SAN DIEGO -- Mexican-Americans are doing a stint in our own version of purgatory. It’s called the Trump Era.
After all, Donald Trump’s ascension into the world of politics -- his campaign, election and presidency -- has been filled with mean-spirited insults toward Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
And on March 31, what would have been the 91st birthday of one of our most iconic figures, Cesar Chavez, Mexican-Americans must stomach the crushing irony that the farm labor leader’s anti-immigrant nativism and “America First” protectionism were early precursors to much of President Trump’s agenda.
The story of Chavez and the United Farm Workers union he helped start is a tale that I know quite well -- perhaps too well.
As a native of the San Joaquin Valley, I was raised an hour’s drive from the town of Delano, which was ground zero for the UFW. Both my parents, and all four of my grandparents, picked fruits and vegetables. I’ve been studying, writing and speaking about Chavez and the union for more than 25 years. I have had separate and ugly confrontations with Chavez and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta. I’ve seen the legend and the lore up close, warts and all.
Meanwhile, as a journalist, I’ve covered Trump since he came down the escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015, declared his candidacy, and said that my Mexican grandfather came to this country with “lots of problems” and brought crime and drugs. I’ve called Trump a racist, a bully and a demagogue. Then I got mean.
So, believe me: If this were Star Wars, Chavez would be telling Trump, in the voice of James Earl Jones: “Donald, I am your father.”
Trump thinks a lot about the U.S.-Mexico border. So did Chavez, who observed: “As long as we have a poor country bordering California, it’s going to be very difficult to win strikes.”
Trump is hostile to competition. So was Chavez, who used strikes to rig the law of supply and demand so that growers had to use laborers represented by the UFW.
Trump thinks that immigrants hurt U.S. workers by taking jobs and lowering wages. So did Chavez, who tried to protect union members by ridding the fields of non-unionized immigrant farm workers through what he called the “Illegals Campaign.” It used intimidation, violence, calls to immigration agents to report undocumented immigrants, and demands that those who crossed the picket line be arrested and deported.
Trump sees Mexicans as inferior -- the kind of folks who come from what the president calls a “shithole.” So did Chavez, who -- as someone who was born in the United States and saw the world as an American, not a Mexican -- often referred to Mexican immigrants as “illegals” and “wetbacks.”
Trump pushes populism and bashes the rich and powerful. So did Chavez, who said: “History will judge societies and governments -- and their institutions -- not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.”
Trump blames free trade for the loss of American jobs. So did Chavez, who -- if he were alive today -- would likely oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement as hurting union workers who have to compete with the productivity of workers in other countries and whose wages fall as a result.
Trump only cares about winning and doesn’t seem to have any moral qualms about how to get there. Chavez was the same way, and he observed at one point: “There is no law for farm labor organizing, save the law of the jungle.”
Finally, Trump has often been accused of carrying things too far and inciting violence. So was Chavez, who, despite preaching non-violence, was accused of condoning violence carried out by others. Case in point: the infamous “wet line.” In the 70s, Chavez’s cousin Manuel -- on behalf of the UFW -- set up a human barrier to stop Mexican immigrants from crossing the border by beating them bloody, according to reports like one in the Village Voice which accused the UFW of waging a “campaign of random terror.”
As a pair of petty, self-centered, unpleasant and deeply flawed human beings, Trump and Chavez would have gotten along great.
And with that realization, the purgatory in which we Mexican-Americans now find ourselves gets a bit more uncomfortable.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.