Back in the 60s and 70s Cesar Chavez emerged as a leader among migrant farmworkers in California, and eventually the nation. He organized marches, strikes and even fasts. He founded the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), which led effective nation-wide boycotts against grapes, most notably, and other handpicked fruits and vegetables.
I sat down the other morning and read a letter he wrote to the President of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League in 1969. In it, he shares with Mr. E. L. Barr, Jr. his struggles, hopes and dreams for his people, and our nation. Given the immigration debate of late, I thought it might be timely for us to look upon history to see where we have come and where we are going in this matter. Certainly, it is not an easy question to answer. However, it is necessary that we remain steadfast in our resolve to seek understanding and to show charity and compassion for our common identity as women and men living on Earth.
“You must understand—I must make you understand—that our membership and the hopes and aspirations of the hundreds and thousands of the poor and dispossessed that have been raised on our account are, above all, human beings, no better and no worse than any other cross-section of human society; we are not saints because we are poor, but by the same measure neither are we immoral.” –Cesar Chavez
I have had the fortune of eating at the tables of “immigrants” in their homelands. It is there and then, in one of life’s basic sacraments, that I have learned repeatedly the lesson of being poor. The desire to seek change begins in the pit of an empty stomach thousands of miles away.
“We are men and women who have suffered and endured much, and not only because of our abject poverty, but because we have been kept poor. The colors of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of our formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our men slain in recent wars—through all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit.” –Cesar Chavez
Are we seeking to break “our human spirit?” Are we not able to find a peaceable means to the challenges before us? Do our leaders charging up the hill of anti-immigrant rhetoric try to demoralize us? Are we keeping ourselves poor by not seeking a loving solution through understanding and compassion?
“But God knows that we are not beasts of burden, agricultural implements or rented slaves; we are men…we are men locked in a death struggle against man’s inhumanity to man…And this struggle itself gives meaning to our life and ennobles our dying.” –Cesar Chavez
Is this something that we who were born here can comprehend? We can certainly empathize, but do we know what it means to struggle, and that the “struggle” itself defines who we are and “ennobles our dying?” Can we now see why millions of immigrants have marched across our country over the past month? Our immigrants are “locked” in a “struggle” that we, the privileged, do not know. It is in the struggle that we, a nation of peoples, will become stronger. Our ancestors have taught us that already. Let us close with a few lines familiar to us all, lines that resonate not only in American souls, but in souls around the world:
“Give me your tired, your poor…your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” –Emma Lazerus (printed on the Statue of Liberty)
(21 May 2006)