Honoring Cesar Chavez at 81
Today would have been Cesar Chavez's 81st birthday. He died in his sleep in 1993, reading a book on art. His life was cut short, not by an assassins's bullet as was Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, or his colleague, Robert Kennedy, but because of years of self-denial. He suffered for years because of the fasts that he took on in the name of the farmworker struggle. During his life, he voluntarily denied himself food three times for periods of longer than 20 days. The toll on his body was immense. He underwent debiliating back pain for years. But during his last fast, in 1989, he told people he felt guilty and ashamed because he did not know how much the farmworkers in California had suffered as a result of pesticide use. So he fasted in order to be miserable, to feel pain, because the farmworkers felt pain, and he wanted to show solidarity with them. As a result of these choices, he died before his time, as do many of the workers whose lives are spent in toil so that the rest of us can simply eat.
Here you can listen to a lecture by Cesar Chavez, entitled "Reflections of Social Justice", a year before his death, at Harvard University. (The voice of Dr. King is well known to us, less so is the calm, yet passionate, voice of Cesar). In this lecture talks about pesticide exposure, the sexual harrassment of women farmworkers, the history of union labor in the fields, and the requirements of social justice.
What's interesting in this talk--in this period leading up to the presidential election this fall--is how Cesar discounts the idea of social change through electoral politics. For poor people, he says, it doesn't matter which politician get elected. The key to social justice is to realize that real change only takes place through people power--ordinary folks organizing themselves to put pressure and coercion on the powerful to change. There is power beyond the ballot box.
I examine these ideas of his in my book that was just released: Cesar Chavez and the Commonsense of Nonviolence. I hope some readers will be able to send me their thoughts on the book eventually.