And that really bothered a lot of people,” Bobadilla said. “He understood, eventually, that going after immigrants made no sense—that he was effectively going after the same people he was supposed to represent.”
Bobadilla says to think of Chavez in one-dimensional terms is doing no one any favors. He says people’s attention spans are small, and they’re flooded with information. So, it’s important that people talk about the essence of a person’s life and the contributions that they’ve made.
Today, most define Chavez by the essence of his movement.
President Obama declared March 31 a federally recognized holiday. It’s observed or celebrated in eleven states. When President Biden took office, many were quick to notice a bust of Chavez behind his desk.
The American story of Cesar Chavez is complex. It’s far more than a few minutes can cover. However, his story is intertwined with history, as is the movement he led.