Like most campesinos (agricultural workers), Cesar Chavez was the color of the earth. There's little doubt that history will one day look back on the United Farm Worker movement as an indigenous insurrection - a struggle for dignity and human rights for a people who have been here forever.
It should also be seen as a green movement, as the UFW has always warned consumers about their own exposure to toxic chemicals.
When one hears the name of Cesar Chavez, it is usually associated with Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatmas Gandhi. The late Mexican-American labor leader came into national prominence for his several historic fasts (1960s-1990s) that brought to light the plight of farm workers. Yet we should always remember that he co-founded the United Farm Workers of America with his wife, Helen Chavez, and Dolores Huerta and that their very first strike was in support of Filipino farm workers.
Perhaps one day, his name will also be associated with the likes of Zapata, Geronimo and Sitting Bull. On the day before Chavez died in Arizona in 1993, he was reading a book on American Indians. At this, he told a colleague: "We need to work with our native American brothers and sisters."
It's no secret that most campesinos are indigenous or Indian and that many nowadays come directly from their pueblos in Mexico and Central America, speaking Zapotec, Otomie, Nahuatl or a variety of Mayan languages. But even those who do not speak their ancestral tongue are indigenous; they have always had a special relationship to the land. Their hands tell us this.
As Huerta has often said, farm workers do not hate their work ... they're not all trying to escape the fields. They love the land. What they don't like are the low pay and the extreme exploitation.
To this day, farm workers remain outside of the protection of the National Labor Relations Board. And they are treated as foreigners. In dictionaries, the word dehumanization should come illustrated with pictures of hunched-over farm workers.
Chavez used to say that the UFW was born the day the Bracero program was abolished in 1964. The Bracero program was, in effect, modern slave labor. Workers had no rights, except the right to be exploited and shipped back home. In fact, many (of those still alive) are owed money withheld from their paychecks from the 1940s-1960s.
A generation later, and now, incredulously, there's a push for another bracero program, albeit with a different name. So desperate is the situation regarding the border that this new "guest worker" program is being touted as a solution.
If Chavez were alive, he would say this legalized indentured labor is the problem, not the solution. The move to legally codify a category of humans with fewer rights and less pay is contrary to the march of history. It's a return to 19th century coolie labor - contract them cheaply (leave their families behind), subject them to inhumane working conditions, then ship them home. If they escape, sic the immigration officials on them. And if they have not given the patron any trouble (union organizing), they can return. This is seen as an alternative to dying in the desert and continuing to work in the shadows. Unless contested, this may become the future model labor for the United States.
Perhaps a better alternative and interim solution can be found in Europe. There, workers from any of the 25 nations that make up the European Community are legally entitled to work in each other's nations. In North America - as a result of NAFTA - jingoistic politicians treat human beings not as workers, but as criminals. Under this tri-national agreement, goods and capital generally flow freely, but not human beings.
To conveniently assuage America's fears, hard-working migrants are now conflated with terrorists, thus the push to further militarize the border. Some will not be happy until there's an impregnable 2,000-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, patrolled by trigger-happy vigilantes.
The merchants of fear have done a great disservice to humanity by getting people to see the issue of migration within the context of criminality or "the war on terrorism," rather than as part of a global economic phenomenon - one that could easily be resolved.
If Chavez taught us anything, it was to appreciate the men and women who provide us our daily sustenance. This begins by accepting and treating all workers as full human beings.
© 2005 Capital Times