Cesar Chavez in Excelsus

CESAR CHAVEZ WEPT and when he finally looked up from the limp body of themurdered farm worker he was mourning, time seemed to stop.

Chavez's red-brimmed eyes glowered with both pain and anger, compassionand outrage. His leathery face glistened with windblown sand crystallizedby tears dried still in the afternoon sun. His parched lips quivered ashe tried to speak but couldn't. 

Time had stopped.

The unarmed farm worker had been shot to death by a strike-breaker hiredby an Imperial Valley grower — a grower who years later would go to prisonfor income tax evasion. 

Farm workers and reporters who crowded around Chavez all waited forwhat Cesar would say in the wake of calls from his own rank and file foreye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth revenge.

But time had stopped, and it seemed an eternity before Chavez bent overagain and kissed the dead man’s forehead.

“If I could,” Chavez said as he stood up and collected himself, “I wouldalso kiss the forehead of the man who killed him and of the man who hiredhim. And I would want you to do the same out of forgiveness.

“I will forgive them, but I will also keep fighting them with non-violence,with justice and with human dignity — and you must do the same.

“For the moment we stoop to their tactics, the moment we take the lawinto our own hands, that will be the moment that we become just like theyare.

“And what will we have changed?”


It was January 1979 in the dusty, sweltering heat of the Imperial Valleyjust north of the U.S.-Mexican border, and Chavez — as he had done manytimes before and after — managed to somehow not only defuse a potentiallyviolent farm labor strike but to also turn human tragedy into triumph.

That particular, though elusive quality — to lift the human spirit outof seemingly hopeless despair — that Chavez shared with a few other chosenmen in history may be what set Cesar apart from other charismatic figuresof his time.
It is also what comes to mind most vividly about Chavez upon reflectionas we approach the anniversary of his birth.

It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it had not been almost 35 years sinceCesar Chavez made his unlikely ascension into the American consciousness.He was, after all, a poor, uneducated laborer — a peasant, really — whorose to the princely heights of worldly fame and respect by promoting thebasic, if unappreciated, values of peace, human justice and dignity.

Mexican-American activists and leaders, of course, claimed Chavez astheir own. He was indeed the country’s most prominent Mexican-Americanfigure, though ironically many in the movement had both privately and publiclybeen critical of Chavez for not being a more activist or militant Chicanoleader.

In the 1970s, Chicano leaders even went so far as to humiliate Chavezby refusing to let him addresss a national Raza Unida political conventionin El Paso.

In the 1980s, several prominent Mexican-American leaders bitterly brokeoff their ties with Chavez over mounting differences on race relations— about which Chavez was not the Chicano nationalist many activists wantedhim to be — and on the Democratic party — which Chavez blindly supportedmuch to the disappointment of Chicanos disenchanted with the party. 

For much to the chagrin of Mexican-American activists, Cesar Chavezeventually transcended racial borders and ethnic divisions and to becomea symbol for more than just Chicano pride and purpose.

Cesar Chavez in excelsus became a peacemaker.

In retrospect, to say that he had become only a Mexican-American leaderwas like limiting Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. to the role of provincialleadership and influence.

The importance may not have been lost on President Bill Clinton, whoon Chavez's passing at the age of 66 in April of 1993 said:
“The labor movement and all Americans have lost a great leader withthe death of Cesar Chavez.”

For just as he would have kissed and forgiven the goon who killed hisfarm worker follower, Chavez sought to heal the divisions that had polarizedAmerica and particularly Chicanos and blacks as the racial tensions ofLos Angeles had shown to exist deeply and violently.

This did not go down well in the ethnic-paranoid Third World, whereMexican-American activists and leaders have long jealously sought to overtakeblacks in the landscape of the public rung: political representation, agencyand commission appointments, government funding and jobs.

Chavez would have none of it, and though he proudly carried on his heritageand language, he didn't wear his Mexican-American ethnicity on his shirt-sleeves.

When he broke the first of many fasts in 1968, it was with the lateSenator Robert F. Kennedy at his side and not with any of the ambitiousMexican-American politicos, who then and later sought to exploit Chavez.

And perhaps it was significant, too, that when the Los Angeles Timesmemorialized him, the photographs it used of Chavez's most historic momentswere of Chavez with Kennedy, Chavez with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Chavezwith Coretta King and Chavez with Ethel Kennedy.
Even when he died non-violently in his sleep, there seemed to be acurious wish among some Mexican-American activists that his death be more.

In East Los Angeles, a rumor spread that day that Chavez had been assassinated.Chavez had actually died peacefully in his sleep in Yuma, Ariz., far awayfrom the California vineyards and fields where he had organized farm workersinto a labor, civil rights and cultural phenomenon.


And far away from the Imperial Valley where, when he quelled his followers'emotions and prevented the possible widespread bloodshed of a labor riot,it became obvious that Chavez’s greatest gift may have been his faith andhis ability to inspire it among his followers.

At the time, I had been covering Cesar Chavez on and off for almosta dozen years. I had reported on his labor organizing struggle for newspapersin Texas and Washington and spent numerous hours interviewing him for abook on the Chicano movement in which I profiled him.

Even when I visited at his home, I had maintained a healthy newsman'sdetachment and suspicion, though with some mixed emotions that he had quicklyperceived and jumped on.

“You're a doubter, but I can tell you want to be a believer,” Chavezfinally said to me after an interview. “You need to take some time off,decide which one you're going to be, then be that.”

Chavez, in the tradition of Ghandi and King, may have been the lastof the peacemakers at a troublesome period of American history when manyactivists wanted him to be much more.

Perhaps, though, his legacy will also show that he made believers outof all of us.