Marcos Breton: Coming to terms with the legacy of Cesar Chavez
04/21/2013 12:00 AM
09/18/2013 12:13 PM
It was 20 years ago this week that Cesar Chavez, the iconic labor leader and Mexican American hero, died too soon and was feted across the globe as a champion of the poor and the oppressed.
Based on my Mexican ancestry, my generation and my upbringing in San Jose – where Chavez lived for years before gaining international fame for organizing oppressed farmworkers – I should have been in the chorus singing his praises and shedding tears. But I wasn't and that was a lonely place to be at one time.
Then and now, Chavez was arguably the most famous Mexican American in California, the leading light of this state's largest ethnic group.
The late labor leader now has his own state holiday in California and other states. Schools and streets are named after him. Whenever politicians like President Barack Obama want to score points with Latino voters, they typically start by paying homage to the man who died when he was 66 years old on April 23, 1993.
Despite my misgivings about the cult of personality that encased Chavez like a marble mausoleum, the origins of that reverence were born of good intentions. Chavez fought deplorable working conditions in the fields, exploitative wage structures and the dangerous use of chemicals – the byproducts of harvesting the fruits and vegetables we consume.
He deserves praise for inspiring generations of once-disenfranchised workers to stand up for their rights, organize and be heard.
I am 50 now, and many Latinos of my generation – and the generation after us – went into politics, education, law, journalism and other vocations once remote to our families with Chavez's message lifting our hearts or stiffening our spines.
"Sí Se Puede!" still rings out like a mantra at United Farm Workers union rallies. It means "It can be done!" – a message many of us needed to hear as we attended schools of low expectations and strived for jobs where we were labeled "minority hires."
I laugh and shake my head now at bright kids with Spanish surnames who seem unburdened by the cultural and emotional baggage I carried on that fateful day when my life intersected with Chavez himself.
A year before his death, I penned a scathing article about Chavez and the UFW for the front page of The Bee. The story was that the UFW had lost much of its relevance and was not only failing to organize workers – but was also obstructing farmworkers across California from organizing on their own. I didn't need to quote unnamed sources. I had scores of people on the record giving specific examples of negative interactions with the UFW.
I had Chavez on the record as well after interviewing him at the UFW compound, where I was led into his office, where he sat alone behind a spartan desk while incense burned and his eyes burned a hole in me – a wobbly work in progress at 29.
"Who are you?" Chavez's eyes seemed to say to me with contempt as he absorbed my pointed questions. "I've sacrificed everything – including my health – so punks like you wouldn't have to face life stooped over in the fields."
He never actually spoke those words, but supporters of Chavez said as much to me – Spanish expletives included – after my article was published.
In another incident after the story ran, I thought I was going to get jumped by three guys – two of whom stood behind me while the ringleader got in my personal space and contemptuously referred to me as "Mark" while calling me out.
It was his way of telling me I was a sellout. In Spanish, the word is vendido.
Chavez also weighed in with a blistering letter sent to my old boss, Gregory Favre.
There is a segment of Chavez supporters, older ones, who are from a culture with little experience with democracy – an experience calcified by Catholic mythology and the scorched-earth political tactics of the 1960s that were outdated by the 1990s.
Many of us who grew up in the U.S. in the 1970s and '80s just couldn't get into the Chavez thing because we wanted to move forward – beyond the fields – and we couldn't get behind the my-way-or-the-highway reverence insisted upon by elders who seemed insulted because we wanted to move up and move on.
I still run into some of these old guys now, and it's as if the last 20 years never happened – or the last 40 years, for that matter.
But you know what? I do regret that article today. Not because it was inaccurate. I regret it because, as my old boss Gregory used to say: "Sometimes the problem isn't getting the facts wrong – the problem is not including enough facts."
The fact is, Chavez deserves his due because he fought the good fight.
He was an inspiration, heroic in his own very human way. Where I differ with those who lift Chavez to the heavens is simple: There should be no one leader or figure or icon for politicians like Obama to praise as a substitute for real service to an important constituency.
I don't revere Chavez the way his most ardent supporters do, but I respect his importance. Kids should remember him, but the elders should remember that the narrative does not and should not end with Chavez.
We can still be his legacy, even though some of us view him differently as we march with confidence toward a bright future that honors him and his generation.
About This BlogHello, my name is Marcos Breton, and I'm the news columnist with The Sacramento Bee. What's a columnist supposed to do? I'm supposed to make you think, make you laugh, make you mad or make you see an issue in a different way. I also write a weekly baseball column during the baseball season. I am a native of Northern California and the son of Mexican immigrants. I've been at The Bee for more than 20 years, and I love Sacramento.
Contact Marcos Breton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 916-321-1096.
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