Cesar Chavez: Creating Justice
The historical context behind ¡Viva Cesar, Viva Kennedy! featuring Eugenia León and La Marisoul y La Santa Cecilia
By Sean McCollum
The year was 1965 — the place, the fields around Delano, California. There, a justice movement was growing amidst the grapes. Pickers were picketing, activist Dolores Huerta was organizing, and actors, musicians, and muralists were entertaining and educating the strikers, many whom could not read. In the process, Cesar Chavez was pulling together a plan for protest that would be impossible for Americans to ignore.
In the long history of labor struggle, numbers and organization have not always achieved the critical mass to cause change. They have often been outmaneuvered, outgunned, and outlasted by those in control. Cesar Chavez and his fellow activists, though, were rewriting the script for a national stage. Through nonviolent protest and creative outreach, he and his sisters and brothers in “La Causa” made a direct appeal to Americans’ sense of justice.
The Kennedy Connection
The inspiration for the movement took hold after World War II. A half-million Latinos and 350,000 Mexican-Americans had served their country during its time of need only to return to places like Delano that still posted “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed” in store windows.
“The love of justice that is in us is not only the best part of our being, but also the most true to our nature.”
In 1960, they heard a whisper of possible change in American attitudes. In his first presidential debate with Richard Nixon, candidate John F. Kennedy mentioned how “Puerto Ricans and Mexicans” — along with African Americans — were being denied opportunities and constitutional rights as Americans. “We can do better,” he said.
Chicano, Hispanic, and Latino leaders heard between the words. No major candidate had ever publicly acknowledged their people or their struggles. Now many rallied to JFK. Communities formed “Viva Kennedy” clubs, Kennedy’s Catholic faith appealed to their voters, and it didn’t hurt that his wife Jacqueline recorded a Spanish language commercial for the campaign. Mexican-American voters were key in helping JFK win Texas, and with it the presidency.
It was in this shifting social climate that Chavez, Huerta, and others launched the Mexican-American National Farmworkers Association in 1962, later joining with another group to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Three years later, the struggle went national with the Delano Grape Strike and a call for a boycott of grapes to challenge unfair pay and treatment by growers. News stories reported the injustice suffered by migrant workers. Consumers learned they were snacking on grapes and other produce picked by field hands paid starvation wages, and by pre- teens who were working in the fields instead of going to school. Eventually, more than 14 million Americans joined the boycott.
In 1970, the growers finally bowed. The UFW won new contracts promising more pay and better working conditions, though similar struggles continue to the present day. The movement had also become a rallying point of pride and solidarity among Chicanos and others with roots in Latin America.
Reliving and Rebooting
When justice is won, memories of the struggle that made it possible can fade surprisingly fast. But as Cesar Chavez believed, its pursuit is one of humanity’s most ennobling qualities. “The love of justice that is in us,” he said, “is not only the best part of our being, but also the most true to our nature.”
“The arts are … one of the best ways to be an activist.”
The ability to promote and celebrate that ideal is a grace-filled aspect of the arts, and central to the celebration that is ¡Viva Cesar, Viva Kennedy! The multimedia event will celebrate La Causa’s graphic art, comics, photos, murals, skits, and corridos, narrative ballads. Many who lived that history will participate including Dolores Huerta, mural artists Barbara Carrasco and John Valadez, El Teatro Campesino leader Luis Valdez and original members of the troupe. As ¡Viva Cesar, Viva Kennedy!’s creator Dan Guerrero says, “The arts are … one of the best ways to be an activist.”
The terms of identity used by Mexican-Americans, Hispanic-Americans,and Latino/Latina-Americans, is a complex issue. As an inexact guide, younger Mexican-Americans came to embrace Chicano, while Hispanic and Latino/ Latina have been used by groups emphasizing their shared Spanish-speaking heritage.