It is almost universally agreed that the Los Angeles Times recent series on the United Farmworker's Union was deeply disturbing, yet it was not surprising.
My profession occasionally contributes to these kinds of political triangulations; rather than government, industry and media attacking the problems of poverty and the historic exploitation of farmworkers, they instead go after those, who at extreme financial sacrifice, have for two generations attempted to uplift the condition of the nation's most exploited workers.
More than anything, the series was a tragicomic encirclement (akin to the media's complicit role in promoting the U.S. war against Iraq).
Interestingly, the articles noted that Cesar Chavez and the UFW remain the man and the institution most admired by the Mexican/Latino community. That caveat jumped out at the reader? It almost invited us to read into the purpose of the series: to stain his memory and to topple the UFW from that well-deserved position.
The article seems to have backfired. Yet, the question remains: Why did the Times deem it necessary to brazenly attack Chavez's memory if its concern was the present state-of-affairs of the UFW? And, where did it get the idea that it knows best the role of the UFW?
To its credit, this is the kind of reporting (length-wise) that is lacking by today's mainstream media when it comes to being the watchdog of government and business. Wouldn't it have been nice if the L.A. Times had spent even half as much time reporting on the toxic business of agribusiness and its role in the super-exploitation of farm workers? and the historic governmental collusion to ensure this exploitation?
My particular interest in the series was the paper's attempt to dictate how we should remember Chavez and the UFW and what the proper role of the union should be.
The recurrent theme for criticizing the UFW today is that Chavez (and the UFW) strayed from his original mission: he should have stuck to being a labor organizer - not the leader of a movement or of a people. Compounding this idea is the notion that his family is exploiting his image and memory.
If one does a google search of Chavez critics, we will find the usual right wing suspects and one Mexican American columnist who jumpstarted his career (and was rewarded) by attacking and denigrating Chavez and the UFW. Outside of that, you will find virtually no one else complaining about Chavez's memory? or rather, one will not read or hear anything about the Chavez family exploiting his memory.
If anything, it's quite the reverse. The primary critique one hears is, Why is Cesar Chavez's birthday not a national holiday? (Perhaps in our lifetime, we will see that day).
Again, I return to the theme of memory, in this case, Chavez's memory. Who owns it? And indeed, is his image/memory being exploited?
The truth is, virtually all memory is myth? not in the not-true sense, but rather, in the sense that all history is narrative. We remember what we want to remember. All peoples do this.
To be sure, Cesar Chavez was a human being, just the same as his wife Helen is a human being as is Dolores Huerta (the other two co-founders of the UFW). Human beings are not saints and social movements are not comprised solely of legions of angels. They are peoples who are primarily committed to social justice and equality and in the course of struggle, make (surprise) human decisions, often in the midst of extreme pressures.
Yet, Chavez as a historic and mythic figure is a thousand times bigger than any newspaper, magazine, television or radio station because of who he was and what he represents to people? a people without genuine public heroes. Here's an inside secret as to why the bad ink don't stick: Chavez & Huerta gave brown people - people historically dehumanized -- the black UFW eagle and Si Se Puede. The eagle (a stylized inverted pre-Columbian pyramid) reminds us of the ancient and Indigenous connection that farm workers have to the land and to this continent. And Si Se Puede is a message that springs forth from the language of the heart, an ancient indigenous and irrepressible message that communicates that nothing is impossible.
It is the same or similar message that Malcolm X, or perhaps, more appropriately, Martin Luther King Jr., gave to the Black masses.
Just as importantly, it is the same message that Helen Chavez and Dolores Huerta still convey to all human beings. In the same vein, the UFW carries on today with the work of fighting for the most exploited human beings in this country - in or out of the fields.
No amount of hit pieces will change that, nor will it desecrate the memory of a simple macehual.
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