César Chávez, American

Labor activist César Chávez (center) on a march from the Mexican border to Sacramento with United Farm Workers members in Redondo Beach, California on July 5, 1975. Photo by John Malmin, from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection at the UCLA Library (CC BY 4.0).

This article is part of a series by J. Nathan Matias for a 500+ mile bicycle ride in June 2023 that is raising funds for Rising Voices, Global Voices’ endangered/Indigenous language program, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Donate to the initiative here

When the photojournalist Hector Amezcua took a photo of Ivan Sigal and me at the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Ivan and I had just bicycled hundreds of miles from Bakersfield along the route of the 1966 Farmworkers March, seeking to understand the past, and meet emerging leaders of California's Central Valley. To reach the Capitol, we'd braved extreme heat, climbed six thousand feet into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fixed many flat tires, and challenged my respiratory disability with some of the worst air quality in the US.

But Hector's next sentence quickly deflated my illusions of grandeur: “People who retrace the march typically take photos here,” he said, “after mass at La Virgen de Guadelupe Church.” Just last year, a group of farm workers spent weeks walking 335 miles along the historic route to advocate for a California law that would lower barriers to union recruitment. After President Joe Biden expressed support for the law, California governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill which could restore the power of farmworker unions after decades of suppression.

Ivan Sigal and J. Nathan Matias on the Capitol Steps in Sacramento. Photo by Hector Amezcua.

A few days earlier, we had met Gloria Gonzalez, a farmworker from Parlier who joined the 2022 union march. Gloria drove every morning to the start, walked all day, then drove back home each night to take care of her family, at a time when gas prices were at an all-time high. Meeting Gloria definitely expanded my definition of the ultra-endurance athlete.

Over the six days we’d been following the route and meeting leaders in the Central Valley, I found myself thinking about the legendary labor activist César Chavéz, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union and a key organizer of the farmworkers march, and asking the question: what role should legendary figures like Chávez play in civic life?

This year, when the US Senate considers a National Park along the route, they will vote on the “César E. Chávez and the Farmworker Movement National Historical Park.” Just around the corner, Sacramento's César Chávez Plaza serves as the city’s local farmer's market, and dozens of communities along our route have named roads, schools, and community centers after Chávez and his fellow march organizers Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong.

My White friends sometimes ask if we should continue to idolize figures like Chávez at a time when Americans are questioning the meaning of so many of our statues, monuments, and symbols. When I spoke this year with people who had been close to Chávez, our conversations often reached a moment of unease around his legacy. After internationally visible political victories in the 1960s, Chávez became trapped by his own celebrity, growing into a controlling figure who demanded cult-like loyalty from a shrinking group of followers. Writing about his former allies, biographer Miriam Pawel mentions a similar unease: “They had worshipped Chavez and become disillusioned, basked in his tutelage and endured his wrath.” Is that the kind of person we should memorialize with a National Park?

César Chávez on the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. By Ernest Lowe collection at UC Merced (CC-BY-NC 4.0).

Then I thought of all the people outside of the camera frame of history's legends, people like Hector Amezcua, one of the very first people in the United States to major in Chicano Studies at university. Two years after the Farmworkers March, 15,000 Latin American students were walking out of schools in Los Angeles to demand that our history and culture be included in American education. Many of the artists, musicians, writers, and activists who had marched went on to fill these gaps in cultural and societal recognition. Their work on the history and legend of the Farmworkers March created countless institutions and opportunities for people like Hector and me.

Visual journalist Hector Amezcua. Photo by Ivan Sigal (CC BY 4.0)

The social recognition for Mexican-Americans created by this work has gone on to benefit Latin-Americans of all backgrounds. As a Spanish-speaking US journalist, Hector was able to cover the 1994 elections in Guatemala that ended the civil war and genocide that my family escaped in the 1970s. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hector worked with a local university to coordinate the creation of indigenous language health resources in Mam, my father's ancestral language. It’s hard to imagine those things happening if there had been no Chicano movement.

As a professor of Communication, I teach my students to think about stories and monuments as symbols of cultural representation and recognition— that stand for something more than a person or event. When the farmworker movement chose to march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966, they were intentionally creating a legend. The examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had taught international media how to write about visionary leaders on a march for justice. The march organizers understood then what media scholars came to see decades later: that newsrooms are factories for producing stories, and successful campaigns are those that are effective at providing journalists with the raw material for scripts they already know how to write (Fishman 1980). The organizers may not have realized how the same heroic scripts would also impose limits on what Chávez and the movement could accomplish.

Of course, not all legends are treated equally. At a time when universities are fighting to maintain statues of bloody colonizers like Cecil Rhodes and slaveholders like Jonathan Edwards, I sometimes wish I lived in a world of equal-opportunity criticism of our public heroes.

But maybe the imperfection of Chávez is another reason to make him a symbol. California is a state built by visionaries who convinced people to take extreme risks to transform the land and society. Throughout our bicycle ride, we saw the powerful hand of these leaders stamped on California’s farms, waterways, oil fields, institutions, natural disasters, and National Parks. Joan Didion, who chronicled the fervor of California’s larger-than-life leading men with piercing wit in the aptly titled “White Album,” wrote that there’s nothing more American than a charismatic man with ambition, hubris, and a cause.

In a country built on displacement and stolen land, heroic legends become the seed for new possibilities to flourish. Each time a community in the US changes a street name, adds a new class to the curriculum, or publishes in a new language, they are making a statement about who belongs. In recent years, scientists have found that including ethnic studies in high school curriculums results in large increases for students from those ethnic groups in school attendance, in the likelihood of graduating from high school, and in the probability of enrolling in college (Bonilla et al 2021).

Here at Global Voices, which publishes media and storytelling from the global majority, many of us long to see similar transformations in our communities. As Marshall Ganz, co-organizer of the 1966 March, has argued, stories matter because they inspire us to fit our own life into a larger story of the world we want (Ganz 2011).

When the 1966 Farmworkers March arrived at the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento, they were celebrating what they called a “peregrinación,” a pilgrimage that all were invited to join. Like all pilgrimages, the journey was a witness to the truth, a time of reflection, and an opportunity to transform both the marchers and the communities that they passed through.

Pilgrimage always combines a renewal of the past with a new path to a shared future. Whether or not the Farmworker March is memorialized in a National Park, this route and its legend will continue to be a source of inspiration and renewal for those who travel it, as it has been for me.

Read more background about the ride, including its goals and Nathan and Ivan's itinerary, at our special coverage page.



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