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Opinion: Remembering César Chávez in our post-modern age

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Observing social media trends on César Chávez Day this year, I noticed how seldom Chávez is remembered and celebrated nationally. As a representative of the younger generations, I’m afraid to say that this trend is very apparent among young adults my age, in the Gen-Z and the Millennial generation. The holiday is, for example, not observed by my college and not celebrated by student organizations on campus.

To me, this is a strange phenomenon. I consider Chávez a hero. Still, I want to explore the reasons why ever since President Obama declared a national holiday in his memory, his legacy nonetheless seems to fade away with time. There are two reasons for this. 

First is the dissolution of economic class as a metric of progress. Chávez is remembered both as a labor organizer and as a leader of a movement of Hispanic and Mexican-American empowerment, but at the core of his arguments were economic class issues. 

These principles stood both for improving the conditions of the lower and working classes — through Chávez’s labor organization and later advocacy for restriction of pesticide use in produce — and for an American dream for all through his encouragement for improved conditions for Hispanic-Americans through education. 

The issue in the present is an issue of disconnect. Arguments of economic class no longer seem to be deployed in policy or social-political discourse to the extent that they once were in the past. 

The observable evidence of this is the struggles of Amazon workers to unionize or Congress’s inability to agree on a new minimum wage. But it is also present in the evidence that the nation’s workforce stands at 10% unionized (in Texas, it’s below 5%)  

To a large extent, viewing issues through the lens of class has been replaced with viewing issues through race lenses (for example, Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist”). Class is an issue only insofar as it intersects with race. Historically the two have been correlated, but in the past class was always at the forefront more so than today. 

For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968 before he was assassinated. Or consider that King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — jobs are notability first in the title. 

In the example of King, as in the example of Chávez, economics and class were the issues which were foundational to understanding the dignity of the individual and the group. Or, as Bayard Rustin, a chief advisor to King, once noted: “No economic or social order has ever been developed on the basis of color. It must be developed on the basis of class.” 

In addition to shifting perspectives on class, the second challenge I observe to Chávez’s legacy is his views on immigration. Chávez was a labor organizer, though he is often mistaken to have been an immigration organizer. This is not the case. 

Instead, Chávez took a public stance against undocumented migrant labor in agriculture. The labor movement believed that such labor would undercut the union efforts by offering labor at lower rates than desired by unions.

In addition, to Chávez, unauthorized immigration would significantly derail his organization’s progress by acting as strike-breaking labor. Union workers renounce pay on strike while, at the same time, strike-breaking labor removes the pressure of lacking employees from the employer, thus ensuring unimproved conditions and deflating wages for all, both for immigrants and Americans.  

To some progressives, especially those of my young generation, Chavez’s stances on immigration are perceived to harbor anti-immigrant sentiment. I find this understanding of Chavez’s views to lack nuance.

Of course, it’s simple economics that, at a fundamental level, immigration affects wages for laborers. If there is an increase in the population through migration, there will be more laborers (supply of labor) than jobs available (demand of labor), and the price of labor (wages) decrease.

This is not a controversial view. In 2015, when Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked his opinion on sharply increasing immigration levels, he immediately rejected the idea, even calling it a Koch brothers proposal, saying such a policy would allow businesses to hire increasingly lower-waged labor. 

In addition, I claim that Chávez very much appreciated the role that immigration and citizenship played in his movement, especially later in his career. 

For example, consider that immigration played a serious role in shaping Chávez’s strategy and ways of thinking about achieving the movement’s goals. The recognition that many members of his union did not have citizenship meant that his organization would have difficulty organizing around political influence. Union’s can often use the power of their vote in elections to support pro-union referendums or candidates, but those who lack citizenship can not vote. 

This diminishing of political power, however, did not drain the movement’s efforts. Rather, when political influence waned, it was replaced with economic influence. This is the example of the famous table grape boycotts. This boycott used the power of profits within a free market economy to de facto regulate companies. 

Chávez even formatted his goals in terms of economics, noting victory would be achieved in his movement in 1992 if their grape boycott cut sales by 9%. Chávez even responded to the question, what has he learned from his years of organizing, by noting that grassroots campaigns cannot hope change to come from the government, but rather must be won in the marketplace. 

In our modern era, or rather in our post-modern era, the way we understand politics has changed since the 1960s. The more we move away from the past’s understanding of economic struggle, the more distant we feel from these movements. But, this does not mean that the movements of the ’60s, the movements led by Chávez, did not shape the way you and I perceive the world and the economy today. 

Chávez once said, “I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.” Now, with over 55 years ago since the first grape boycott, here’s to the continuation of the legacy of César Chávez being a source of inspiration and hope. 

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Ryan James Solis

Ryan James Solis of El Paso is a junior at Harvard College on a gap year from studying history and economics. He is a Gates, Jack Kent Cooke, and Coca-Cola scholar.

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