(These remarks were delivered at the Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos, Tx, March 1, 2015, at a reception for an exhibit of César Chávez photographs.)
I DON’T KNOW if it is possible to adequately express how honored I feel to have been invited to speak to this group — in this community. San Marcos has held a special place in my heart from the day I first arrived here to enroll in what was then Southwest Texas State College in August of 1967.
When I drove into town on that hot summer afternoon, I had no idea that I would end up spending close to eleven years here and that I would meet and get to know some of the people who have most influenced and shaped my life. It warms my heart that some of them are here today.
I hope all of you have had an opportunity to view this wonderful exhibit. The photographs and the words of Cesar Chavez are priceless, and they remind us why he remains such an important figure in the lives of millions of people across this country – and all over the world.
And this Centro, what a wonderful place! My congratulations to all those who had the vision to create this magnificent Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos – to the board and the staff, and to all those who have been instrumental in the success of the Center.
I understand that its future is in jeopardy. I would hope that the powers that be understand why it must continue to exist, for there is a desperate need for the education and enlightenment that these centers of knowledge, history, arts and culture provide. Too many young people are oblivious to the reality that the gains made by Latinos in this country are as a result of the struggles and battles waged by courageous and determined men and women who saw Latinos become the victims of injustice, repression, hatred and violence and decided — as César Chávez did — ¡ya basta!
It is gratifying that the name César Chávez is universally recognized and appreciated. But, I wonder how many of our young people today would be able to identify people like Juan Cornejo, José Angel Gutíerrez, Severita Lara, Tomás Rivera, Corky Gonzáles, Rudolfo Anaya, Tino Villanueva, Reyes López Tijerina, Albert Peña Jr., Henry B. González, Dolores Huerta, Hector P. García and others who played a prominent role in the social and political advancement of our people. And I wonder if they understand why the lives of these men and women were – and are – important.
Locally, I would hope that through the efforts of the Centro, young people do have an appreciation for those names. More important, I would hope that they know and respect the names of Ofelia Vásquez Philo, Rubén Ruiz, Augustín Lucio, Luciano Flores, Celestino Méndez, Frank Contreras, Ralph Gonzáles, Pete Rodríguez, Joe Hinojosa, Jerry Flores, Bob Barton Jr., Eddy Etheredge and others.
These brave men and women were local pioneers. They took chances and risked their livelihoods for the political and educational advancement of our people. Their lives and their work must be honored, and to the extent that the Centro is doing that, I salute you.
Honoring our heritage and our heroes is important, not because we seek to live in the past, but rather because knowing who we are and where we came from helps us better navigate through the difficult intricacies and challenges of our lives today, and because we cannot adequately prepare for our future without a solid understanding of who and what made us who we are.
That is why we should be grateful for César Chávez – because, 22 years after his death, Chávez remains the only Latino who is a universal symbol of the Latino experience in the United States. His cause was the farmworkers of California, but his influence was felt around the world and he remains our Martin Luther King Jr.
I HOPE THAT all of you had the opportunity to see the film “Cesar Chavez,” by the Mexican director Diego Luna. There is an early scene in the movie that depicts one of Chavez’s first forays into the fields of California’s Central Valley to recruit members for his farmworkers union.
In that scene, Chávez seeks out one of the farmworkers named Juan de la Cruz, who indicates that he may be willing to speak with Chávez, but he explains that they can’t talk in the fields – for obvious reasons.
In the next scene, Chavez is shown speaking with de la Cruz, who is surrounded by his family, in his small shack. De la Cruz admits that he owns nothing: his wife and older children work alongside him in the fields.
Chávez asks him, “Do you want something better for your kids?”
Pos, sí, de la Cruz admits, but he then explains that he, like the majority of the workers, is scared.
“They have to feed their kids,” he explains, in Spanish, and adds that as much as he wants a better life for his family, it would not be easy to fight for his – and their — rights alone.
¡Está cabrón! he said.
As De la Cruz talks, he looks to his children, who are watching with inquisitive eyes the interaction between the two men. And there is a look in De la Cruz’s eyes that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time among migrant workers – or among anyone who has lived a life of oppression.
It is the look of a proud yet defeated and disheartened father, who is forced to admit in the presence of those who look up to him that — despite the long hard hours he and his family spend in the fields, he has been able to provide for his family little more than the beat-up old car that takes them from field to field and farm to farm.
And when de la Cruz utters that phrase, está cabrón, it is with a resignation that expresses the utter hopelessness and anguish that has been imprinted deep in the souls of the hundreds of thousands of poor people, of all colors, who have found themselves at the unforgiving mercy of the rich and powerful – and the uncaring.
With his few words, this farm worker conveys the desperation that moved him, and others, to join Chávez in proclaiming – at last — ¡sí se puede! and to begin to take the daunting steps of joining a cause that offered little assurance of success and promised plenty of hardships and heartaches – and brutal repression.
I NEVER WORKED in the fields of California, but I was born in North Dakota, while my family was up there working in the sugar beet fields of the Red River Valley. My family started going “up north” three years before I was born, and after I came along, our family continued going to North Dakota and other states for more than 30 years. By the time I made my last trip out of the state – the summer before I graduated from college my siblings had married and my parents were too old to work, so I went alone.
While it was a harsh existence, the tendency today among those of us who lived it is to downplay the harshness and suffering and romanticize the good parts. We tend to remember most the good times:
How we worked side by side and helped each other along, how our father told jokes to keep us entertained how one sister belted out songs such as Rosita Alvires or La Cama de Piedra or The Tennessee Waltz as she worked, how our godparents took us to the movies in a nearby town on Sundays afternoon, how on cold October days, during our lunch break, we huddled around the wood fire by the potato fields and listened, on the car radio, to the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers while we heated and ate our tacos, how baptisms and other occasions called for celebrations with other families who lived nearby – and for bringing out the accordion, the guitars and drums.
Those memories remain vivid. But there is one more memory that will never be erased from my mind and my heart. It is of a scene in Central Wisconsin, where we would go every July to pick cucumbers after the sugar beet work was done. We, my father and I, were outside the office of the labor contractor, where we had gone to attempt to collect from him money owed us to pay for traveling expenses.
Under the agreement, we would get the money only after we had completed the work. However, this was late in the season and there were hardly any cucumbers growing any more. We would spend the entire day – the six of us who were still traveling together – in the fields and earn no more than $10 or $15 together.
Meanwhile, the onion crop in Minnesota was ready to be picked and the contractor there was pressuring us to show up. But the Wisconsin farmer whose fields we were harvesting would not release us from our agreement. So my father, with me in tow, went into town to talk to the contractor (I was probably about 12 years old). In his limited English, he tried desperately to make his case, but the contractor would not budge.
Standing there, I wanted desperately to speak out but in my heart I knew that if I did, my father would see that as a betrayal: He, after all, was the head of the household. It was his duty — not mine — to speak up, to fight for what was rightfully ours, and I knew instinctively that he would find it utterly demeaning and disrespectful for me – his youngest child — to say a word in his defense.
So I remained quiet and we ended up not getting the money. And I’ll never forget the look in my father’s eyes as we drove back to the farm. It was the first time I had ever seen tears in his eyes. And it was the first time that I had seen sheer shame and humiliation and frustration on his face.
I was too young then to make the connection, but many years later, it occurred to me that maybe one reasons my father decided to give up on being the head of his family and take up drinking and womanizing and other bad habits because of scenes such as that one repeated over and over again in his life.
Here was a person, and adult male. His family, his neighbors and his friends saw him as such – as a man. He was expected to act like a man and provide for his family like a man. Yet, the minute he stepped out into the white man’s world, he was reduced to being a boy. Nothing more than a boy.
Can you imagine what that does to a man’s soul when he has to live like that day after day after day? It takes a mighty strong person to put up with this, day after day, without having his spirit broken.
Yes, I know there were many Latino men who faced the same realities and never gave up. They always continued to provide for their families. These were strong, strong men, and they deserve to be applauded. But, as we all know, not everyone can be strong. We all have our weaknesses.
I tell this story not to make up excuses for the sins of my father. Instead, I tell you this story because I believe it is important to be reminded — every now and then — about the great damage that can be caused by man’s inhumanity to man – by man’s lack of respect for the dignity of others. And that such damage is inflicted, not just on the person directly suffering the abuse but also on his family, on his community, and on society as a whole.
IT IS EASY – very easy – for us to shake our head in disgust over how the nameless, faceless powerful abuse the powerless. But I’d like to tell you another story:
Seventeen years ago, I lived briefly to San Marcos before I moved back to Washington. One day, I went to the HEB store on Hopkins Street and while there, I ran into one of my ex-students from San Marcos High School. I will call him Estevan. He was bagging groceries. We chatted a bit and he asked what I had been up to, and after I told him, Estevan said, “Well, this is all I do. Nothing much.”
Those words broke my heart. It wasn’t because I felt sorry for him, but rather because it disturbed me that he believed that what he did to earn a living was “nothing much.” And it angered me that because we place so much emphasis on what we define as “success,” we send a message to people like Estevan that reinforces their sense that what they do – and, therefore, who they are — are “nothing much.”
Think about it. Do we really have to wonder why many among us today refuse to accept the responsibilities of adulthood, why they don’t take pride in their work, why their attitude is less than exemplary, why so many are simply dropping out, turning to drugs and alcohol?
People who work at such jobs don’t necessarily see serving other people as demeaning or degrading. All of us serve, after all, in one way or another, and there is nobility in all work.
What is demeaning and degrading is the lack of respect they get from the rest of us.
And that brings me back to César Chávez. He claimed that what was at stake in the farmworkers struggle was not just better wages and better working conditions, but human dignity.
“If a man is not accorded respect, he cannot respect himself,” he said. And, he added: “If he does not respect himself, he cannot demand it.”
Chávez was talking about the relationship between the campesinos and the California growers, but there is little doubt in my mind that he would have the same observations about other relationships, in particular, the relationships in our everyday lives, he would be talking about how we treat other people, not just the Juan de la Cruzes but also the Estevans of the world.
I find it interesting how too many of us will go out of our way to complement and even fawn over the chef at a restaurant and tip the waiter handsomely yet growl at the poor busboy for making too much clatter while cleaning nearby tables.
I find it interesting how we treat with extreme reverence the doctors who treat us yet have little patience with the nurse’s assistant who brings us our food and empties our bedpan.
I find it interesting how we idolize professional artists and athletes, no matter how badly they misbehave, yet we’re ready to call the cops if a homeless person gets a bit too close to us.
And I find it interesting how we reward with re-election after re-election the corrupt and non-responsive politicians yet demand the heads of the clerks at the post office or the DMV, or city hall, or the courthouse because they are too slow and we have important things to do.
IN THE FINALE of the HBO series, “The Newsroom,” the anchor Will McAvoy eulogized his late boss with these words:
“Decency was his religion, and he spent a lifetime fighting its enemies.”
I don’t know about you, but when they put me in the ground, I would consider my life a success if somebody were to say something like that about me. Our world certainly would be a lot better off if more of us made decency – towards each other — our religion.
AND SO, WHILE we go on with our lives, patting ourselves on the back for supporting noble causes, such as that of the farmworkers or animal rights or the environment, maybe we should pause every once in a while, and ask ourselves how we rate on the decency scale, measured by how we treat those around us — especially those who serve us.
After all, every one of us needs a little bit of love, a bit of understanding. Everyone of us needs respect. Because life is tough. It’s a challenge.
As Juan de la Cruz says in the film, está cabrón.