In Memory of Cesar Chavez

— Gonzalo Santos

THE UNTIMELY DEATH of United Farm Workers (UFW) organizer and Chicano civil rights leader Cesar Chavez brought an enormous outpouring of grief from the Chicano and Mexicano communities, and calls for redoubling efforts in "la causa campesina." Spanish-language radio stations were flooded—especially the UFW-affiliated "Radio Campesina"—with so many calls that they operated for several days in the open-line talk show fashion with no signs of slowing down.

It was very impressive: Most calls came from farmworkers and their families, calling from all over the San Joaquin Valley, reading poems, eulogies, condolences to Chavez's family, recalling the movement's history and anecdotes. It was as if the entire farm-worker class in the Valley was holding an electronic open meeting, with constant calls to the station to inform people of who was doing what and where, mainly the mobilization of people to attend Cesar's wake, funeral.

A Celebration of Struggle

The stations called, essentially, for a one- or two-day work stoppage in Cesar's honor. The call went out for people to assemble at seven in the morning on Thursday, April 29 at the main park in Delano for a march to the "40 Acre” site, where the UFW has its offices. Cesar lay in state there Wednesday and an all- night vigil was held that night.

Organizers called on people to come dressed in white, to bring white flags, hats, etc., to celebrate Cesar's life. Some growers and packers "granted" their workers the two days, in effect acknowledging that people wouldn't show up to work People weren't fooled a bit.

The rest of the Valley, notably the English-language media, seemed to be engaged in avoidance, indifference or a nervous cautious response—"he was, after all, a man who believed in his cause.” Most Anglos had no idea what was happening on the eve of this giant mobilization.

On April 29, over 40,000 people accompanied Cesar Chavez in his last march through the fields around Delano, where he organized his first huelgas, boycotts and marches in the early 1960. The event was the largest single farmworker mobilization in the history of the United States, the largest ever of any kind in the San Joaquin Valley, and the second largest in the history of Latinos in the United States (only smaller than the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War in Los Angeles).

People began gathering at the "40 Acres" UFW compound on Wednesday the 28th, quickly filling a massive tent holding 10,000 chairs and then spilling out around it Cesar's body was laid in an open, humble pine casket made by his brother, and a huge throng filed past to pay their last respects. This went on well into the night, followed by a night-long vigil at which thousands periodically prayed rosaries for him.

By daybreak Thursday, from six o'clock on, buses, trucks and cars began to unload people and to assemble along a street in Delano. By ten o'clock when the funeral march started, there were people lined up in a three-mile procession, full lane deep. Cesar's body led the procession, carried by teams of people who took turns every three minutes. The march proceeded to the "40 Acres” compound, about six miles from Delano, with thousands of people holding red or white flags stenciled with the union's symbol, the black Chicano eagle.

It was spectacular, especially when one of the five media helicopters swooped by to film the march: Everyone waved their flags and chanted "Que Viva Chavez!" "Que Viva La Solidaridad!" "Que Vivan Los Campesinos!" "Abajo Con Los Rancheros!" "Si Se Puede!" and many other slogans.

People came from all over and from all classes, although mostly the turnout consisted of Latino workers and their families. There were delegations of other unions, a visible number of youth and elderly (some in wheelchairs, some too old and frail but still walking), and a VIP cluster that included Jesse Jackson, Congressman Ronald Dellums, the Archbishop of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Ethel Kennedy and several of her grown children, representatives of both Clinton and Salinas de Gortari, artists like Edward Olmos, Cheech Mann and Paul Rodriguez, and Jerry Brown and a host of California notables.

A Clash of Centuries

At "40 Acres" a huge Catholic Mass was held in and around the tent structure set up for the occasion. Most people had to hear it from outside, still under a hot sun, but nobody minded.

Inside, Cardinal Mahoney presided, delivering a message from the Pope and reading a long speech, first in Spanish and then in English To the side, and not much interested in the Mass, was a large troupe of dancers, dressed in impressive Aztec and other Native American costumes, who had danced in honor of Cesar the entire length of the march They made a large circle and placed their children in the center, allowing no one to cross into the circle despite the crush of people.

The children as well as their parents had numerous incredibly loud “cascabeles” or shells wrapped around their feet, and went on making a terrible noise oblivious to the Cardinal's speech and upsetting a lot of señoras y señores. It was the dash of five centuries, present at the very heart of a farmworkers' movement key moment I thought it most appropriate!

The Mass included Mariachi music and eulogies by two of Cesar's sons and by Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar of the IJFW. Her speech was very moving, not only for what she said but because she was so hoarse she could barely speak. She spoke of when they first started, when her task was to sign up people and ask them to contribute $3.50 a month, when it was obvious they were living in extreme poverty, barefooted, their clothes in shreds, with barely anything to eat, so great was their exploitation by the growers—and yet, somehow, they paid.

The first thing the union did was to create a fund to provide simple pine caskets to deceased members.... She spoke of how Cesar never owned a house or a car, how he took no money other than the bare minimum to subsist, how he did not believe in the ownership of the land and how he always called on people to love and nourish the land, not degrade it with chemicals. He did 120 years of work in sixty-six years, she said.

Jesse Jackson and Ron Dellums delivered the very best oratory. People remembered that Jackson came to Cesar in 1988 when Chavez held a thirty-six-day fast that almost killed him, knelt at his side and kissed him. Jesse received an enormous ovation.

Joseph Kennedy III spoke in the name of the K-family in typical populist-liberal manner. The audience, their memory of Robert Kennedy's support for Chavez etched deeply, loved it. Jerry Brown, who stayed just behind the coffin during the march, was deeply affected and could not say more than that he would miss Cesar greatly. The representatives of Salinas and Clinton both gave bland, meaningless speeches that got polite applause.

Edward Olmos and Paul Rodriguez got ovations for their speeches, the former calling on a renewal of El Movimiento and the latter poking fun of Anglos in reference to the demographics of California, "If you are not Latino now you will be Latino soon." After speaking in Spanish, -Rodriguez turned to "all of you who are Spanish-impaired, my message to you is ... learn it!"

The celebration of Cesar's life went on, with teatros and songs (under the direction of Luis Valdes) and many other testimonials, until late into the afternoon. The union's years of organizational experience and community backing paid off: The events came off like clockwork, flags, chairs, ropes, food and water, sound system and the like were distributed or made available by huge numbers of community volunteers.

The whole affair was aired live on the region's radio and TV channels, a union film crew taped everything, fundraising went on effortlessly and very successfully, and the coverage in the big California press like the LA Times was very good.

And everybody left with "NO GRAPES" buttons and videos, given freely. The union people said over and over again that in his dying, Cesar Chavez gave the farmworkers' movement a last great push forward. It left no doubt as to the breadth and depth of support the UFW continues to have Cesar would have loved it!

I call upon all of you to do one thing: persuade just five of your closest friends and associates to henceforth, and consistently, boycott table grapes. Que Viva Cesar Chavez! No Grapes! Que Viva el UFWI Que Vive La Causa!

July-August 1993, ATC 45

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.