Cesar Chavez in a Time of War

Where would he stand if he were alive today?

By Jorge Mariscal
Published on LatinoLA: March 30, 2002

Cesar Chavez in a Time of War

In a language previously only heard on sports programming, a heavily made-up and smiling news anchor cheerfully signs off, ?And that?s your war wrap.? U.S. 325; Al-Queda 8. The morbid logic of the body count that defined the Viet Nam period is upgraded by FOX News with bright computer graphics and melodramatic audio so that the next flag-wrapped body becomes just one more character in an on-going mini-series.

There is something about the reality of the current war on terror that has yet to register for most Americans. Yet the world has never been more violent and the potential for violence in our own country and abroad never greater. Talking heads inform us that a quarter of a million U.S. troops will be needed for a ?regime change? in Iraq. The American people, they tell us, will have to ?absorb the cost.? The bloody twentieth-century extends itself into the twenty-first.

What possible meaning could a philosophy of non-violence have in such a world? Cesar Chavez, one of the greatest American practitioners of Gandhi?s non-violent strategy of satyagraha or ?holding to truth,? would surely be saddened by the present state of affairs.

In the middle of the American war in Viet Nam, he argued, ?We must respect all human life, in the cities and in the fields and in Viet Nam. Non-violence is the only weapon that is compassionate and recognizes each person?s value.? We cannot know what Chavez would have thought about the war on terror. But we can be sure that if he were still with us he would devote his considerable talents to addressing the on-going plight of disenfranchised communities at home and abroad.

I believe Chavez would find unacceptable the fact that world-wide, over 10 million children under five years of age die from preventable diseases and that the accumulated wealth of the three richest individuals in the world surpasses the economies of the 45 poorest countries. Although he was a firm believer in non-violence, he reminded us, ?We advocate non-violence but we are not blind or deaf to the desperate and moody winds of human frustration, impatience and rage that blow among us? Only the enslaved in despair have need of violent overthrow.?

Non-violence over violence. But as Chavez understood, Gandhian non-violence was not passivity. Chavez once said, ?In some instances non-violence requires more militancy than violence. Non-violence forces you to abandon the short-cut in trying to make a change in the social order.?

This is essentially what Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated throughout his career. Shortly before his death, Dr. King told an interviewer, ?To be militant merely means to be demanding and to be persistent, and in this sense I think the non-violent movement has demonstrated great militancy.?

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, conservative opponents of the social and antiwar movements used the term ?militant? as a pejorative label akin to ?criminal.? Today, neo-conservative Hispanics like to claim that Chavez?s legacy has been co-opted by left-wing students and faculty. Chavez should be a hero to all the people of California, they claim, not just those who identity themselves as Chicanos and Chicanas.

I couldn?t agree more. But let?s be clear. Chicano and Chicana students on campuses across the State are about as far from the political left as one can be. At my campus, the vast majority are first-generation children of Mexican immigrants thoroughly committed to pursuing the American Dream. Even at the height of the Chicano Movement during the Viet Nam war period, the percentage of committed leftists of Mexican descent was single-digit. While small numbers of Chicano Marxists may have studied the works of Che Guevara and Mao, Cesar Chavez read Gandhi, Aquinas, and St. Paul.

What drives contemporary students and community activists for whom Chavez is their model is not socialism but the militant ethos that he embodied.

?Militancy? for Chavez meant fighting for the dignity of the most exploited of workers?the men and women who harvest our food in the hot sun season after season. Forty years later, militancy means refusing to sit idly by when faced with the realities of lingering institutional and economic inequality.

To be a Chicano or Chicana today means that you are deeply troubled by the high numbers of Chicano youth in prison, the low number of Chicano youth in the University of California (less than 4% are even eligible to apply), and the obscene number of Mexican workers losing their lives at the border.

It means you cannot accept the curtailment of civil liberties, the destruction of the environment, the high incidence of toxic pollution in Latino communities across the nation, and unrestricted funding for the Pentagon.

Were he alive today, Cesar Chavez would still be a militant Chicano, and no amount of historical revisionism can change that fact.

About Jorge Mariscal:
Jorge Mariscal is a Viet Nam veteran who teaches Chicano and Spanish studies at UC San Diego.

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