‘La Causa’ Endures: Celebrating The Legacy Of Cesar Chavez
A new graphic novel ‘Who Was the Voice of the People?’ aims to raise a new generation of activists
Terry Blas’s graphic novel opens in 1965 in Delano, California; Cesar Chavez is poised to galvanize thousands of farmworkers to make a 300-mile march to Sacramento, a pilgrimage for workers’ rights that all begins with grapes.
Their roving protest takes them through 53 towns — nearly all on foot and camping along the way — gathering farm-working comrades from the fields all along the way. They urged America to boycott Schenley Industries — which employed migrant farmworkers to work their lands and vineyards underpaid, overworked, utterly without rights or protections and of course, forbidden to unionize — until Schenley met their demands for higher wages and life insurance.
Just three years prior, Chavez had worked alongside veteran union organizer Dolores Huerta to form the National Farm Workers Association (which later became the United Farm Workers of America), empowering Latino workers to fight for dignity, a working wage, and bring national visibility to their plight.
Chavez had grown up under the thumb of poverty alongside his four siblings, his parents and his abuela; he was born in Arizona and lived on a ranch in the Sonoran Desert before his family lost their farm during the Great Depression and moved to California.
In the baking fields of San Jose, Chavez bears witness to the grueling manual labor that underpins much of America’s agriculture — two hours of picking peas could yield a family 20 cents — and leaves school in 8th grade to join his family full time in the fields.
But Chavez’s journey of revolution was just beginning. He would go on to become one of America’s seminal civil rights activists and labor leaders — championing the non-violent tactics of Gandhi — and lay the foundation that farmworkers across the nation still rely on today to seek out a safe and just food system.
A way to feed ourselves that is equitable instead of exploitative.
Blas’s graphic novel — illustrated with vivacious charm by cartoonist Mar Julia — captures the triumphs and tribulations of The Delano Grape Strike for Penguin Workshop’s Who HQ, a history and biography series for middle school-aged children centering pivotal moments in our collective histories.
Blas himself is Mexican American and wended his way from Idaho — where he grew up — to Mexico when he was 16, living in Queretaro and Ixtapa and courting what would become a lifelong love affair with comics.
“I drew endlessly in sketchbooks and always knew I wanted to draw for a living,” he says. “Comics are one of the last forms of interactive media that we have — you get to decide how long to linger on a panel. You get to read the words and hear it in your head however you want.”
Blas says the coupling of words and art is an often overlooked — or undermined — art form.
“I think in this country we put great novels and great artwork on a pedestal, but you put the two together and suddenly it’s funny books for kids.’ It’s ‘super hero books for stunted nerds.’ That’s just wild to me. I don’t get it. Comics appealed to me in the beginning because it’s a great way to tell stories.”
And it’s accessible; it’s something anyone can approach. “All you need is paper, a pencil and a stapler. And sometimes, not even the stapler!”
Blas is a proud Latino, Hispanic creator (and has a wonderful linguistic breakdown of the difference between the two in ‘You Say Latino!’) and believes that coupling one’s identity with art is a potent alchemy to foster community and recognize one another’s humanity.
“Stories about people who represent us are so important because they help us feel seen and reflected back. Stories about people who are different from us help us to empathize and see what similarities we do have. If we had more stories about people who are different from us we might not think the way we do things is the only way to do them.
I think art and stories are often what get people to change their minds about things — people will watch a movie or read a book and feel for a character. If someone gets talked to about how they are wrong that rarely goes well.”
‘Who Was the Voice of the People’ is an incisive, vibrant, and pithy graphic novel that captures a movement in its nascent stage of glory, centering the working people who risked their lives for their own selfhood — for those who perished young and for the young so they wouldn’t perish.
“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce,” said Chavez. “It is always about people.” And La Causa continues.